When Mariana Castillo Deball was invited to create an exhibition responding to the Roman relics in London’s Mithraeum collection, it was its local quality and patchy treatment that first struck her. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artefacts have been taken in suspicious circumstances from all over the world,” she says. “In Europe, we sometimes forget that we have a history that can be exhibited.”
Notoriously, mid-century London’s cultural custodians didn’t cover themselves in glory when it came to what many hailed as the capital’s most exciting archaeological discovery. Unearthed 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 soldiers’ cult, was central to the original Londinium settlement along the Thames. Yet in spite of heated press coverage, and Winston Churchill’s endorsement, its treasures were then dispersed – or even thrown away – while the building was haphazardly reconstructed in 1962 on the top of a car park roof. Today it’s been carefully recreated at the bottom of the Bloomberg skyscraper, at the original site where archaeologists have since found many other ancient artefacts.
Because of the pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Deball’s creation was shaped by what she’d gleaned from archaeologists’ databases, rather than her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It became more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The items she looked to are not those associated with the temple and supercharged by its mystery. Rather, they are the more ordinary finds from later digs. “They’re utilitarian objects from daily life that were under the earth, not because of a holy situation, but because somebody had already thrown them away,” she explains. “Things like cooking pottery, clothing and writing tablets, which were used almost in the way we use text messages now. Once the message was delivered, the tablet was discarded.” The wooden tablets, which were covered in wax and inscribed, are the first example of written language in Britain and considered one of the collection’s greatest prizes.
In her installation, Roman Rubbish, three towers of stacked ceramics suggest ways that our understanding of the worth and meaning of objects can change. In one, amorphous ceramics have been occasionally burnished with metallic glaze and are stuck through with a hotchpotch of things that can easily fall to the floor, including coins, pins and dice. Another column puts the business of preservation at the centre, carefully recreating pots with breakages and all. The final ceramic work enlarges tiny amulets – “a phallus on one side, a vagina on the other” – as well as toothless combs, suggesting how their significance has grown.
A gauzy curtain connects the works, painted with scripts from the tablets and with further interpretations of artefacts concealed in pockets to make teasing silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. One clearly recognisable element is old shoe soles; a reminder, perhaps, to consider our own footprint. “Ancient rubbish was sustainable because it’s organic, but our rubbish 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 London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE until 14 January.
Lost and found: in Castillo Deball’s studio
The show’s textile work draws on Roman writing tablets, with scripts scratched in wax. “They bore very practical messages for accounting and so on,” says Castillo Deball. “The inscriptions are quite beautiful and I’ve painted them by hand.”
50 shades of clay
Castillo Deball tried to stay close to the different kinds of clay Romans were using at the time: black, golden, orange and terracotta. “There was a lot of trade in Roman times but I believe it was sourced locally. So many artefacts were discovered at the Mithraeum site because the soil was quite soft, like a swamp.
Castillo Deball first created stacked columns for a project in her native Mexico, though the form calls to mind famed ancient examples such as the narrative Trajan’s Column. “It is a way to tell a story in a sculptural sense,” she says. “You can walk around them and they transform the space.”