It’s been awhile, but our intrepid archaeologist Raksha is back with an update from the field. Where has she been, what has she found, why has she suddenly fallen in love with Samian bowls? Read on!
It’s been a long time since I’ve written an ‘Out and about’, and it struck me that a lot has happened since our heady summer at Flag Fen. We’ve been evaluated, post-exed, written reports and delivered papers on what we and our Venturers achieved this summer.
After taking a breath, (just a momentary one) we then decided to launch our weekend archaeology taster course called ‘Dirty Weekends’ in partnership with the wonderful Thames Discovery Programme. Where better to launch a project then on my archaeological training ground: London town! The Thames foreshore is the largest archaeological site in London, and its dynamic tidal zone also means that the archaeology is literally eroding out of the riverbank. Every day is different, and the amazing multi-period archaeology that London is able to offer is revealed daily as it both emerges, and is revealed by, the murky waters of the river.
The Thames Discovery Programme has been doing sterling work for the past five years to ensure that this archaeology is recorded and monitored before the river consumes it forever. It’s an amazing opportunity to experience the archaeology of London’s foreshore; just one word of personal advice though- don’t forget your wellies, as it can get well dirty!
Over millennia the Thames has changed courses, narrowed or become modified by the Londoners themselves. It also comprises many tributaries, several of which have been stemmed by land reclamation or diverted underground. The river has literally been the lifeblood of London, acting as a conduit and bustling hub for trade, transport and commerce. Looking at the river today, it’s easy to forget that the Thames would have been a watery haven with communities using the integral waterways as part of their everyday lives. It seems unfathomable now that many people lived, worked and interacted with the river on a day-to-day basis over thousands of years.
For the past few months I have been investigating one stretch of hidden foreshore, by looking into the lives of these very people and the communities surrounding one particular tributary of the Thames: The Walbrook.
When you say the Walbrook to a London archaeologist, they inwardly twitch. The name itself is synonymous with a gazetteer of famous sites, as well as the archaeologists that dig them. W F Grimes was responsible for the early Temple of Mithras excavations in the 1950s, followed by the most recent excavations in the 1990s run by MoLAS (now MoLA) at Number 1 Poultry. It’s quite inconceivable, really, that when you stand with your back to the Bank of England and look in front of you, you are in the bustling heart of Roman and Medieval London.
Needless to say that finding myself on such a site produced a huge lip-smacking grin. It will always fill me with joy to work on London sites within the City of London. The thought of digging uber-complicated archaeology is something I thrive on, but also know like the back of my hand. The particular sites I have been working on have been run by MoLA, and are part of a phased excavation process run in conjunction with developers. The majority of archaeology excavated in the UK takes place on constructions sites, and is normally secretive until publication. Thousands of people walk past the faceless hoardings of construction sites every day without knowing that there are 50 archaeologists behind, beavering away uncovering buried pasts.
The other day, Lisa and I attended the Thames Discovery Programme annual Frog Forum at our old student stomping ground, the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. On display in the foyer are rows of exhibition cases full of stunning Mediterranean pottery and artefacts. I turned round to Lisa and said ‘You know what? I know this is ridiculous, but I actually find this display quite boring’. I waited to see the horrific realisation sink into her face, inevitably as this was one of her favourite archaeological periods! I definitely got the ‘Lisa face’ after that comment…
We walked on down the corridor passing cases until I abruptly stopped. I suddenly dawned on me I was in front of a very familiar decorated Samian bowl. After closer inspection of the case it was apparent that I was face to face with my predecessor at Walbrook, W F Grimes. The small display was celebrating the archaeology of London in conjunction with the Institute of Archaeology’s 75th anniversary.
What made me suddenly stop? With a wry grin I understood that there was an invisible link between what I was looking at and what I was excavating. It excited me that I, and other, archaeologists have been contributing to Grimes’ work. I turned round to Lisa and said, ‘I don’t know why, but really I like this’. Do I need a reason better than that?