Tag Archives: London

On the hunt for Roman London

People have always lived in the area that is now known as London, a visit to the London Museum will tell all you need to know about London before it was London. However, it was the Romans who gave the area its name – Londinium – and apart from a small hiccup in the first century AD they provided the structure that would become one of the most famous cities in the world.

Although later parts of the cities history can be easier to spot, the evidence for Roman London is possible to find. The following is not an exhaustive guide, just a few pictures and the like of places as and when they were found.

The most obvious evidence for the Romans can be found in the bits of surviving wall that once surrounded the town. Short sections of the wall survive in various places (one section is in an underground carpark) and are really the only upstanding remains left – all else having been destroyed and built over by later generations. The wall remained (with later additions and repairs) because it was useful. For those wishing to walk the wall – follow the road ‘London Wall’ which leads to and from the Museum of London, along the way are several signposted places of interest.

The above photos show a section of the wall at Tower Hill (first three pictures) and one of the bastions and wall section of the Cripplegate fort. The Roman fort formed part of the wall defences when it was built in the second century AD. Follow this link for an interactive map of other locations of the wall sections. Do keep in mind though that the Roman parts of the London wall are generally speaking the lower sections, later Londoners did alter, reinforce and reconstruct much of the upper sections as and when was necessary.

As mentioned before an essential place to start if you want to know more of London’s history is with the London Museum. More so if you want to learn about the Roman period and earlier as much of the evidence comes from excavations. The Roman galleries paint a fascinating picture of life at the time with the added bonus of a section of the Roman wall being just outside the museum (see above photo).

Part of the gallery is laid out as a series of ‘rooms’ where objects are given life like context. For example, cooking pots and utensils are placed within the context of kitchen befitting a Roman home.

There are also many of the usual museum type exhibits. It was particularly interesting to see the exhibit on the burial of the Roman woman found at Spitalfields.

The above photos show a reconstruction of the Spitalfields woman may have looked like. Roman London was a cosmopolitan city and by AD120 the population was around 45,000. Many of the people living in Londinium came from all over the known world. The Spitalfields lady’s burial was of high status, not only did she have a stone sarcophagus but also a highly decorated lead coffin (above). Fragile glass vials were found with her as were pieces of Damascus silk. Chemical analysis indicated that she was one of the few known people to have actually come from Rome. Read here for more of her story.

Every generation since London’s inception has reimagined the city, demolishing that which did not fit or was not useful and rebuilding for their own purposes. Resulting in thick layers of history beneath the roads and buildings we see today. Every time a new road, building or train line is built the archaeologists move in to hastily uncover what can be seen, such as during the Cross Rail project. Many of these reports can be accessed via the Archaeological Data Service along with others such as 1 Poultry Lane and Tower Hamlets excavations.

Most of what is excavated does not survive the process for numerous reasons, however in one case the remains of Roman temple has been preserved deep underground – the London Mithraeum. Located beneath Bloombergs European headquarters in the heart of the city is the well preserved and intriguing site of a temple dedicated to the eastern god Mithras.

The mysterious cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century AD. It spread across the Empire over the next 300 years, predominantly attracting merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Meeting in temples which were often constructed below ground, these were private, dark and windowless spaces. (From londonmithraeum.com).

The temple was built in the third century AD and it lies on reclaimed land over what was once the river Walbrook; because of this a number of wooden artefacts survived. After the 1954 excavations the site was physically moved and reconstructed in the 1960s on the far side of the plaza from where it sits now. During the construction of the Bloomberg center even more excavations were undertaken revealing even more about the sites fascinating past. As part of this process, it was decided to move the mithraeum back to (as close as possible) to its original position seven meters below modern ground level and open it to the public as educational and exciting place to learn about Roman London.

The experience is immersive – the visitor stands in a darkened room, surrounded by the sounds of the temple as it may have been, judicious use of lighting draws your attention to various spaces. Each session is timed and numbers limited (booking is essential but free). This allows for an unhurried and unharried visit of the mithraeum – evoking an atmosphere of quiet contemplation, similar to that felt when visiting a church.

