London Mithraeum

London, England, United Kingdom

About London Mithraeum

In September 1954 during the construction of a huge new office block for insurance firm Legal & General, builders discovered a Roman temple which sat on the banks of the long-lost River Walbrook (now a City of London street), an ancient tributary of the Thames and source of fresh water, vital to the running of the Roman city of Londinium.

At the time, The Temple of Mithras was (and remains) London’s most famous 20th century Roman discovery. It is a Roman mithraeum – a temple built by worshippers of the mysterious god Mithras – built in the late second century and seemingly disused by the early fourth when it was filled with religious iconography, sculptures and reliefs (now mostly housed in the Museum of London) and sealed. It lay untouched for the best part of 1,700 years until the aforementioned builders found it, stopped work and wondered what to do.

As did many others it transpired. The find prompted parliamentary debate inside Churchill’s cabinet and in the two weeks it was on show before being painstakingly packed up and relocated up the road, the site owners expected a hundred or so to come and see it. In fact on day one, 35,000 showed up. By the end of the week, around 80,000 had seen it and in total, close to 400,000 people saw the most famous new ‘old’ building in London.

After the temple was unsealed, archaeologists found a veritable treasure trove of magnificent sculptures and reliefs including a marble tauroctony relief dedicated by Ulpius Silvanus, a soldier of the Second Augustan Legion depicting Mithras killing a bull, marble heads of Mithras, Minerva (minus the metal helmet) and Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian god and a statuette of Mercury.

After a somewhat nomadic existence which at one point saw the priceless piece of history stored in a builder’s yard in New Malden, it was (not brilliantly) reconstructed on a site at Temple Court in Queen Victoria Street where it remains due to legal and property wrangling, sadly, away from public view. The good news is that the owners of the original location of the temple, media behemoth Bloomberg are working to bring the temple back to exactly where it was built in 240AD and found 1,716 years later in 1954 by way of ‘an innovative museum experience that will change the way we encounter archaeology.’

Both the new office building and the museum dedicated to the Temple of Mithras are due for completion in 2017.

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