Most Roman towns were sited either over previous towns, or over Roman forts. London was unusual in that it appears to have been founded from scratch. And it wasn’t a quick foundation. The Roman invasion was in AD 43, but it was not until around AD 50 that the first coins indicate the foundation of the town of London.
The first port
The original Roman crossing of the River Thames was further up river at Westminster: even today, the Roman road, the Watling Street – today the Edgware Road, comes into London pointing to a crossing at Westminster. London itself was only founded around AD 50 Here at Regis House, the very first revetment of the river can be seen, dated by tree-ring dating to AD 52 , probably the earliest attempt to embank the river and turn London into the great port that it soon became.
The great rebuilding
Within 10 years, London had grown to become one of the foremost cities in the country. When Boudica launched her revolt in AD 60, London was one of the towns that was sacked – a layer of burning marks the destruction. Soon afterwards however a new and better city arose. Here we see the waterfront built around AD70 – again the date comes from tree ring dating. this was a solid timber built quayside, where boats could draw up alongside for unloading.
A Roman mystery?
These three pigs of lead were found under the floorboards of the warehouse in the second century AD. How did they get there? Are they the result of nefarious deal, when this valuable commodity had to be concealed, never to be recovered – at least not until it was recovered by the archaeologists!
Boudica’s burning of Southwark
In AD 60, barely 10 years after the foundation of London, Boudica, queen of the Iceni in Norfolk, rose in revolt. Sweeping south, she sacked and burnt the leading towns of Roman Britain, seeking to exterminate the civilisation she detested. Colchester and St Albans went up in flames, and so too did London, demonstrating that already by this time, London had become one of the major towns in the country. Archaeologists have long recognised the burnt layer that marks her destruction. Hitherto however it has been assumed that her destruction only extended to the city of London itself, on the north side of the river.
Now the latest evidence shows that she penetrated to the south of the river, to Southwark. Already, within the first 10 years of its existence, London had acquired its first and most important suburb.
This is surely one of the most spectacular archaeological photos of all time. This is the new booking hall of the underground station at London Bridge, in Southwark, to the south of the River Thames.
Above is the modern road, with the traffic roaring overhead, and the sewage pipes and service channels suspended from the ceiling. And at the bottom, the archaeologists are excavating the Roman road, the predecessor to the modern road above.
Here, an archaeologist is seen drawing the layers of burning found in one of the buildings flanking the Roman road at London Bridge. This provides the evidence that Boudica crossed to the south bank and burnt Southwark too: thus Southwark must have existed by this time – and does this mean that the London bridge had also been constructed?
A Roman lamp
One of the most remarkable finds was this pottery foot which is in fact a lamp – the wick burnt in the big toe.
Following the Boudican fire, the site was soon re-occupied by timber buildings, and this lamp was found in a palisade slot, dating to the late 1st century. It may have been made in Holland.
Note the projecting second toe – a typical feature of Roman feet.
The heart of the Roman city, at No 1, Poultry
The biggest, and probably the most expensive excavation ever to have taken place in Roman London was this site at Number 1, Poultry.
The site was a controversial one. It was assembled, building by building by Lord Palumbo, who wanted to pull down the Victorian buildings and replace them by a skyscraper designed by Mies van der Rohe. Controversy rumbled on for years, until finally he was allowed to demolish the Victorian buildings, but he was not allowed to have his skyscraper, but instead a lower and arguably rather less distinguished building, which nevertheless has become one of the most sought-after prestige buildings in the City.
But it led to the excavation of a crucial area of the Roman city.
Here we see the entire excavated area. At the far apex of the triangle is the ‘centre’ of the City of London, with the Bank of England just hidden on the left, and the Mansion House on the right.
To the left is Cheapside, here known by its ancient name of Poultry, while the street to the right is Queen Victoria Street.
To make matters more difficult for the archaeologists, underground railways run under both streets.
‘Under the slab’
As time is money, the archaeologists had to excavate while the new building was being erected above them, and underground trains rumbled behind the shuttering to the right.
Here a small Roman mosaic is being uncovered in the right foreground.
‘Plan of Poultry’
The site as uncovered. The triangle shows the excavated area. Beyond it, to the right is the small stream known as the Wallbrook that separated the two halves of Roman London.
The main Road, the Via Decumana crosses the Wallbrook and runs through the site, with two irregular roads leading off it: London was clearly not a planned city!
To the north of the street were no elaborate buildings, but instead two shops with the timber selling area to the front, and stone built living area to the rear. One of the stone buildings had a mosaic floor.
The Roman amphitheatre – A surprise discovery
The most important single discovery in recent years has been the uncovering of the Roman amphitheatre, in a place where no-one expected it. It was found under the Guildhall yard, in front of the medieval Guildhall. Only one end of the amphitheatre was excavated, where the cellars for a new library were being dug out.
In the late Saxon period, the yard was used for a huddle of small houses, but it seems likely that when the Guildhall was erected in the Middle Ages, the remains of the oval depression were recognised. The Guildhall itself was built over one side, where the Roman President of the games would have watched the proceedings.