Although there is a small display of some of the many artefacts found during the 1954 excavations the sculpture featuring Mithras and the bull can be seen at the London Museum.

Another feature of Roman London which can still be traced above ground, so to speak, is that of the roads which ran in and out of the city. Some of the names may be familiar – Ermine St (now the A10/Kingsland Rd), Watling St (of which there are two…), not always easy to see or follow, later changes to the topography can blur the picture but it is always lovely when you accidentally find one such road…

Here is the Watling Street which most likely ran south east past the mithraeum and across London Bridge heading towards Durovernum (Canterbury) and the coast. The site of todays London Bridge is roughly in the same position of the first proper bridge across the Thames built by the Romans.

Unlike later periods of London’s history the Roman story can be a little harder to find however it is well worth the effort should you make the attempt.

Mudlarking on the Thames – A Couple of Hours of Joy!

July 2022, it’s hot, humid and even though only 10am the sweat is beginning to accumulate between my shoulder blades and in other unmentionable places. Not for the first time I am surprised at how hot it is in the city. Crossing the road in search of shade, I find myself greeted by the vista of St Pauls Cathedral, but this is not my destination, turning left I head for the Thames and the Millenium Bridge. Today, or at least for a couple of hours, I am joining a group of like-minded people to…mudlark.

I am early, really early, but it gives me time to watch – the river and the people – from a shady spot, which, thankfully, is tickled by an occasional breeze. Observing the tide as it slowly retreats, numerous wooden structures begin to appear, the remains of old jetties and the like can be seen jutting out of the mud. The Thames has been the lifeblood of London for more than two thousand years and although officially it was the Romans who first established a settlement here there were other inhabitants of the area throughout prehistory.

The tide begins to fall…
The excitement builds as more of the foreshore is revealed…
Finally…I am on the foreshore…where do I look first? (note the ubiquitous clay pipe stem).

All of those people, have over thousands of years left traces of their lives on the foreshore of the Thames.

In the past mudlarks were group of souls who spent endless hours sorting and collecting useful debris from the mud to sell – it was an occupation for only the most desperate.

The searched for pieces of coal they could wash and sell on the streets; rags, bones, glass and copper nails they could take to various merchants to recycle…sometimes the children would turn cartwheels in the mud for the amusement of onlookers, who would toss in a penny for them to find. It was a pathetic existence and just a step away from the workhouse.” (L Maiklem ‘A Field Guide to Larking’ 2021).

Nowadays, mudlarks have a much-improved reputation – the twenty first century mudlarks of the Thames foreshore scour the mud and debris for stories of the past. Bits of broken pottery, clay pipes pieces, coins, buckles, pins, tiles, bones and much more all tell the story of London’s history. Not the story of kings and queens but one of ordinary people whose voices are often lost to us but who can speak to us down through time via the bits and bobs they lost and discarded along the river.

As some may already realise, larking is one of my favourite activities – in NZ it is dressed up as beach combing and often consists of finding odds and ends of glass bottles and 19th/20th century ceramics if I’m lucky. So when the opportunity arises for me to become a mudlark for a few hours…well…what can I say…(actually I yelled, ‘here take my money!’)

At this point it is important to note that not just anyone can mudlark on the Thames foreshore and there are a number of rules and regulations to follow. Everyone who is involved in the searching and removal of objects from the foreshore has to hold a permit to do so. There are also exceptions as to where you can and cannot search, for example, the foreshore in front of Westminster is completely out of bounds (for obvious reasons). There are places where only certain permit holders can go and there are rules surrounding the digging/scraping of the foreshore. For more information on the rules and regulations look here.

