ArcelorMittal Orbit
Art and culture

The history of London – five historic objects

September 17, 2021

With a history stretching back to the Romans and beyond, the rich tapestry of London can be unpicked through a series of objects which tell the story of the modern, bustling metropolis we see today.

Koh-i-Noor Diamond

Some 300 years later during the reign of Queen Victoria, the British Empire was at its zenith, a trading and military power that covered the world. One of the best-known objects that arrived in the capital at the time was the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which today forms part of the Crown Jewels on display at the Tower of London, where it sits elegantly against the purple velvet of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s crown. The diamond is thought to have been found in southern India between 1100 and 1300, unearthed from a dry river bed, and came into British hands in the 19th-century. The 186-carat gem, whose name means ‘Mountain of Light’ in Persian, was the embodiment of the monarch as a global leader and London as the dominant world city of the time. The diamond has had a turbulent and contested history. It was acquired by different rulers of the Indian subcontinent and has left turmoil and bloodshed in its wake.

The Tower of London, EC3N 4AB

Picture of the Crown of the Queen Mother replica at Royal Coster Diamonds exhibition
Portrait of a miniature of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard in a case of enamelled gold set with a diamond and ruby

Elizabeth I miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

The second half of the 16th century brought relative peace to England after centuries of turbulence. The arts flourished and international expansion began in an Elizabethan renaissance. At London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, there is a glorious minute likeness of the ‘Virgin Queen’ by goldsmith Nicholas Hilliard, painted between 15951600. It is known as the ‘Mask of Youth’ because although the Queen was around 60 when it was made, the flattering artist rejuvenated her face and focused on her opulent costume and jewels, using metallic pigments to mimic her jewellery. Since she had no heir and was yet to decide on her successor, the objective was to present her as a powerful and ageless icon. Miniatures like this were worn to demonstrate loyalty and devotion to the monarch.

Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL

London Mithraeum

Fast forward over 2000 years and the arrival of the Romans in England saw some of the first settlements springing up along the River Thames. Around 7m/30ft below the city streets, under Bloomberg’s European headquarters, lies the Roman-era Temple of Mithras. Reached by steep, darkened stairs, the temple dates to around 240 AD and was built by the Romans to the god Mithras, roughly 200 years after London was founded. This bull-slaying deity was beloved of soldiers, merchants and imperial administrators, who met in underground temples by the light of flaring torches. The ruins were first uncovered in 1954 during the excavation of a Second World War bomb site, and it was identified as a ‘Mithraeum’ after the god’s carved head was discovered.

London Mithraeum, 12 Walbrook, EC4N 8AA

Picture of London Mithraeum, Bloomberg Space art gallery
Portrait of ArcelorMittal Orbit tower in London, UK

ArcelorMittal Orbit

Today, London is a dynamic and multicultural 21st century city. This is reflected in the 115m/377ft-high sculpture that Turner Prize-winning, British Indian artist Anish Kapoor and structural engineer Cecil Balmond designed for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Visitors to the ArcelorMittal Orbit venture up a steel tower via a central elevator. The observation deck offers panoramic views of London’s famous skyline, where you can get a glimpse of Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral and the O2 among other landmarks. Visitors can also interact with the sculpture by walking down the staircase that spirals around the tower. The structure, formed by 560m/1837ft of red tubular steel and 250 coloured spotlights that illuminate it at night, is the UK’s tallest sculpture, one of the most important parts of the Olympic legacy.

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, 5 Thornton St, E20 2AD

Hippopotamus vertebra

It’s hard to believe that London was once home to wolves, hippos, rhinos, and mammoths, but there’s proof of this at the Museum of London, where you’ll find a hippopotamus vertebra among other ancient native animal remains. This particular fossil, which takes us on a journey through time to London before it ever existed, was found in deposits at Waterloo Place, Lower Regent Street and dates to between 130,000 and 110,000 BC. You’ll also come across a hippo molar, which was found at Avenue Road in Brentford. Through their presence, we know the climate was temperate and as they lived by rivers, the winters were not cold enough for the waters to freeze.

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, EC2Y 5HN

© Museum of London

External view of the Museum of London entrance
Image courtesy of Museum of London

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