Mission 1 – detour

Image captured with the Far Ultraviolet Camera/Spectrograph during the Apollo 16 mission, 1972 (NASA)

I started my surveys of the lost rivers with the shortest, Walbrook. This forms a rough right angle through Shoreditch (the name a possible evolution of Sewer Ditch) down to the Thames via London Wall. The source is believed to be Holywell Lane (i.e. the Holy Well) near Curtain Road.

It seemed appropriate to begin here as the Walbrook is centred on the original Roman settlement that would later become London.

I began with a slight detour en route to the reconstructed Temple of Mithras. Building works in 1954 uncovered the remains of this site, believed to be a place of worship for the cult of Mithras. This was a cult of tauroctony in which followers would ritually slaughter a bull – bathing in its blood was thought to convey virility. The temple was relocated to the nearby Temple Court at Queen Victoria Street, but the reconstruction was criticised for its inaccuracies. In 2010, the original site was purchased by Bloomberg, and the temple restored as The Mithraeum to its original location – 7 metres below their new European headquarters at 12 Walbrook, EC4.

A small bull shaped plaque, believed to date from AD 43 to 125.
Bull Plaque, AD 43 – 125. Lead. It is thought that this small plaque found at the site represents Taurus. It pre-dates the Mithraeum so it’s speculated that there may have been an even earlier temple on this site. The plaque is from a collection of objects displayed at street level on entering the Bloomberg building. ©Mat Denney
A set of steps leads down to the Mithraeum from street level
The descent to the Mithraeum ©Mat Denney

As you descend from street level, you encounter an interactive display in a darkened lobby with touch screens to explore the collection.

Touchscreen showing a Marble relief of Mithras slaying a bull, surrounded by a circle of astrological figures representing the 12 zodiac signs
Touchscreen display showing a marble relief of Mithras. It depicts Mithras slaying the bull, surrounded by the circle of the zodiac, suggesting that “the tauroctony might be understood as a map of how Mithraists saw the universe and their position within it” ©Museum of London

I see the presence of these underground, cosmological symbols as a parallel to my own project; making sense of my own connection to the wider universe, looking for clues beneath the surface.

Blurry figures projected on the dark walls of the Mithraeum lobby
Wall projections ©Mat Denney

Shadowy figures are projected on the walls as narration plays. Although the reference is totally anatopic and anachronistic, it reminds me of Plato’s shadows on the cave wall. How do we re/construct reality and history? Neatly package up the visceral experience of the past to make the point that we’re somehow beyond such simple superstitions? In Technic & Magic (Bloomsbury, 2018) Campagna writes of how we ascribe a belief in a flat earth to the ancients, all the better to claim superiority of scientific measurement over experience them and reinforce the hegemony of what he calls “technic” (the ontologically reductive mode that the modern world operates within). Yet we humans experience the world as flat, not spherical. This sphericity reduces the universe to an archipelago of limited, closed spheres. A primitive belief in a flat earth with a boundary temptingly offers a glimpse of an unknown world beyond the edge.

A shot of the Mithraeum experience. The excavated site is lit through mist to create the illusion of temple walls
Immersive visitor experience of the Mithraeum ©Mat Denney

The actual experience is atmospheric – the temple is filled with mist and slices of projected light create volumetric “walls”. An ominous soundtrack of chanting plays.

But despite atmosphere and stage-managed spookiness, we are knowingly outside the experience. Our modern day rituals are neat and ordered: opening times, queuing, leg day at the gym, bus timetables etc. Together with the snaking line of parents and sightseers, I dutifully file around the outside then funnelled towards the exit. No gift shop though which makes the experience feel a bit more sacred.

Onward to follow the route proper of the Walbrook…