UWhen Mariana Castillo Debol was invited to create an exhibition responding to the Roman relics in the Mithraeum collection in London, it was the local quality and uneven treatment that first struck her. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artefacts are taken in suspicious circumstances from all over the world,” she says. “In Europe we sometimes forget that we have a history that can be put on display.”
The custodians of mid-century London’s culture famously didn’t cover themselves in glory when it came to what many hailed as the capital’s most exciting archaeological discovery. Opened in 1954, the Temple of Mithras quickly captured the city’s imagination. This subterranean building, dedicated to Mithras the Bull Slayer, deity of a mysterious warrior cult, was central to the original Londinium settlement along the Thames. Yet despite heated press coverage and Winston Churchill’s approval, its treasures were scattered – or even thrown away – until the building was haphazardly reconstructed in 1962 on the roof of a car park. Today, it is carefully recreated at the bottom of the Bloomberg skyscraper, in the original location where archaeologists have found many other ancient artifacts.
Because of the pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Deboll’s work is shaped by what she has gleaned from archaeologists’ databases, rather than her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It became more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The objects she seeks are not those associated with the temple and supercharged with its mystery. Rather, they are more ordinary finds from later excavations. “They are utilitarian everyday objects that were underground, not because of a sacred situation, but because someone had already thrown them away,” she explains. “Things like cooking pottery, clothes and writing tablets that were used almost the way we use texting now. After the message was delivered, the tablet was thrown away. The wax-covered and inscribed 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 Trash, three towers of stacked ceramics suggest ways in which our understanding of the value and meaning of objects can change. In one, the amorphous pottery was sometimes polished with a metallic glaze and stuck with a bunch of things that could easily fall to the floor, including coins, pins, and dice. Another column puts the business of storage front and center, carefully recreating pots with breaks and all. The final ceramic work enlarges small amulets – “phallus on one side, vagina on the other” – as well as toothless combs, suggesting how their importance grew.
A transparent curtain connects the works painted with scripts from the tablets and with additional interpretations of artifacts hidden in pockets to make tantalizing silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. One clearly recognizable element is the old shoe soles; a reminder, perhaps, to consider our own footprint. “Ancient garbage was sustainable because it was organic, but our garbage is now much harder to hide and we produce much more,” Castillo Debol reflects. “The show makes us think about the present and future relationships we have with objects: what we consider important, what we put in museums and what we throw away.”
Roman Garbage by Mariana Castillo Debol e at London’s Bloomberg SPACE Mithraeum until 14 January.
Lost and Found: In Castillo Debol’s Studio
The show’s textile work is based on Roman writing tiles with wax-scratched inscriptions. “They carried very practical messages about accounting and so on,” says Castillo Debol. “The inscriptions are quite beautiful and I painted them by hand.”
50 shades of clay
Castillo Debol 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 believe it was local. So many artifacts were found at the site of Mithraeum because the soil was quite soft, like a swamp.
Column in inches
Castillo Debol first created stacked columns for a project in his native Mexico, although the form is reminiscent of famous ancient examples such as the story Trajan’s Column. “It’s a way to tell a story in a sculptural sense,” she says. “You can walk around them and they transform the space.”