Mariana Castillo Deball’s remarkable Roman trash

When Mariana Castillo Deball was asked to create an exhibition responding to Roman relics from London’s Mithraeum collection, it was their local quality and uneven treatment that first impressed her. “It’s the opposite of the British Museum, where artifacts were taken under suspicious circumstances from all over the world,” she says. “In Europe, we sometimes forget that we have a story that can be shown.”

Famously, mid-century London’s cultural guardians didn’t cover themselves in glory when it came to what many hailed as the capital’s most exciting archaeological find. Unearthed in 1954, the Temple of Mithras quickly captured the city’s imagination. This subterranean building dedicated to Mithras the Bullslayer, deity of a mysterious soldier cult, was central to the original settlement of Londinium along the Thames. However, despite heated press coverage and Winston Churchill’s endorsement, its treasures were then dispersed – or even thrown away – as the building was haphazardly rebuilt in 1962 atop a parking lot roof. Today it has been carefully recreated at the bottom of the Bloomberg skyscraper, at the original site where archaeologists found many other ancient artifacts.

The show asks us to think about the present and future relationship we have with objects

Because of the pandemic, Berlin-based artist Castillo Deball’s creation was shaped by what she collected from archaeologists’ databases rather than her hands-on exploration of the collection. “It became more speculative and metaphorical,” she says. The items she sought are not those associated with the temple and burdened by its mystery. Instead, they are the most common finds from later excavations. “These are utilitarian objects from everyday life that were underground, not because of a sacred situation, but because someone has already thrown them away,” she explains. “Things like pottery for cooking, clothing, and writing tablets, which were used in almost the same way we use texting now. Once the message was delivered, the tablet was discarded.” The wooden tablets, covered in wax and inscribed, are the first example of written language in Britain and considered one of the greatest prizes in the collection.

In his installation, Roman Rubbish, three stacked ceramic towers suggest ways in which our understanding of the value and meaning of objects can change. In one, amorphous ceramics have occasionally been polished with metallic enamel and are held together with a hodgepodge of things that can easily fall to the ground, including coins, pins and dice. Another column puts the business of preservation at the center, carefully recreating pots, cracks and all. The final ceramic work magnifies small amulets – “a phallus on one side, a vagina on the other” – as well as toothless combs, hinting at how their meaning has grown.

A gauze curtain connects the works, painted with scripts from the tablets and with other interpretations of artifacts hidden in pockets to make provocative silhouettes: uncertain shadows cast by the elusive past. A clearly recognizable element is the old soles of shoes; a reminder, perhaps, to consider our own footprint. “Old waste was sustainable because it’s organic, but our waste is now 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

wax lyrical
The exhibition’s textile work is based on Roman writing tablets, with scripts scratched in wax. “They brought very practical messages to accounting and so on,” says Castillo Deball. “The inscriptions are very beautiful and I painted them by hand.”

50 shades of clay
Castillo Deball tried to stay close to the different types of clay the Romans used at the time: black, gold, orange and terracotta. “There was a lot of trade in Roman times, but I believe it was acquired locally. So many artifacts were discovered at the Mithraeum site because the ground was so soft, like a swamp.

column inches
Castillo Deball first created stacked columns for a project in his native Mexico, although the shape recalls famous early examples such as the Column of Trajan narrative. “It’s a way of telling a story in a sculptural sense,” she says. “You can walk around them and they transform the space.”

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