The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City.
All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.
The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.
A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.
The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.
The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.