The Temple of Mithras

From 2014 NextShoot worked to film and produce a series of short-form films for social media and broadcast, capturing various aspects of the construction of Bloomberg's new European HQ in the heart of the City of London. This long term project was multi-faceted and required a range of different approaches to research, film-making and post-production.

During the construction phase our video production company was asked to create a film about Bloomberg’s approach to the reinstatement of the Roman Temple of Mithras to its original position within the footprint of their new office and the visitor experience they planned to frame this archaeological wonder. It was a project that aimed to honour the past whilst using the latest display techniques to create a relevant experience for visitors for many years to come. We called the video London Mithraeum - A Future for the Past
The most famous Roman discovery of the 20th century in London was made in September 1954 when archaeologists excavating the site of a World War II bomb site, ahead of the construction of a new office building for Legal & General, unearthed the Temple of Mithras, originally constructed in about AD 240. It was a discovery that intrigued a public that was still recovering from the deprivations of war. In fact, an estimated 400,000 people visited the site for a glimpse of what had been uncovered by archaeologist Professor William F. Grimes and his team.

Ahead of the start of the building works, the stones from the Roman ruin were dismantled and in 1962 these foundations were reassembled at street level for an open-air public display on Queen Victoria Street, a hundred metres from their original position. The reconstruction drew criticism for the materials used and the inaccuracies of the reconstruction.

Fast forward to 2010 when Bloomberg bought the city block in which the temple had originally been located as the site for their new European Headquarters. Bloomberg's vision was to sensitively restore the temple to as near its original location as possible, now within the footprint of its own building, and to create there a museum experience that would be open to the public.

The site of that reconstructed temple is 7 metres (23 ft) below today’s street level. The ruins have been recreated as they appeared at the end of the excavation in October 1954 and most of the stones and bricks have been salvaged from the original structure. The wood, render and lime mortar are new, but are based on mortar samples from Roman London structures of the period.

The temple sits beneath Bloomberg SPACE, where work by contemporary artists are curated, and in which an impressive glass cabinet showcases a selection of artefacts found on the site during the most recent excavations (2010-2104). On a mezzanine level visitors can interact with resin casts of key temple artefacts and digital touch-screens offering information on the temple and the mysterious Cult of Mithras. The walls of this room display shadowy animations of those who once came to worship here nearly 2000 years ago.
Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras
Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras
We were aware that this story was complex and that it needed to be told with a great deal of clarity and some historical context. As we laid down the script structure, the ingredients took shape: a potted history of the Romans in London, an explanation of the Cult of Mithras, the discovery in 1954 of the Temple of Mithras by Professor Grimes and his team following bomb damage in World War II, the fate of those archaeological finds, and Bloomberg’s plans for the temple remains and Mithras museum experience.

During our research it became clear how big a story the 1954 discovery was for Londoners. People queued for hours to get a glimpse of the archaeological site and early on some were even allowed to wander through the Roman remains. MOLA, who undertook the archaeological dig on the site 2012-14 and also advised on the reconstruction of the temple, had carried out an Oral History programme for Bloomberg, collecting memories of those who were involved in or witnessed the 1954 dig. We went through these and chose two contributors to interview on camera.

One of these was Peter Marseden who had been granted access to the site as a 14 year old boy. Amazingly he was allowed to carry out some digging of his own and found a Roman well and some artefacts. The experience had a profound influence on his life. In fact, he became a City of London Archaeologist and worked with the Museum of London for many years. Other interviews representing the views of Bloomberg, MOLA, and Local Projects, who were designing the museum experience, were built into the script, as was a shot list of potential sequences, film archive & stills and other existing video footage related to the archaeology.
A part of the challenge for this film was to give sense of the finished project before it was complete.

Bloomberg was working with Local Projects, an exhibition and media design firm based in New York that had designed the 9/11 Memorial Museum. At the time of filming Local Projects had created mock-ups of parts of their proposal for the final temple experience in a warehouse in South London. Their plan - which they were later to execute brilliantly - was to explore ways of using walls of structural light rising from the foundations of the temple. ‘Haze’ (theatrical fog made of glycol & water) would give these light beams a sense of physicality, thereby suggesting the structure of the ancient Roman temple. Additionally music, sounds of water, fire and chanting would create a further sensory encounter with the past.

Fortunately we were able to schedule filming at the Local Projects mock-up during a visit by Bloomberg and the architects Foster + Partners, which hinted at what the finished museum would feel like with visitors in the space.

We filmed our interview with Peter Marsden and a sequence of him looking back through his wonderful scrapbook from 1954 when he visited the Mithras site. Amazingly we were also able to track down footage of Peter on the site in a BBC Children’s Production titled ‘Boy Finds Roman Well’.

Our interview with MOLA’s Sophie Jackson brought context to the Roman history and also details of the 2102-14 dig, during which 3 tonnes of animal bone were removed and a number of incredible personal finds were made, including a small but perfectly preserved amber amulet. Many of these finds would later be displayed in the museum. Bloomberg framed the video, highlighting the importance to their company as custodians of the site in restoring the temple to its original position with the greatest regard for authenticity to historical detail and conservation practices. Although our video was being created a long time before the exhibition space would be finished, we were able to install two long-term timelapse cameras into the chamber where the Roman temple was being reconstructed to capture the progress of the build.

Although far from a typical corporate video production, we had assembled all the elements for an excellent video.
Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras
Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras Bloomberg The Temple of Mithras
We shaped the interview material to best tell a story that needed clear contextualising. After experimenting with different structures we felt we had used the interview content most effectively and cut in the broll footage, archive & stills.

We also developed a split screen approach for this video initially to highlight the contrast between black & white archive footage and contemporary colour shots of similar activities, but we felt it was also a stylised way to present more information on screen at any one moment.

Our graphics team created a map showing Roman London and the position of the Temple and the Bloomberg site. They also developed a title card in which the text appears from smoke, a nod to the mists of time and the haze that would be used in the museum experience.

A significant part of the post-production was sourcing and then clearing the rights for the various footage clips and stills used in the film, including from the BBC, the Daily Mail, MOLA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Pathe and the Imperial War Museum. Our experience in historical documentary production stood us in good stead.

The final result was a video we were proud to have made. It’s one that connects a plot of land now in the City of London with an archaeological dig in the 1950’s, the London Blitz of WWII and right back to 240 AD when a mysterious male cult met in a temple there to worship the god Mithras.

A new video was created about the London Mithraeum once it was open to the public and can be found here on the London Mithraeum website.

In 2018, Bloomberg invited participants who had contributed to an oral history project about visiting the temple site in 1954 to the London Mithraeum to see the restored temple for the first time. NextShoot filmed talking head interviews with many of the visitors about their experiences in 1954 and reactions to seeing the restored temple. To watch these interviews, explore their stories and see their photographs from the period visit the dedicated page on the London Mithraeum website.

The Local Projects page on the London Mithraeum can be viewed here.


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