London Museum archaeologists made the most famous Roman find of the 20th century (in London) on this day, September 18, 1954. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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Story time. History time.
It was a close run thing. Today, September 18th, 1954, was the last day of excavation on a site near Walbrook, in the City of London.
(For the uninitiated, Walbrook is London’s third most important river, after the Thames of course and the Fleet River. It runs between the two hills – Cornhill and Ludhill – London’s built round. Thus a supremely important position. Initially, it provided the Romans with a source of fresh water and then when the city was well established, it was an ideally positioned sewer, draining those two hills and running as it did right down the middle of London. This podcast is about the discovery that was made there on September 18th, 1954 but it’s impossible to gainsay the importance of that location, of the river that burbled along there. There’s even magic – and a flash of historical insight in the name, Walbrook. Listen carefully, you can hear the word Wales – not the animals, the country – in that name. The brook of the Wales people, the brook of the Welsh. Wales is an Anglo-Saxon word. It means foreign. Thus the Welsh are the foreigners, the strangers. Bit rich isn’t it, the Anglo-Saxons are the incomers and they’re calling the people who are already here the foreigners. Anyway, the really arresting point of that name is that London – which after all was a Roman city – Roman founded, Roman inhabited – London, Londinium was pretty much abandoned when the Romans upped stakes and left early in the 5th century. But because of that name Walbrook we think it may well have been the case that there was at least a small settlement, a small community of local Britons who stayed on. Who lived on one of those little hills beside that stream. Then when the Anglo-Saxons turn up later in the 5th century some of them, likely as not, pitch camp so to speak, on the other hill on the other side of the stream. They call that natural boundary – that little stream – the brook of the Welsh, the brook of the foreigners, because some of those foreigners, some of those Welsh are living just over there on that hill on the other side of the little stream. And so thanks to a name we get a fairly convincing picture of what are likely to be some of the earliest days of post-Roman London.)
Anyway, that’s the starter course for this podcast, for this Today in London History episode. Let’s get to the main event.
A quick catch-up, a team of archaeologists under the direction of Mr. William Francis Grimes of the London Museum, have been given a few days to excavate a bomb-blasted site prior to its immediate demolition by building contractors.
Aside here: I hope it delights you as much as it does me that William Francis Grimes was Welsh. Another biographical touch – as a young man he had flaming red hair and in later life he invariably sported a red carnation in the lapel of his jacket. At the end of his life he went home. His ashes are scattered on the Gower Peninsula. And another great London connection, the St Brides’ excavation – St Bride’s is the famous wedding cake church on Fleet Street – the excavation in the crypt of St Brides – it’s effectively a museum today – that was also the handiwork of our Welshman, William Francis Grimes.
Anyway, back to September of 1954. Everything being made ready for the imminent demolition that will clear the way for foundations for a new office building. And, miracle of miracles, on the very last day of the excavations – this day, September 18th – the archaeologists make a spectacular discovery: a perfectly preserved, noble carved Mithras head. It’s wearing a Phrygian cap, which provides the association with the Mithraic cult. And thus identifies the temple remains in which they found it. The temple is revealed to be an area of about 60 feet by 20 feet. It’s divided into a central chamber, two aisles divided by column bases, a triple-apsed east end and a raised platform, which probably carried an altar.
What they have discovered, in other words, is an enlarged and elaborate version of the simple Mithraic shrine discovered four years previously at a fort on Hadrian’s Wall.
So what was Mithraism? It was a secret, mystic cult that originated in Persia. It was heavily, probably exclusively masculine. It was spread widely but thinly throughout the Roman world. Roman soldiers and merchants spread it across the empire. Spread thinly because its actual membership was restricted by its secrecy and severe initiation ceremonies.
The find in London was extremely important not least because of the size of the temple. It was unusually large. That in itself attested to Roman London’s importance as both a military and mercantile capital. You want an analogy – well, maybe the Skull and Bones, that secret society of fourth-year students at Yale University on the other side of the pond.
Certainly it would have shivered your timbers to be led in there. Just inside the temple – it would have been spookily dark – those two aisles would have been guarded by very butch torch bearers. You wouldn’t have wanted to go face to face with either of them. One of the was Corax, the other was Leo. Corax was the raven. Leo was the lion. So you’ve got a very butch torchbearer on one side who’s topped to the north with the scary head of a raven and an equally butch one guarding the other aisle who’s wearing a scary lion’s head.
Now as for the head that was discovered. It’s called the head of Mithras – Mithras was the god the cult worshipped – but since the god is usually portrayed slaying a bull – it’s so butch, so violent Mithraism – the head may in fact be the head of Cautes or Cautopates, Mithras’ two divine attendants.
And let’s double down here. That’s not just any bull that’s being killed. That’s the astral bull. The import of that moment is not fully understood. What is understood is that that act is as central to Mithraism as the crucifixion is to Christianity.
Anyway, a hugely important find, a breathtaking find. Really, the most famous 20th-century Roman discovery in London. It got the site a stay of execution for further excavations. And then the entire site was moved. How’s that for the wonders of modern archaeology? It’s yielded up some 14,000 finds.
Enter in recent times, a certain former mayor of New York City and fabulously wealthy businessman Richard Bloomberg. He puts up a business centre on the original site and relocates the Temple back almost to its original position. And does it justice. Does a wonderful restoration. Turns it into a kind of museum-experience.
And going there, doing yourself the huge favour of seeing it – and experiencing it – that is of course the Today on London recommendation for this podcast.
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