Roman History under our Feet


London’s Crossrail project, which will run 73 miles (118 km) across London and the construction work on the project has turned out to be a tremendous opportunity for archaeologists, with layers of London’s history appearing with the project’s digging and tunnelling. I mentioned that a plague pit was found in March 2013 but the excavation that has accompanied that construction has also turned up 2000-year-old horseshoes and sections of Roman road. Sixteen to 20 feet (that is, five to six metres) below our feet in London takes us down to the level of Roman London, or Londinium.

Crossrail is not the only construction project adding to archaeologists’ knowledge of Roman London, as preparation for the construction of the Bloomberg European headquarters has allowed archaeologists to dig into what had been the riverbed of the Walbrook, now considered one of London’s lost rivers. The riverbed preserved an amazing range of artefacts, including shoes! Furthermore, archaeologists uncovered a section of the Temple of Mithras, or Mithraeum, a temple for a popular religious cult in the Roman world. The BBC dubbed London the ‘Pompeii of the North’ in an article on the excavations.

Can viewing these artefacts give us a glimpse of life in Roman London? The field of material culture allows us use artefacts to look at societies from long ago, such as the work of Barry Kemp in Amarna and Mike Parker Pearson at Stonehenge. For example, this recently-found sculpture of an eagle, a classic Roman symbol, demonstrates that Roman London was connected with the wider classical world, according to Finds Specialist Michael Marshall from Museum of London Archaeology. Staff at the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre are studying Roman hairpins to learn more about the lives of women in Londinium.

And if we think that the Romans occupied this area a long time ago, Museum of London Archaeologists are also working on sites with evidence of humans living along the Thames 9,000 years ago. Suddenly those Romans seem like newcomers when compared to those humans settling the Thames Valley after the Ice Age!

Traces of Londinium are not simply below our feet in London, as some obvious reminders are easy to see in the City, such as fragments of Roman Walls. London Wall is a modern road that loosely follows part of the path of the northern wall. And parts of London were named for the gates in the wall, such as Ludgate, Newgate, Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, and Aldgate. Whether we are standing on it, living near it or reading about it, Roman London is not very far from Londoners now.

Remnants of the Roman Wall on Tower Hill, London, by Adam Bishop, 2011 (Wikipedia Commons)