Britain’s most-moved Roman site, the Temple of Mithras in London, is one step closer to returning to its original location after recent work by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). Since it was uncovered in the 1950s the third-century temple has been completely dismantled, shifted 90m, rebuilt, taken apart again, and is currently in storage in Bedfordshire awaiting a final journey back to London where it will be reunited with its recently rediscovered original foundations.
The Mithraeum’s changing fortunes have been driven by the ever-evolving urban landscape of modern London. It was originally excavated in 1954 by WF Grimes, Director of the Roman and Medieval London Excavation Council, ahead of planned construction work. The building could not be preserved in situ so it was dismantled, placed in storage for eight years – during which much of the original stone and all its columns went missing – and finally reconstructed in a more convenient location, patched together from Roman, Medieval and modern materials. Now, with more development planned, MOLA have returned to the site and recent investigations have uncovered substantial remains of original masonry, previously thought to have been destroyed in the 1950s.
‘We thought there would be nothing left of the original temple but in fact we found the north sleeper wall which would have separated the nave from the north aisle,’ MOLA archaeologist Sadie Watson said. ‘Further evaluation revealed the south aisle wall foundation and a parallel external foundation surviving below the huge concrete foundations laid in the 1950s.’
‘Most recently we uncovered the narthex walls to the east and possible ancillary buildings which might have been antechambers for changing clothes or washing,’ she added. ‘There is a possible drain running under them, though this is not certain at this stage.’
The reconstructed temple was given protected status in 2007 under the condition that it should eventually be dismantled and restored in a better state. Now MOLA have taken the building apart once more, carefully recording and storing its material while new buildings are built around its foundations. A reconstructed reconstruction will be incorporated into these by 2015, which will then be open to the public along with displays about Roman London, Romano-British religion and the turbulent story of the temple itself.
This article was published in CA 266