Above: Footings of the walls of the Temple of Mithras discovered in the ground in 1954, seen in their original position.
Although today the City of London stands on land that was once the Roman township (called Londinium) comparatively little evidence for the Roman buildings that stood on that land was discovered until after the Second World War. For example, the foundations of the Roman Fort, at the NW extremity of the Roman Wall, were not found until a few years after the War. The site of the Roman Amphitheatre was not discovered until as late as the 1990s. Although the position of the Basilica (or Roman town hall) with its Forum (or market-place) were known in Victorian times, the whole plan was not completely mapped out until new offices were built on the site also in the 1990s.
Another building – the Temple of Mithras – was not discovered until 1954, when archaeologists carried out a rescue dig 20 feet below modern ground level. The large site was nothing more than rubble, left over from the bombing in the Second World War. It was to become a very large office block, erected for the insurance company Legal and General, called Bucklersbury House. The building was named after a nearby narrow medieval thoroughfare by that name.
These days, the owners of any new building site in Central London are required by law to provide time for archaeologists to explore the land, before any building work takes place. A dig is carried out to establish if it contains any interesting historic remains. No such laws existed in the 1950s and developers would often refuse access to archaeologists on the grounds that it was holding up building work by the contractors.
Above: Public visitors were allowed a close-up view of the temple for a few days before work on Bucklersbury House commenced.
Once evidence had been found on the Bucklersbury site – in the form of the foundations of a large stone temple – news soon appeared in the newspapers and long queues formed when the public waited patiently to obtain a view of the archaeological dig in progress. Few members of the public had taken much interest in an archaeological dig before and it certainly stirred up concerns for preserving the City’s past. All this enthusiasm was not shared by the developers and it is said that Winston Churchill became involved, asking for more time to allow a thorough excavation the site. When permission was sought to keep the remains of the temple and put it on show permanently, the answer came back with a very definite ‘No’. Had all that happened today, legal provisions would have forced the developers to allow the building to remain and the very unsatisfactory compromise that followed would not have been permitted.
Above: Historians holding the marble head of Mithras for press reporters.
If you visit the Museum of London, you will find many of the important finds from the excavation on display, including the large head of the statue of Mithras. That head was not found until the last hours of the last day of the archaeological dig and the find was only made by chance. Tantalisingly, only a few pieces of what must have been a really large statue were still on the site. The developers insisted that the dig was ended and work began to erect the new offices. The stonework from the temple walls was lifted, stone by stone, and reconstructed on a piece of empty land beside Queen Victoria Street, to the north of the new office block. The final insult was that the ground between the stones was laid out with crazy-paving, without conceding any sensitivity to what the original historic site had looked like. Of course, the damage had been done and the original stones, once lifted, were laid out to show the original size and shape of the temple but they were no longer of any archaeological value.
All that was a long time ago – over 60 years ago to be precise. Techniques for archaeological digs have certainly moved on and legal requirements on developers have thankfully been tightened up. In 2010 the site of the large offices was levelled, in preparation for new offices to be built. This time the archaeologists were given time to explore the whole site and make their assessment of the ground. The dig was really rewarding. Although the 1950s offices had been constructed on the site, the archaeologists were surprised by how much evidence for Roman London still remained to be found. The site is crossed by the ancient River Walbrook and, because the ground was so wet, many artefacts that might have rotted if the ground had been dry were still able to be recovered and eventually put on display.
Above: The remains of the Temple of Mithras when they were laid out beside Queen Victoria Street. Notice the addition of crazy-paving between the walls of the temple.
The new offices are the London headquarters of Bloomberg. It is the only office building anywhere in the world that the company actually owns. Not only was time provided for a detailed archaeological dig on the large site but a designated exhibition area was provided within the plans so that some of the items found could be displayed. It took seven years before the Bloomberg Building was completed. The original stonework of the temple has been moved back to its original position and rebuilt to look – as far as is possible – like it was when it was first found. Of course, the intrinsic value of the original stonework has been lost for all time but at least the stones have been placed to resemble the photographs taken of the original site. The whole concept presents a visual impression of the Roman temple remains. As the publicity for the exhibition puts it, ‘the cultural hub showcases the ancient temple, a selection of the remarkable Roman artefacts found during the recent excavation and a series of contemporary art commissions responding to one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites’. The exhibition area is free for the public to visit but advance booking online is required for a timed tour. All details are on the Web – just search for ‘Mithraeum’. Of course, it should be explained that the exhibits of the Temple of Mithras, that have been on display in the Museum of London for many years, will remain at the museum. However, there are many artefacts that have not been exhibited before and they can be seen at the new Mithraeum, whose entrance is on the west side of the street called Walbrook.
For all the aspects of the Temple of Mithras site that went wrong in the 1950s, the end result was that the Temple was at least able to be seen by passers-by. Those exploring the City during the weekends are able to wander around its streets and discover unusual features of its history – including the remaining parts of the Roman Wall, the occasional monastic remains and lone towers from long-demolished City churches. It is all part of the joy of seeing features of London that are a surprise as you come across them. The remains of the Temple of Mithras are once more ‘locked away’ so that they can only be viewed at set times and they are no longer able to be seen by pedestrians passing by. London is for everybody and the more that ancient remains are on permanent display – even if it is behind a plate glass window – the better it is for everybody.