Life in the Litter: The Remarkable Roman Rubbish by Mariana Castillo Deball | Art
Ohen Mariana Castillo Deball was asked to create an exhibition responding to Roman relics from London’s Mithraeum collection, it was its local quality and uneven treatment that first struck her. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artefacts were taken in suspicious circumstances from all over the world,” she says. “In Europe, we sometimes forget that we have a history that can be exposed.”
It’s notorious that the cultural guardians of mid-century London didn’t cover themselves in glory when it came to what many hailed as the capital’s most thrilling archaeological find. 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 cult of soldiers, was at the heart of the original settlement of Londinium along the Thames. Yet despite passionate media coverage and Winston Churchill’s approval, its treasures were later scattered – even thrown away – while the building was haphazardly rebuilt in 1962 on top of a parking lot. Today it has been painstakingly recreated at the foot 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 by what she had gleaned from archaeologists’ databases, rather than her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It became more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The objects she was looking at are not those associated with the temple and supercharged by its mystery. Rather, they are the most ordinary finds from later excavations. “These are utilitarian objects of daily life that were underground, not because of a sacred situation, but because someone had already thrown them away,” she explains. “Things like kitchen pottery, clothing and writing tablets, which were used almost the same way we use text messages now. Once the message was delivered, the tablet was discarded. The wooden tablets, covered in wax and inscribed, are the earliest example of written language in Britain and are considered one of the greatest prizes in the collection.
In his 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 of them, amorphous ceramics have sometimes been polished with a metallic glaze and are crossed by a mishmash of objects that can easily fall to the ground, including coins, pins and dice. Another column puts the preservation business front and center, carefully recreating jars 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 vaporous curtain connects the works, painted with scripts from the tablets and with other interpretations of artifacts concealed in pockets to create teasing silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast from the elusive past. A clearly recognizable element is the old shoe soles; a reminder, perhaps, to consider our own footprint. “Old waste was sustainable because it’s organic, but now our waste is much harder to hide and we produce a lot more of it,” says Castillo Deball. “The exhibition 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 in London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE up to 14 January.
Lost and Found: In Castillo Deball’s Studio
The show’s textile work is based on Roman writing tablets, with wax-engraved scriptures. “They carried very practical messages for accounting, etc. “explains Castillo Deball. “The inscriptions are quite beautiful and I painted them by hand.”
50 shades of clay
Castillo Deball tried to stay close to the different kinds of clay that the Romans used at the time: black, golden, orange and terracotta. “There was a lot of trade in Roman times, but I believe it originated in the region. 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 his native Mexico, although the shape is reminiscent of famous ancient examples such as Trajan’s Narrative 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.”