Friday, September 26, 2014

Britain’s romance with the ancient Romans

Archaeologists hope that the public will be able to help with the reconstruction of a temple to Mithras in the City of London, adding another chapter to an enduring affair
Natalie Haynes
'The Roman baths in Aquae Sulis (or Bath, to use its modern name) have recently been named the third-best museum in the country by TripAdvisor.' Photograph: Liquid Light /Alamy
Even by the standards of ancient Rome, Mithras was a peculiar god. He was a Persian deity worshipped only by men in underground temples, called Mithraea. He was born from a rock, which adds to his super-macho appeal (he was especially popular with soldiers). Ritual killing formed a key theme of the cult: every temple of Mithras included a scene of the god killing a bull, known as the tauroctony. Worshippers had to undergo various initiation rituals, and they perhaps used a secret handshake. If Dan Brown had invented the Freemasons, they would look a lot like first-century Mithraists.
We know very little about their secret rituals, but the subterranean sanctuaries have survived across what was the Roman empire, because soldiers worshipped there. You can still see a Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall, and archeologists from the Museum of London have this week appealed for the public’s help in reconstructing one that was unearthed in London 60 years ago.
Britain doesn’t boast the greatest Roman remains: (apart from Bath, Cirencester and Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall), but we tend to be hugely attached to those we do have. And so it proved to be when the Mithraeum was first excavated, during rebuilding work in 1954. A few hundred visitors were expected to turn up to see the temple’s foundations when it was opened for public viewing. Yet 35,000 turned up on the first day and the police were called in to control the crowds. Perhaps after living through the blitz, and clearing rubble from their streets for years, people were just excited to find ruins that contained something thrilling rather than something awful.
They came in their droves to have a look and to help out with a bit of digging: one letter from a visitor boasts about finding bones on the site. Archeologists were more casual about souvenir-hunters than their modern equivalents would be. Some elements, including pink mortar that held stones together, disappeared. The only hope is that visitors kept the samples they pilfered, which they or their families might now return (no questions asked).
It’s hard not to think that this find marked the beginning of Britain’s love of blockbuster exhibitions of artefacts from the ancient world. Tutankhamun, Pompeii and Herculaneum and the terracotta warriors have all drawn huge crowds. But it’s easy to see why: Pompeii has its own disaster-movie narrative; Tutankhamun has its curse. The terracotta army, depicting the soldiers of the first emperor of China, has barely been seen outside the country, so rarity of opportunity contributed to their popularity.
But why were so many people so excited about a temple of a god most of them had never heard of? Had years of rationing left people starved of entertainment? I prefer to believe that there is something uniquely appealing about the presence of the Romans in Britain. Our Mithraeum may not be as imposing as the Colosseum, but that’s not the point. Roman soldiers travelled so far, often on foot, to be here. And when they did arrive, Britons turned out to be rebellious pagans who might rise up against them at any moment. And still they stayed – for hundreds of years – and built a few places that survive for us to see today.
And the best thing about the Roman remains we have is that they aren’t like museum exhibits. You can wander around the amphitheatre at Caerleon in south Wales and never see a soul. Yes, the Colosseum is more spectacular, but if you want to imagine yourself a Roman, there’s a lot to be said for being alone in a quieter site. And being outdoors is a crucial part of that.
The Roman baths in Aquae Sulis (or Bath, to use its modern name) have recently been named the third-best museum in the country. That may be because of the many excellent exhibits that are on show there. But I think it’s because we can walk on Roman stones and among their statues, and imagine what it would be like to live as the Romans lived.
However excited 1950s Britain was about the London Mithraeum, it didn’t become a tourist attraction. It was moved and has been visible only amid concrete and office blocks for decades. We’ve hardly seen it at its best. Though people complain that building projects in the UK are derailed by the presence of anything from a Roman pavement to a colony of bats, there’s surely something to be said for the fact that the next redevelopment (an office building for Bloomberg) will return the Mithraeum to its original site in the City for public view by 2017.
And though I doubt we’ll be entering ticket lotteries for the chance to visit this time around, it will still be a treat to see what survived the bulldozers, the light-fingered visitors and the archeologists the last time it was there.

The Guardian
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