When Mariana Castillo Deball was invited to create an exhibition responding to the Roman relics in the Mithraeum collection in London, it was the local quality and fragmentary treatment that first impressed her. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artefacts have been received under suspicious circumstances from all over the world,” he says. “In Europe, we sometimes forget that we have a story that can be exposed.”
It is common knowledge that mid-century London’s cultural custodians were not covered in glory when it came to what many hailed as the capital’s most exciting archaeological discovery. Unveiled in 1954, the Temple of Mithras quickly captured the city’s imagination. This underground building dedicated to Mithras the Bull Slayer, deity of a mysterious soldier cult, was central to the original settlement of Londinium along the Thames. However, despite warm press coverage and Winston Churchill’s endorsement, its treasures were subsequently dispersed – or even thrown away – while the building was haphazardly rebuilt in 1962 on top of a car park roof. Today it has been carefully recreated at the bottom of the Bloomberg skyscraper, in the original location where archaeologists have since found many other ancient artifacts.
Because of the pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Deball’s creation was shaped by what she gathered from archaeologists’ databases rather than hands-on exploration of the collection. “It became more figurative and metaphorical,” he says. The objects he looked at are not those related to the temple and are supercharged by its mystery. Rather, they are the most common finds from later excavations. “They are utilitarian objects from everyday life that were underground, not because of a sacred status, but because someone had already thrown them away,” he explains. “Things like cooking pottery, clothes, and writing tablets, that were used almost the way we use text messages now. As soon as the message was delivered, the tablet was thrown away.” The wooden tablets, which were covered with wax and inscribed, are the first written specimen in Britain and are considered one of the collection’s greatest prizes.
In her installation, Roman Rubbish, three towers of stacked ceramics suggest ways in which our understanding of the value and meaning of objects can change. In one, amorphous ceramics have occasionally been polished with a metallic glaze and stuck inside with a case of things that can easily fall to the floor, such as coins, pins and dice. Another column puts the conservation business at the center, painstakingly recreating broken pots and all. The latest ceramic work enlarges tiny amulets – “a phallus on one side, a vagina on the other” – as well as toothless combs, suggesting how their importance has grown.
A gauze curtain connects the works, painted with scripts from the tablets and with further interpretations of objects hidden in pockets to create tantalizing silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. A clearly recognizable element is the old shoe soles. a reminder, perhaps, to consider our own footprint. “Ancient garbage was sustainable because it is organic, but our garbage now is much harder to hide and we produce much more,” reflects Castillo Deball. “The show asks us to think about the present and future relationship we have with objects: what we consider important, what we put in museums and what we throw away.”
Roman Rubbish by Mariana Castillo Deball is at the London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE until 14 January.
Lost and found: in Castillo Deball’s studio
The show’s textile work is based on Roman writing tablets, with scripts scratched into wax. “They brought very practical messages about accounting and so on,” says Castillo Deball. “The inscriptions are very beautiful and I have painted them by hand.”
50 shades of clay
Castillo Deball tried to stay close to the different types of clay used by the Romans at the time: black, gold, orange and terracotta. “There was a lot of trade in Roman times, but I think it came from the local market. So many artifacts were discovered at the Mithraic site because the ground was quite soft, like a swamp.
Castillo Deball first created stacked columns for a project in her native Mexico, although the form recalls famous ancient examples such as the narrative Trajan’s Column. “It’s a way to tell a story in a sculptural sense,” he says. “You can walk around them and they transform the space.”