Reconstructing The Mystery Of An Ancient Roman Cult

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

In 1954, archaeologists digging in the bombed out ruins of post-World War II London discovered what they first thought was an ancient Roman shed. The structure wasn’t on any maps of the Roman city of Londinium, the precursor to modern-day London. But as excavations continued, the archaeologists found a carved marble head of a deity that revealed the structure’s true intention: a temple to the god Mithras and home to a mysterious, all-male, Roman cult. The temple was moved from its site, then known as the Pompeii of the North, where it attracted mobs of people fascinated by the ancient city buried under London.

[Photo: © MOLA]

Fast forward to 2017. The temple, called the Mithraeum, has now been reconstructed in the exact same place it was first discovered–which happens to be in the basement of Bloomberg’s new Norman Foster-designed London headquarters.

The permanent installation opens November 14, and it was designed to approximate what it felt like to experience a ritual in the original temple first hand. This, of course, isn’t usually how archaeology is typically displayed. Most ruins are shown in overlit rooms and resemble piles of rubble, making it difficult to comprehend what it might have been like in its heyday. “It’s really hard for any one person to project themselves into another’s experience, particularly into another era, particularly thousands of years ago,” says Jake Barton, founder and principal of the New York-based design firm Local Projects. “That chasm is part of why people don’t plug into history very effectively.”

Local Projects led the design work along with curator Nancy Rosen, consultant Matthew Schreiber, and architect Studio Joseph. For Barton, the Mithraeum posed a unique design challenge from the other major museum projects he’s worked on, including the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Because there’s limited knowledge about the temple, Barton worked with historians and scholars to create an authentic experience that would enable visitors to imagine what it might have been like thousands of years ago.

[Photo: James Newton]

The Temple of Mithras was home to a cult that sounds like a mix between the Freemasons and Scientology. It was a secretive, all-male social club with religious rituals and feasts that operated outside the predominant polytheistic religious system of the Roman era. People feared the wrath and vengeance of the Roman gods of myth, but Mithras was a compassionate god that brought believers together–making him in some ways a precursor to monotheistic religions like Christianity.

The exhibit’s designers wanted visitors to experience what it might have been like inside the temple of Mithras during a ritual. But there wasn’t documentation of exactly what happened inside.

[Photo: James Newton]

So Barton and his team decided to use light, haze, and sound to create an experience that helps visitors use the ruins of the Mithraeum as a starting place for their imagination. Using only off-the-shelf equipment, Barton designed a system that turns sheets of light into holographic projections of the temple’s walls and columns. Haze makes the space appear almost ghostly. A soundtrack of chants associated with original Mithraic rituals, paired with music played on ancient Roman instruments, complements the visuals.

“Like abstract art, it leaves a lot of details out and evocatively invites visitors to project themselves into the temple,” Barton says.

[Photo: James Newton]

The temple was installed in its original locations, which is nearly 23 feet below today’s ground level. To get to the temple, you walk through the first floor, past contemporary art installations inspired by the temple, and a giant glass display case filled with 600 artifacts that were found during the archaeological dig–14,000 pieces of the Roman city were found on the Bloomberg site, including shoes, doors, pottery, amulets, jewelry, and coins. Then, you walk down a staircase marked with moments of history–almost like you’re walking back in time–until you arrive at the mezzanine, which provides context about the temple and its history. The temple itself is a floor below, in its original place. “What I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to bring that [rubble] to life as an experience and make people feel like they’re inside this mystery cult and ritual,” Barton says.

The London Mithraeum opens to the public on November 14th. Admission is free.

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