Appeal unearths Roman treasure kept by visitors from the Fifties
As Temple of Mithras is reconstructed, a plea for dig memories is rewarded with host of extra artefacts
WHEN a team of archaeologists began restoring the Roman Temple of Mithras in the City of London, first discovered in 1954, they appealed for anyone who remembered the original dig to get in touch.
They hoped people would come forward with memories of seeing the ruins, or even have photographs from the time. They ended up with rather more – a hoard of Roman treasures.
Members of the public revealed that workers at the site had given them museum-worthy artefacts to take away, many of which were still in their possession. Some of those rediscovered treasures are now on display at the new London Mithraeum museum, where the temple has been rebuilt on its original site.
It is Britain’s newest tourist attraction – despite being 1,777 years old.
The temple was first discovered by William Grimes, an archaeologist for the Roman and Medieval London Exca- vation Council. The City had been razed in the Blitz and, with reconstruction work about to begin, Grimes set out to sift through the rubble for sites of interest.
A workman is said to have stumbled across the marble head of Mithras, a Roman deity.
News of the find gripped the nation, with Winston Churchill calling a halt to demolition work, and 400,000 people queued over two weeks for a glimpse of the site which dated back to 240AD.
Diana Van Rooyen was one of the people who came forward recently when the Museum of London Archaeology issued their appeal. For the past 63 years, she has been the careful owner of a Roman lamp. She was 14 when she visited the site with her father, an engineer involved in the tendering process for the City of London rebuilding programme. “It was because my father was we were allowed in.
“He saw something sticking out of the mud, picked it up and out came this little lamp,” she recalled.
“Being a very honest man, he took it to the archaeologist, who said, ‘Oh, you involved, can have that, we’ve got hundreds of those.’ He was very pleased.” The find caused a sensation because Londoners had endured such a miserable time, Ms Van Rooyen said.
“I remember London after the war – the buildings were black and grimy, we’d just come out of rationing, and it was all quite grim. And suddenly there was this fantastic discovery and it really perked people up.”
She has kept the lamp in a display cabinet in her sitting room. “It probably isn’t worth much. It’s just a little terracotta thing, not ornate or decorated. But it is a very special thing to have.”
Security at the site was so scant in the early days that children would play there. Ian Silver was 10 at the time. “We used to go there as boys after school, climb down by ladder, and the nightwatchman would give us things,” he said. “He gave us all these artefacts – money and bones and things. He said ‘Take ’em, they don’t know what they’re looking at.’”
Eventually, his mother insisted his haul should be handed in, so they took it the nearest place they thought would be suitable: the Bethnal Green toy museum. Another woman, Liza Benjamin, was given an oyster shell when she visited the site. It has now been embedded into the wall of the reconstructed temple. Sophie Walker, of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), said: “This lady brought the oyster shell to me. It had been kept in a lovely little plastic bag for 60 years, and it’s gone back in the temple.”
One couple, Sandra and Eric Morgan, contacted the MOLA team with a diary Mrs Morgan had kept from the time. The entry for Sept 25, 1954 read: “We went and stood outside the Roman temple on Queen Victoria Street and we queued for two-and-a-quarter hours to get in. But it was worthwhile! Then we went to the cinema and saw Robert Taylor in Knights of the Round Table.”
The dig was shut down within weeks to make way for the builders, and untold numbers of treasures went to landfill.
The site was moved 100m down the road where it spent many years, unloved and unnoticed, serving as the roof of an underground car park. Finally, the billionaire billionai founder of Bloomberg, the financial financi information company, agreed to move mo the temple back to its original site – the basement of his new office building buildi close to the Bank of Engla England.
A team then th had to dismantle and an reconstruct it, a process pro that has taken the th best part of a decade. decad
Tours Tou begin on Tuesday Tuesda and, although tickets are a required, it is free of charge. c
‘He gave us all these artefacts – money and bones. He said “Take ’em, they don’t know what they’re looking at” ’
A reconstruction of the Roman Temple of Mithras, top left, queues in 1954, a bull plaque and Roman coins, inset