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Archaeology

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Cover of British Archaeology 98

Issue 98

January / February 2008

Contents

news

Major new galleries open in Cardiff

Popular scheme threatened: culture change needed

Cultural icon: Phil Harding or Jonathan Ross?

Roman governor in Scotland

Bones of our forefathers

Secrets of Silbury poet revealed

Medieval archaeology comes of age

In Brief & Phase 2

features

Drapers Gardens
First insights into striking discoveries from Roman London

Detecting the past
Let the rally begin: we consider new detecting developments

First iron age furnaces
Rachael Hall describes extraordinary remains from Corby

on the web

Recommended websites
Fringe archaeology, and a new website from Heathrow.

letters

Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Lynne Walker reports on the CBA's recent historic building casework

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

features

Demolish a 1960s icon...enter Roman London

Neil Hawkins, Gary Brown and Jon Butler report on Drapers Gardens.

Excavations at Drapers Gardens, which began in February, have just finished, and the critical work of unravelling the story from the field records with conservation and study of the finds has only just begun. But already it is clear that the project has been one of the most important of its kind ever to have been undertaken in the City of London. In particular we have revealed significant new information about Londinium, the Roman city, with finds that include a major hoard of metal vessels, a door and a wooden ruler.

Drapers Gardens was a classic 1960s concrete tower block by Richard Seifert. His grade 2 listed Centre Point still stands, but Drapers Gardens, formerly occupied by National Westminster Bank, recently became the tallest structure to have been demolished in London. The archaeological work took place even as Keltbray were bringing down the tower, to make way for Foggo Associates-designed offices for Exemplar Developments LLP and Canary Wharf Developments.

The excavation was in the upper reaches of the Walbrook valley, 100m south of the City Walls, in an area where four streams of the river which divided the city were predicted to converge. Where untouched by a multitude of concrete piles, the archaeology was intact with an unbroken sequence dating from the first to third centuries AD. The waterlain and anaerobic nature of the deposits resulted in exceptional preservation of organic materials such as wood and leather, and most of the metal objects are largely without corrosion. The quantity, quality and variety of these finds will make them a source of study for years to come, and many will take pride of place in the Museum of London. However, with the fieldwork only very recently completed, our immediate interpretations will be subject to change as we undertake further analysis of stratigraphy, dating and finds.

It appears that the recently arrived Romans were using the upper Walbrook valley much earlier than previously suspected. Initially this was achieved by managing the various streams draining into the Walbrook by channelling them into small ditches revetted with posts and planking. A timber corduroy placement, possibly representing a trackway with associated ditches, was constructed during this early period. In one of these ditches we found a coin of Marcus Agrippa, probably struck between AD37–41 and almost certainly lost before the death of Nero in AD68.

A ditch which was later replaced by a fence line or palisade may have served to enclose an area of higher ground formed by natural terrace gravels. To the south of the gravel mound, clustered on the north bank of a stream channel, were the remains of a possible children's cemetery consisting of infants buried within small timber boxes or coffins, one of which was of bentwood construction. Perhaps even more intriguing, was a complete timber Roman domestic door, including top and bottom hinge pivots, laid flat on the edge of the channel. It was constructed from three sawn boards, attached on the presumed interior side by horizontal battens. Roman doors are an extremely rare find anywhere in the empire, and this may be only the third, but certainly the most complete example found in Britain. Quite what it was doing in this location is subject to speculation. Could it have been a portal to the underworld? If so, with no void beneath it its position was purely symbolic.

After this initial activity approximately 1.5m of consolidation was undertaken to raise the level of the ground, upon which a major north-south road and adjacent buildings were erected in the early second century. The road was made from compacted gravels and flanked by revetted ditches channelling the waters of the Walbrook; it was traced for a length of over 50m and was up to 8m wide. On either side were clay and timber buildings founded on well-preserved timber piles and base plates. On the east side we identified three phases, from the pre-Hadrianic period to the late third century AD; only the earliest phase survived on the west. Two small footbridges across the revetted channels connected the road to the buildings.

One of the early buildings had been badly damaged by fire. The recovery of a silver denarius of Hadrian (emperor AD117–138) implies that it may have burnt down during or shortly after this period, a time when much of the city is known to have been consumed in a general conflagration. In the south-east corner of the site a wattle-framed building was fitted out with a wellpreserved timber-planked floor. This wattle construction is extremely rare if not previously unknown for Roman London. A variety of floor surfaces were revealed across the site, including one of opus signinum (a sort of fine concrete), but most were of beaten earth. Buildings were separated by alleys and small yards, with timber drains on the boundaries that emptied into the roadside drains. For the most part these were associated with the disposal of waste, presumably dirty water. However, at one location was a bored square wooden pipe with a fragment of lead piping connected to its upper side, which would suggest that clean water was being supplied.

The Walbrook valley has previously been known for industrial activity, and the ovens and kilns in or outside the buildings reflect such activity. Large amounts of leather and an immense assemblage of animal bone also suggest tanning and other bone-working processes, with a number of tools such as awls and saws recovered. Amongst the finds was a possible carpenter's wooden ruler of pes Monetalis size (the standard Roman foot), marked off at 3, 6, 8 and 10 inches, the latter two dimensions representing the width of Roman wooden boards. A bear skull, perhaps from an animal that paraded in Londinium's amphitheatre, was also among the star finds. The coins include a very rare Marcus Aurelius dupondius (AD154–5).

Surviving fourth century occupation was largely confined to a series of timber piles forming the lower foundations of buildings, and two square timber-lined wells, with remarkable preservation. Afurther, as yet undated timber well to the west was of superb craftsmanship with struts utilised as an access ladder.

One of these wells contained a quite exceptional assemblage of international importance. Near its base was a hoard comprising 19 metal vessels, almost all of them in an exceptional state of preservation. Although none is made of a noble metal and all are what might be termed household items (albeit from a wealthy household), simply to list them belies their inherent beauty. But for the record, the hoard is made up of a copper-alloy bucket, a wine bucket, a set of three nested bead-rim dishes and two other similar dishes, the remains of a four-looped zoomorphic hanging bowl, several bowls and cauldrons (one of which is a Vestland cauldron, typical of continental design), an iron trivet, two shallow one-handled bowls used as dippers, a small dish and flagon in lead-alloy and an iron ladle.

The survival of such vessels in this condition, almost entirely uncorroded, is astonishing. Beneath them were two coins of Gratian. The more recent, minted in Arles, dates from AD375–8 and is unworn: so the hoard must have been deposited in or after 375.

Naturally theories abound as to why these vessels may have ended up in the well. Religious offerings? Part of a closing ceremony at the end of the Roman period? To hide them from hostile forces? Whatever the reason, the hoard is an exciting and spectacular find. It should, however, be noted that the objects are but 19 from over 1,100 well-preserved metal and registered finds that were retrieved during the course of the excavations.

Site work is concluded and the post-excavation processes are in their early stages. The analysis of structures, sequence, artefact and ecofact assemblages will only amplify the site's importance. Dendrochronological study offered by more than 1,000 timbers has the potential to make this one of the best dated sites in London.

The archaeological contractors at Drapers Gardens were Pre-Construct Archaeology Ltd. Neil Hawkins was site supervisor, Jon Butler post-excavation manager and Tim Bradley project manager. Gary Brown is PCA managing director. Archaeological consultant was Mike Hutchinson of Mills Whipp. Specialist information was supplied by Damian Goodburn (timber), Kevin Rielly (animal bones) and James Gerrard (coins).

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