London’s Guildhall, the heart of medieval London, is undergoing renovation. The yard in front was to be excavated to provide new cellars, and to the right, the amphitheatre was discovered.
The Roman amphitheatre. At the bottom, the two curving walls formed the walls of the arena. At the centre was the gate, and the twin walls running to the top of the picture formed the entrance way.
The steel girders were needed to enable to deep excavation.
Still preserved under the entrance way to the amphitheatre, was the original timber drain, its wood perfectly preserved, and still carrying water.
There was even a ‘silt-trap’ whether the silt was encouraged to settle, and could be cleaned out
The Saxon city at the Royal Opera House
What happened to London after the end of Roman rule? Bede calls it a ‘mart of many nations’ yet for long the archaeologists could find no trace of this early Saxon London. Then, suddenly, they found it. Not where they expected it, in the ruins of Roman London, but on an entirely new site a mile or so to the west, underlying what is today the West End and the Aldwych – a name which itself may refer to the “Ald wych” or “old town”.
The Royal Opera House
The biggest excavation yet in ‘Lundenwic’ has been on the site of the extension to the Royal Opera House (which is situated behind the camera).
Under the awning a large area of the Saxon town was uncovered
The King’s Highway
Running through the excavated area was a solid road, made of gravel a metre thick. This was very different to the side roads which were very shallow, and it is probable that this was the ‘King’s Highway’, built and maintained at public expense. On either side were flimsy houses of wattle and daub.
Saxon London was already a major manufacturing town.
Left are some loomweights, used to weigh down the bottom of the web.
On the right are some bone pins – again used in the manufacture of cloth.
The Reoccupation of the city at Bull Wharf
On Christmas Day 886, King Alfred, exasperated by the attacks of the Danes, finally decided to abandon the undefended ‘open’ site of Lundenwic, and to return to the safety of the old Roman walls.
At Bullwharf, evidence of this very first return has been discovered, on a site already recorded in the documents as ‘Queenhythe’.
A Saxon Sacrifice
What happened when the Saxon returned to the old Roman city, surrounded by the ghosts of old?
A sacrifice had to be made, and down by the river, two bodies were discovered, buried on the open foreshore. Here we see one of them, a young woman covered by moss. The hole in her head from which she died is clearly visible.
A late Saxon Wharf
The new, or rather the revived town, grew rapidly.
Wharves were gradually pushed forward out into the river. Here we see one of these wharves being excavated, re-using timbers that had evidently come from an elaborate timber hall. The archaeologists were able to reconstruct this late Saxon hall, based on these re-used timbers.
The massive medieval wharves
In Saxon and medieval London, the wharves were continually bring rebuilt further out into the river, to reclaim more land for the warehouses.
Because this land has always remained waterlogged, the timbers have been preserved. Here we see a wharf of 1026/7 – the date being given by tree-ring dating.
The excavators: MOLAS and the Museum of London
The excavations you see here were all carried out by MOLAS – that is the Museum of London Archaeological Service and we must thank MOLAS and their staff for all their help and ideas – notably Bruce Watson, who acted as majordomo for us, and also to Andy Chopping and Maggie Cox, the two photographers who provided such splendid photos.
Do you have a really complicated site to excavate?
Here is a section through the building at 1, Poultry with the archaeolog
y below, with the layers sloping down to the Walbrook on the right. Above is the new building, which was erected while the excavations were taking place below. The excavations were finished on time and within budget.
In doing archaeological excavations of this complexity, MOLAS are one of the leading, if not THE leading contractors in the world.
Simon Thurley was the Director of the Museum of London at the time of the excavations (he has now moved on to be Chief Exectutive of English Heritage. His successor is Taryn Nixon)
Already regarded as a star among the younger generation of museum curators, he came to the Museum of London from the Royal Palaces, and has already brought a welcome wind of change to the Museum.
The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre
When Simon Thurley arrived, there was something of a crisis at the Museum.
The former storehouse for archaeological material was full, and it looked as if the Museum would no longer be able to accept material from new excavations. However he soon discovered unused parts of another museum store at Eagle Wharf Road, situated beside the Grand Union Canal in Hackney, and he is launching this as an Archive and Research Centre.
This is an entirely new concept which aims to make the store not only accessible to professional archaeologists but opening it to wider public, so that those who wish to study the past at first hand can do so.
The funding still depends on a grant from the Lottery funds – so all contributions will be gratefully received!
Where was that dig? Two maps to help you find your way
If you would like to know where you are in Roman London – here are two maps to show you where all the sites are – and what happened when the Saxons came.
Roman London was established on the north side of the River Thames. A new bridge was built over the river and excavations at Southwark south of the river, on the new Jubilee line, have revealed evidence for burning by Boudica in AD 60.
When Roman London was abandoned, a new settlement was established further up river, at Lundenwic. The Royal Opera House site is the biggest so far excavated in Lundenwic. It was abandoned in 886 when the Alfred re-occupied the old Roman city: the first traces of this have been discovered at Queenhythe.