Immediately beneath the gallery lies the third century CE temple to the Roman god Mithras, rediscovered in the 1950s (and essential viewing for those who haven’t seen it), and in the Bloomberg collection are 14,000 artefacts from the Roman period found during archaeological digs.
It’s the more humdrum items that dominate Deball’s project: she focuses on the objects once discarded by Roman Londoners but now given the hallowed aura of archaeological objects – coins, ceramics, combs and wooden stylus writing tablets. A display cabinet on the wall contains many of the original Roman objects, and Deball riffs on these and others in the collection in subtle but intriguing ways through the installation’s three elements.
Ceramic columns, each about three metres high, respond in different ways to the archaeological finds. One column most palpably evokes Deball’s titular Roman Rubbish. Deliberately crude clumps of clay look like they’ve been rolled around and picked up detritus, which almost comically pierce and protrude from them. But these aren’t found objects – they’re all handmade. Lodged in the clay are ceramic versions of coins, nails and the styluses that would have been used to inscribe through wax on those wooden tablets.
The clay lumps, stacked to form the column, are in distinct colours – black, terracotta and yellow (think London bricks), a palette used for the other pillars, too. The second brings together evocations of bone amulets with phalluses and hands formed into the fig sign, representing the female genitalia, used as charms to ward off the evil eye, with combs and goddess figures. The final column features more straightforward vessels referencing Roman urns or crucibles.
Between the pillars is a curtain, with drawings based on the writing tablets’ inscriptions, and geometric blocks of colour. Stitched into it are pockets in which sit amplified versions of some of the objects, including a rearing bull that is probably a depiction of the zodiac sign Taurus.
It’s deliberately fragmented, as the archaeological process inevitably is, but also inscrutable; we can’t easily translate these symbols – which would have detailed things like financial transactions. And while I like the ideas Deball is probing here, about human language lost across time and refound, the curtain is for me the least satisfying element of the show. It clearly has an architectural role, in defining the space and our route through it, but it could have done this more boldly and starkly, with the writing tablets more front and centre; it’s not clear what role the coloured shapes play, other than as decorative elements.
More impressive are a series of black wax panels on the end wall, with the outline of human profiles linked with fluid lines to images of mythological beasts. It’s a lovely idea, using the means by which Romans would write on those stylus tablets to create a mysterious mural. Here, Deball responds to ancient animal depictions, but invents her own creatures – tail-chasing ibises, a cervine beast with two bodies and a single head. She’s taken on that distant past, but propelled its imagery into the here and now.
London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE from Thursday until Jan 14; londonmithraeum.com