When Mariana Castillo Deball was invited to create an exhibition responding to the Roman relics in London’s Mithraeum Collection, what struck her first was the local quality and the patchy treatment. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artifacts have been stolen from around the world under suspicious circumstances,” she says. “In Europe we sometimes forget that we have a history to exhibit.”
As is well known, mid-century London’s cultural administrators did not cover themselves in glory when it came to what was hailed by many as the capital’s most exciting archaeological discovery. The Temple of Mithras, excavated in 1954, quickly captured the city’s imagination. Dedicated to Mithras the Bullslayer, the deity of a mysterious soldier cult, this subterranean building was the focal point of the original Londinium settlement on the Thames. But despite heated press coverage and Winston Churchill’s support, its treasures were then scattered – or even thrown away – while the building was haphazardly rebuilt on top of a parking garage in 1962. Today it has been painstakingly recreated at the base of the Bloomberg skyscraper, on the original site where archaeologists have since found many other ancient artifacts.
Due to the pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Deball’s creation was shaped more by what she gleaned from archaeologists’ databases than by her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It got more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The items she was looking for were not those associated with the temple and charged with its mystery. Rather, they are the more common finds of later excavations. “These are necessities of everyday life that were underground, not because of a sacred situation, but because someone had already thrown them away,” she explains. “Things like cookware, clothing, and writing boards that have been used almost the way we use text messaging now. As soon as the message was delivered, the tablet was thrown away.” Covered in wax and inscribed, the wooden tablets are the first example of written language in Britain and are considered one of the greatest prizes in the collection.
In her installation Roman Rubbish, three towers of stacked ceramics suggest how our understanding of the value and meaning of objects can change. In one, amorphous pottery was occasionally polished with a metallic glaze and pasted through with a hodgepodge of items that can easily fall to the ground, including coins, pins, and dice. Another column focuses on preserving, carefully restoring pots with cracks 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 importance has grown.
A gauzy curtain connects the works, painted with writings from the tablets and with further interpretations of artifacts hidden in pockets to form mischievous silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. A clearly recognizable element are old shoe soles; maybe a reminder to think about our own footprint. “Old junk was sustainable because it’s organic, but our junk is now much harder to hide and we produce a lot more,” reflects Castillo Deball. “The exhibition challenges us to reflect on our current and future relationship 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’s Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE until 14 January.
Lost and found: in Castillo Deball’s studio
The textile works in the exhibition are based on Roman tablets with writing carved into wax. “They carried very practical messages for accounting and stuff like that,” says Castillo Deball. “The inscriptions are very beautiful and I painted them by hand.”
Castillo Deball tried to stay close to the different tones that the Romans were using at the time: black, gold, orange and terracotta. “A lot was traded in Roman times but I believe it was sourced locally. So many artifacts were discovered at the Mithraeum 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 shape is reminiscent of famous ancient examples such as the tale of Trajan’s Column. “It’s a way of telling a story in a sculptural sense,” she says. “You can walk around them and they transform the space.”