For the casual visitor to London there are two ways to get involved mudlarking – get a day permit from the Ports of London Authority or join a mudlarking tour. The Thames Explorer Trust do daily tours and give you plenty of time on the foreshore to fossick. Needless to say, my foray into mudlarking was with the Thames Explorer Trust, as I found it to be the cheapest and easiest way to get involved.

Our guide (standing in the hat) giving us a whistle-stop tour of London’s history through its artefacts.

Our guide for the morning was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic (and a fellow NZer!) She began the tour with a whirlwind introduction to the history of London and the types of artefacts we might find on the foreshore. Eventually, we were ushered to the steps that led down to the riverside. A few final words of warning from our guide (watch out for the wash of passing boats, no digging or scraping and don’t go past that point over there…) and we were left to our own devices.

The area where we were not allowed to venture – the round posts in the center of the photo are actually surrounding the remains of the Anglo Saxon wharf at Queenhithe. Only certain people are allowed to search in this area.

Bent over, eyes on the ground, the rest of the world receded to a low hum in the background as bit-by-bit London’s past revealed itself. The broken stems of clay pipes were by far the most numerous artefacts, along with red bricks and roof tiles, pottery fragments began to leap out. At first the ubiquitous willow pattern and plain white sherds but then as I looked harder, the green glaze of medieval pottery could be seen. Animal bones were plentiful, some the remains of someone’s fried chicken dinner, whilst others spoke of the butcher and the resources needed to feed the people of London. Oyster shells told a tale of cheap and easy eats (in the past oysters were not a delicacy but a cheap foodstuff for poor people).

The above photos show just some of the things I spotted – in truth I kept forgetting to take photos, I was so engrossed. The first photo is of a roof tile, the nail holes can be seen on either side (I would like to think this was Roman but I cannot say for sure), second photo is the jaw bone of a pig and represents just some of the vast amount of bones found on the foreshore. The third photo is the sole of a leather shoe, age is undetermined but most likely Victorian – the Thames mud is of type which preserves organic remains very well. The fourth picture shows first a chicken leg bone, clay pipe stems and a small sherd of green glazed medieval pottery. The final photo is a close up of the medieval pottery sherd, note the quantity of terracotta brick and tile.

It was, simply, two hours of joy that flew by in seconds.

Please note, as a participant of the tour artefacts could not be removed from the foreshore; if you have one day permit you can remove artefacts but if you are travelling overseas, it is important to know that it is illegal to remove any artefacts over 300 years old from the UK. I would also like to stress that there are many laws around the removal of artefacts from any archaeological site (The Thames can be considered an archaeological site in its entirety) and it is up to the individual to know and understand these laws.

The following books are a good source of information regarding mudlarking on the Thames.

L. Maiklem (2019) ‘Mudlarking. Lost and Found on the River Thames’

L. Maiklem (2021) ‘A Field Guide to Larking – Beachcombing, Mudlarking, Fieldwalking and More.’

J. Sandy & N. Stevens (2021) ‘Thames Mudlarking. Searching for London’s Lost Treasures.’

The British Museum – a fleeting visit.

Why fleeting you might ask? Well in a nutshell, the visit occured a couple of years ago during a whirlwind trip to London with the family and after a protracted visit to the Natural History Museum followed by getting distracted by a well known sci-fi shop I was left with a mere two and half hours to see the Museum…As some of you are well aware this is not nearly enough time and so it was, a fleeting visit.  The following are a few of the photos I took along with brief explanations.

One of the first gallerys I made my way to was the early Medieval gallery – I had long wanted to see the artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-saxon ship burial.  Sutton Hoo is located near Woodbridge in Suffolk and is the remains of a 6th and 7th century AD cemetary.  Mound 1 was excavated in 1939 providing the world with a fascinating glimpse of the artistic ability of our Anglo-saxon forebears. The artefacts were richer and more intricate than any other found before.

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The most famous face of Anglo-saxon England – the helmet was in in a bad way when excavated and the above shows only the few remaining pieces which could be salvaged.

