The current series of excavations being carried out by MOLA are the largest ever to take place in Roman London, but they certainly aren’t the first. The Walbrook stream has been recognised as a rich seam of archaeology for two centuries, and numerous excavations along its course during the years have revealed much of what we know about the ancient city. So, why don’t we start with the most famous? The Excavation In 1952 a team from the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council, under the leadership of Professor W.F. Grimes and Audrey Williams, began a series of small exploratory trenches on a heavily bomb-damaged site in central London prior to the building of a large office block.
The main aim of the campaign was to establish the sequence of deposits in the Walbrook, in order to record its changing shape over time. Discovery of the temple of Mithras was, in Grimes’ own words, ‘in the nature of a fluke…I had no choice where to dig: there was no heaven-sent inspiration to guide the sitting of the trench that revealed the temple’. In late 1954, as the excavation was drawing to a close, a large stone building was discovered, initially thought to be a high-status house or public building. In mid September an altar was found, leading it to be recognised as a religious building. Nevertheless, the otherwise unremarkable structure was to be removed to make way for the foundations of the new offices.
Then, on the final day of excavation, a carved stone head of the god Mithras was discovered. Mithraism was a mystery cult adopted in Rome from the east in the 1st century, and has been seen as a rival to early Christianity. Popular with soldiers and famous for its feasts and underground temples, this secretive religion required its followers to go through seven grades of initiation.
As the archaeologists left site for the final time, the sculpture was photographed by the press, and appeared in the next day’s edition of The Sunday Times. The discovery caused a sensation, appearing daily in national and local papers for weeks. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the site, queuing for hours, and at one point the crowd grew so frustrated at the wait that they tried to storm the police barriers.
The fate of the temple became a topic of national debate; the extra time and costs of altering the new offices to preserve the building in situ were too much for either the developers or the cash-strapped post-war government to bear, but the public would not accept the half-excavated temple simply being demolished. Questions were asked in parliament, and the temple was twice discussed in Cabinet at the request of then Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
Eventually a solution was found; the Ministry of Works paid for more excavation work by Grimes and the RMLEC, creating preservation by record, whilst the developers offered to pay for the whole temple to be dismantled and re-erected on the surface for the public to see. The reconstruction opened in 1962.
The Temple Pottery from the earliest floor layer suggests that the London Mithraeum was constructed around c.240-50 AD. Sitting on the east bank of the Walbrook, the full length of the stone building is unknown; a narrow room (narthex) to the east of the main hall still lies unexcavated beneath the modern streets. From this room, a double door and heavily worn stairs led down to the sunken basilica-like Mithraeum. The main building had three aisles, divided by seven stone columns on each side, which perhaps represented the seven levels of indoctrination into the cult.
Because of the Walbrook’s waterlogged conditions, wooden joists survived, indicating a boarded floor. Posts along the south aisle may have supported the benches from which the followers of Mithras watched the temple’s rituals being performed at the altar. In the south-west corner was a square timber-lined well, which may have provided water for use in religious ceremonies. The altars would have stood on a raised platform set in the apsidal west end. The walls of this space were embellished with fine, painted plaster, and may have been hidden behind curtains or hangings, to preserve the mystery when not in use. Behind the altars would have been Mithras Tauroctonos an impressive stone sculpture depicting Mithras in the process of slaying the sacred bull. A sculpture of the bull-slaying scene, found in the late 19th century, probably came from Victorian foundation works that dug in to the temple. The head of Mithras, which prompted the public drive to save the temple, would also have been from one of these scenes. Small changes were made to the temple over the next century, but around 350 AD the interior was extensively remodeled. The aisles were removed and the floor was raised and leveled. At the same time, spectacular groups of sculptures including the head and hands of the Mithras Tauroctonos, as well as fragments of sculptures of other gods including Serapis and Mercury, were buried beneath the floor. It is thought that at this time the temple was re-dedicated, potentially to the god Bacchus. A number of Bacchic sculptures were found buried in later temple layers.
Eventually, as Roman London declined the temple was abandoned. The Walbrook, which had been gradually reduced by continuous building on its banks, expanded once again and slowly buried the temple, ensuring the waterlogged conditions that preserved it for centuries. End of story? Well, no. The Future Unfortunately, the 1962 reconstruction of the temple was not satisfactory. The Ministry of Works complained that it was built ‘…on the wrong site, at the wrong level and on the wrong orientation’ and for Grimes ‘the result is virtually meaningless as a reconstruction of a mithraeum’. As part of the ongoing work along the Walbrook the reconstructed temple was dismantled by expert stone masons in 2011, who removed the 1960s concrete and prepared the Roman material for storage.
The temple will eventually be reconstructed much more faithfully, close to its original location. In the meantime, the sculptures and other finds from this site, including the head of Mithras and the bull-slaying scene, are on display in the Museum of London’s Roman gallery.
Update: Broken link to head of Mithras image mended 24/11/2014