During excavations for the construction of BucklersburyHouse in 1954, an ancient Roman temple was uncovered. Initially archaeologists weren't quite sure what it was, but on the last day of the dig they uncovered a marble head wearing a conical cap, confirmimg that this was a temple to the god Mithras. This being the austere fifties, people queued round the block to see the remains, which were later shifted to the roadside off Queen Victoria Street. And here the temple remained, increasingly unloved, until financial company Bloomberg decided to return it to its original location, several metres beneath their new office block.
The London Mithraeum is the result, a very 21st century take on some 3rd century brickwork, tucked away in a corporate basement in the heart of the City. It opened lastNovember, to another onslaught of visitors, but the initial rush has now died down sufficiently to allow me to walk in off the street rather than having to book ahead. The street you have to walk in off is Walbrook, between Bank and Cannon Street stations, immediately alongside the still-not-yet-finished Waterloo & City line entrance. Entry is free, which is one advantage of the landowner being a rich American corporation.
The reception desk is a tiny lectern - very much like walking into a posh restaurant - where a frothily exuberant guide was waiting to greet me. He didn't even ask if I'd pre-booked, just bubbled about the space and the museum and the art gallery, then offered me a printed guide and a Samsung tablet. He was particularly animated about the art exhibit which currently fills the ground floor space, a bunch of vinyl-plastered walls portraying portmanteau historical facades, which the blurb describes as a "uniquely immersive installation". He led me through it in fifteen seconds flat, which felt sufficient.
The chief ground floor attraction is a Roman Artefact display, incorporating 600 items uncovered during the latest rebuild. The site is particularly rich in Roman remains because it lies beside the lost river Walbrook, which kept the soil moister than most, preserving stuff better. The objects are arranged inside a single glass case, in precise correspondence to the graphic on the tablet handed over earlier. To identify each item just touch what you're interested in, then swipe to read a description of what it is. Coins, brooches, comb, pots, nails, a wooden oar, crucible and tongs, writing tablet, etc, etc. It's very clever, but time consumingly manipulative, so scanning through everything isn't really an option.
In good news, non-visitors can explore exactly the same display at case.londonmithraeum.com. In bad news, the site is optimised for users of tablets and smartphones, so laptop users may end up wishing to throttle the too-clever-by-half website designers.
When you're done, head downstairs (or there's a lift, if you prefer). The lower level is a waiting area to keep visitors semi-occupied before venturing into the Mithraeum proper. A new 'temple experience' begins every 20 minutes, so you might be waiting here for a while. Thankfully there are seats, plus a rolling archaeological commentary delivered by the ubiquitous Joanna Lumley. Three visitors at a time can use a trio of touchscreen terminals to explore more about the history of the dig, and the temple, and the religion behind it. We don't know for certain what rituals were enacted here, but we do know they were for men only, and that initiation into the cult probably involved wine, tattoos and chicken. Little changes.
At the appropriate time, expect to be ushered down some more steps and into a dark rectangular room. A walkway leads all round the perimeter, while a glass-edged platform juts over the centre of the temple at one end. Word of advice, the end of the platform is the best vantage point after the wall of eerie mist descends. Expect a lot of chanting, in Latin, rather than any attempt at explaining what it is you're looking at... and the experience is all the better for it.
Eventually, incrementally, the lights go up, and you can take a walk round the outside. Most of what you're seeing is what was actually dug up back in 1954, then relocated, then returned to whence it came. The main points of interest are a square well in one corner, and a couple of steps leading up to a raised platform where the altar used to be. I've seen moreinteresting Roman remains in London, to be fair, hence the necessary focus on a theatrical presentation. Indeed the majority of the group I went in with departed the temple space long before the allotted twenty minutes were up.
And the reason the London Mithraeum is a mostly virtual experience is that all the best finds were carted off to the Museum of London. Its director led the original dig, so to see the bust of Mithras in his Phrygian cap you need to visit the museum over near Barbican and head to the back of the Roman gallery. Here too are Minerva and Mercury, and a stunning marble frieze depicting Mithras slaying a bull, which would have formed a focus of worship in the temple. Two heavenly twins stand to either side, the signs of the zodiac spin round the rim, and a scorpion is making a grab for the bull's testicles. What a cult.