 

Not far from the Sutton Hoo treasure is the Lewis Chessmen.  These fascinating wee carvings were discovered in 1831 in Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides).  They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway.  A number of years ago, a travelling exhibition on the Vikings came to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand.  Two of the Lewis Chessmen accompanied the exhibition and it was this that inspired me to write “A Viking Moon”.

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The Lewis Chessmen

Staying with the Vikings we have the Cuerdale Hoard from Lancashire.  The display at the museum is only part an enormous hoard of silver found in a lead chest beside the River Ribble.  The hoard itself consisted of 7500 coins and 1200 pieces of silver bullion, weighing in at forty kilograms.  The coins come from a variety of sources – mainly the eastern Viking kingdoms of England but also from King Alfred’s Wessex, Byzantium, Scandinavia, Islamic and Carolingian sources.  The Ribble Valley was an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York and this may have some bearing on why the hoard was found here.

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Part of the Cuerdale Hoard

Staying in the early Medieval my next photo is of the Burghead Bull.  The town of Burghead in Moray, Scotland occupies part of what was once a Pictish promontory fort of great importance.  The Burghead Bulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century when much of the fort was destroyed to make way for more houses.  Originally there were thirty panels carrying carved images of bulls, now however, only six remain – one of which is held at the British Museum.  They are dated to 5th century AD and it has been suggested they formed a frieze set into the ramparts of the fort and possibly represent a warrior cult which celebrated strength and aggression.  Regardless of what the bull represents it is a fabulous piece of Pictish art.

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Burghead Bull

Travelling back in time I moved onto the Roman and Iron Age galleries (this was a flying visit, I had just recieved a text from an impatient husband…)

In the Roman gallery I took a moment to admire a stone sarcophagus found in London in 1853 within what was described as an extensive Roman cemetary outside the city wall to the east.  It is dated to the early 4th century AD.

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An early 4th century AD Roman stone sarcophagus.

Moving along swiftly I found myself in the British Iron Age and here I had to stop and admire the mirrors.  Of all the artefacts from this period these are my favorite (and no its not because I have vain streak…).  I have long held the belief that mirrors were more than a toilette item for these were never true mirrors that the modern person might be familiar with.  Their surfaces were often burnished bronze and would at best reflect a fuzzy image.  Instead I would suggest that the surface of a mirror acted in a similar way to the reflective surface of lake, pond or well providing access to the otherworld – a liminal space/place.  Such places are well documented as being special, the vast numbersof artefacts found deposited into watery places at this time speaks for itself.  Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that later myths and stories use a mirror as a storytelling device (think Snow White).

 

Then of course something shiny caught my eye, first the Snettisham Torc and then the twisted gold torcs from the Ipswich Hoard.   The Snettisham Torc was discovered in 1950 near the village of Snettisham in Norfolk.  It is made up of a kilo of gold mixed with silver, there are 64 threads and each thread is 1.9mm wide, eight threads were pulled together and twisted then all were twisted again to make the torc.  The terminal ends are hollow and were cast from a mould.  The torc is dated to between 150BC and 50BC.  The Ipswich Hoard was the second hoard to be found in the area, the first being Anglo-saxon in date.  This particular hoard was discovered during the construction of a housing estate in 1968 by a digger driver and consisted of six twisted gold torcs.  These torcs had less silver in them which has led the musuem to date their manufacture to around 75BC.

 

Finally I wound my way through the Egyptian gallery and down the stairs to meet up with the family who were marvelling at the large statues from the ancient world.  The following is a selection of the photos from this part of the museum.

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There was so much else to see but I simply ran out of time and as we were flying out the next day any other sight seeing would have to wait until another visit – although I have heard recently that there are plans afoot for a downloadable VR experience for those who can’t visit in person.

Below are a few links which relate to the above photos.

The British Museum

Sutton Hoo – The National Trust

The Lewis Chessmen

The Snettisham Torc

List of Iron Age Hoards in Britain

The St Kevern Mirror