The Magic Cabinet At Bloomberg’s Mithraeum (And It’s Free)

The Magic Cabinet At Bloomberg’s Mithraeum (And It’s Free)

An encounter with a Roman cabinet of curiosities prompts City of London tour guide Ian McDowell to muse on the first Londoners.

A cabinet of Roman treasures.
A cabinet of Roman artefacts at the London Mithraeum. Key items are circled. Image Ethan Doyle White under creative commons licence.

History is witchcraft. Witchcraft requires something intimate: a bit of fingernail, some hair, a shoe. If you want to walk like a Roman, check out the magic cabinet at Bloomberg’s London Mithraeum. You’ll discover plenty to conjure with.

Shoes, for a start, are incredibly personal. Cursing the British weather, the Romans of Londinium would chuck their worn-out sandals brazenly into the stream called the Walbrook that ran down the middle of the city. When financier Michael Bloomberg sited his new HQ at the marshy epicentre of Roman London, he dug up enough previously-enjoyed Roman footwear to bring a whole street of Romans back to life. The sandal on display includes two large holes where the actual ball of a male Roman foot wore through.

And not just male feet. We used to think of first century Londinium as a mostly male garrison town. But here were sandals made for women. Children, too. At that moment, plenty of theories got binned: far from an 'Up Pompei' of pink-skinned men, Londinium was as diverse and buzzing as London is now.

A model of Londinium.
Roman London with the Walbrook stream marked (this model from the 1920s lacks the amphitheatre discovered under Guildhall Yard in the 1980s). It can be viewed in the crypt of All Hallows by the Tower. Image: Matt Brown.

The Walbrook, now a City street, continues over Cannon Street as Dowgate Hill, named for the watergate where it fed into the Thames ('dow', as in 'dowsing', is an old word for water). Incredibly, this is where the City of London still has its waste processing depot two thousand years later. Most of the Roman rubbish would wash its way out into the river, but the sandals, all 250 of them, got stuck. And they got stuck in a medium unfriendly to the microbes that feast on leather. There were to be some very lucky 21st century archaeologists.

Gushing memorials and cheesy pits

Thanks to them, we are building up a richer picture than ever before of both female and male Londinium lives. We know about women powerful enough to set up gushing memorials to members of their families, like to one found just off Ludgate Hill, now in the Museum of London: 'To Marcus Aurelius Eucarpus, my most devoted son; aged 15 years 6 months; set up by his mother, Aurelia Eucarpia'. And we know about the women whose lives were played out in the utter degradation in the Lupanaria or low-class brothels. We know about men who owned signature palaces, and about those who were thrown into Londinium’s amphitheatre — present day Guildhall Yard — along with the wrong kind of cats.

The Romans managed to cling onto Londinium for 350 years before a tangle of tribes with nothing to lose — including Boudicca’s Iceni, who managed to burn the whole place down in the first century — finally got the upper hand. The ruins of the dead city lay silent for more than 400 years before King Alfred the Great brought the place back to life in 886. Later, the Walbrook stream was haphazardly filled in, but the river and its contents remained intact under the debris.

The river bed of the ancient course of the River Walbrook, revealed during excavations for the Bloomberg Building. Image Matt Brown.

A strange magic, this. One of the volunteer archaeologists remarked that the cheesy aroma of the pit felt like the authentic smell of Londinium itself. The human had welled up from the mud, and would not be put away again.

What the Romans wrote for us

By what is surely the biggest witchcraft of all, the voices of three of Londinium’s first inhabitants were preserved. Romans wrote not on paper, but on wooden tablets covered in blackened wax. The wax was doomed, but the metal styluses that were used sometimes went through to the wood. Generations of movie detectives have rubbed a pencil over a notepad to reveal the impressions left by the killer, and the archaeologists used modern scanning methods to do much the same. They sent the scratch marks to a Roman writing expert.

Wooden remains of a writing tablet, with stylus, at the London Mithraeum. Image: Matt Brown

A scratchy voice as good as any gramophone disc emerged from the primeval soup: 'They’re boasting in the market that you’ve leant them money. Make sure you don’t look shabby, or you won’t do yourself any favours', says a note penned to an anxious — or perhaps not anxious enough — trader called Titus. The same sentiments get muttered every day into phones in the alleys off Cheapside.

One of the tablets is the oldest financial document we have, a wintery IOU, written on a January day in 57 CE, from someone called Tibullus, to someone called Gratus. Both, as it happens, were freed slaves. They were formalising a debt of 105 denarii for goods delivered. Nineteen of these tablets were found in one small building by the Walbrook, meaning we may have found London’s first office. There’s even a door, ripped from its hinges, still with the scars made by whoever did the ripping. Perhaps some toga clad David Brent finally lost it with his unruly staff.

A hidden office

Cannon Street bracing.
Image: Matt Brown

Few who pass through Cannon Street station realise the giant cantilevers on the side of the building are to stop the remains of Londinium’s palatial HQ — where legions of office managers ran all this — being squashed. There are ornate mosaic floors down there, and a giant ornamental pool full of statuary that would once have overlooked the Southwark marshes. We haven’t the funds or the technology to unearth it now, but our great grandchildren might.

We stew in our own troubles without the perspective of history at our peril. Tibullus' and Gratus' exchange of paperwork makes our own daily dealing with the unknown seem less a trial unique to us, and more of a communion with those whose very names and voices, through a strange game of chance and preservation, have passed from their hands to ours.

Tibullus. Gratus. Wherever you are, remember us.


London Mithraeum and its cabinet of curiosities is free to visit. Check website for times and restrictions. The cabinet can also be explored digitally.

Ian McDowell runs Dark Side Walks, including the London's Darkest Movie Locations, Saturdays at 2pm. "Ian McDowell's Dark Side Walks are as funny as they're dark. As nineteenth century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, 'Comedy is the flower on the nettle'."

Last Updated 29 October 2018