Above: A Roman cremation pot found at the Finsbury Circus site. It looks so good that you would hardly believe that it has been buried in the ground for nearly two millennia.
When walking around a museum presenting history – like the Museum of London – all the fascinating exhibits on show were either donated to the museum, purchased by the museum or acquired by sponsoring archaeological excavation. What you see is therefore not a presentation of all the artefacts that could have been displayed but a selection of items that, in many cases, were found by chance. The point is that, no matter how authoritative the museum, it seldom shows the full picture relating to the point in history that you are looking at. It is therefore all too easy to come away from a museum thinking that you have been looking at ‘the full picture’ of, say, the Georgians when in fact you have just been looking at ‘snapshots in time’ with various exhibits on show, that were very often found randomly over time.
We are ‘coming up the final straight’ of the massive engineering project called Crossrail which will provide London with an entirely new railway line. Much of the construction has involved tunnelling under Central London and therefore an enormous amount of digging. In these enlightened times, provision has to be made for archaeological digs on all the sites along the route before construction commences. Because of the enormity of the work, many sites have been probed by the archaeological teams and the results have been remarkable.
Instead of just digging on just one site to discover finds from various periods in history, the detailed digging has been repeated on many sites, over a period of about ten years. Many of the sites are ones that have never been excavated before and, very often, never at such great depths before either. Our knowledge of many periods of history and many aspects of that history has been greatly enlarged. There have been three ‘temporary’ exhibitions showing the finds discovered across London and many of the exhibits on show will, no doubt, eventually find their way into the relevant ‘permanent’ displays in the Museum of London. Most of the finds are in the possession of the Museum of London with just a very few going to the Natural History Museum.
To give some idea of the wealth of exhibits, a brief list is included below, working through in chronological order.
Pre-history – two sites, in particular, have revealed interesting finds: Old Oak Common (in West London where the Crossrail line goes underground) where part of the skull of a woolly mammoth has ben unearthed; Canary Wharf station where amber about 55 million years old was found deep in the ground.
Stone Age – the land around North Woolwich proved to be a site where early settlers made flint tools.
Bronze Age – while working on land near Plumstead Station, evidence of the early marshes with timbers used in early trackways across the unstable land was discovered.
Roman – one of the most productive sites has been at Liverpool Street Station. Finds have included: many Roman coins; a very rare find of a Roman medallion; hairpins used by Roman ladies in their long hair; confirmation of part of the line of the River Walbrook; and evidence for a previously unknown Roman Road. At Finsbury Circus (used as an access point to the Crossrail tunnels) a Roman cremation pot was found. Romans buried their dead, or cremated them, on sites well outside Londinium so this was a likely site for a cemetery.
Medieval – one of the most important finds was a dig near Charterhouse Square, a short distance from the new station at Farringdon. The site revealed skeletons of people who died during the time of the Black Death (1349). In spite of the fact that thousands of residents in London died from the plague at that time, very little is known about the circumstances of that tragic event and new theories about conditions during that year have already been put forward as a result of forensic analysis of the skeletons.
Tudor – the most interesting finds related to this period were found at Stepney Green which is not the site of a new station but a large ventilation shaft for the tunnels. The 15th and 16th century site of King John’s Palace, later to become Worcester House, was found in the form of brick foundations for the house. Over three tons of Tudor style bricks were removed from the site and donated to English Heritage for repairing buildings of a similar date.
Stuart – this yielded rarer finds but Bond Street Station was the ‘star’ performer. A large 17th century wooden pump-head and evidence for the course of the River Tyburn around that date were made.
Victorian – artefacts from this period of history have been found on many of the sites but two will be mentioned here. Old Oak Common, where plenty of Victorian china used by passengers on the Great Western Railway have been found. The greatest collection of pottery – something like 10,000 pieces of complete or partially complete pottery – near Tottenham Court Road Station. In all 2.7 tons of ceramics were removed from the site which had been a factory for Crosse and Blackwall. Most of the pottery found was related to their food products in Victorian times – including pickles and marmalade.
Late Victorian and 20th century – the Limmo Penninsula, beside the River Lea, was a construction site for Crossrail. On that site, archaeologists found the partial remains of a famous shipyard, called the Thames Ironworks, that built ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The description just given is just a small snapshot of what has already been put on public display. As time goes by it is likely that many more finds will be shown – after archaeologists have had the time to research the material they have discovered as a result of the Crossrail project. The Museum of London in Docklands has an exhibition called ‘Tunnel’, with many of these exhibits on show. It continues until 3 September 2017.