See What’s Hiding Under London

Archaeologists have found millions of ancient artefacts deep below one of Europe’s oldest capitals

In a brightly lit laboratory above the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), conservator Luisa Duarte is gently cleaning a large first-century fresco that had been brought into the museum a few days earlier from a construction site on Lime Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district.

Workers digging out the foundation for a new 38-story office block had come upon the ruins of an early Roman building.

The museum’s experts dated it to around A.D. 60, making this one of the earliest Roman frescoes yet found in London. At nearly ten feet long and more than six feet high, it’s also one of the biggest and most complete.

Peel back the pavement of a grand old city like London and you can find just about anything, from a first-century Roman fresco to a pair of medieval ice skates—even an elephant’s tooth.

Construction work near Farringdon Station brought medieval London to light. Tests on skeletons of plague victims buried nearby showed that then, as now, London drew people from afar.

Archaeologists unearthed these Roman-era skulls near the Liverpool Street Station. Buried around 1,900 years ago, the skulls had washed into a river channel, where smooth stones lodged in an eye socket [Image: MOLA/Crossrail]

As one of Europe’s oldest capitals, London has been continuously lived in and built over by a succession of Romans, Saxons, Normans, Tudors, Georgians, Regency rakes, and Victorians, each of whom added to the pile. As a result the modern city sits atop a rich archaeological layer cake that’s as much as 30 feet high.

The challenge for archaeologists is that London is also a bustling metropolis of more than eight million inhabitants, chock-full of busy streets and skyscrapers and monumental architecture. 

Opportunities to lift the concrete veil and poke around in the artifact-rich soil tend to be few and brief. But a perfect storm of landmark engineering projects and a building boom in the archaeological heart of London has provided an unprecedented chance to peek beneath the surface and explore the city’s deep past.

A seventh-century copper brooch, decorated with gold wire and a mosaic of garnets, once adorned the cloak of a high-born Saxon woman. Her grave was disturbed by workers building an extension to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden [Image: Museum Of London]

The resulting haul of archaeological goodies has been almost overwhelming. They include millions of artefacts covering the vast sweep of human history along the River Thames—from the early Mesolithic, some 11,000 years ago, to the late Victorian, at the end of the 19th century.

The discoveries also include the bones of thousands of rank-and-file Londoners who died and were buried in graveyards that were built over and forgotten centuries ago.

Digging at a new hotel site in 2013, archaeologists uncovered one of the best preserved sculptures from Roman Britain. It depicts a serpent writhing in the clutches of an eagle and may have adorned the mausoleum of an official [Image: MOLA, Endurance Land And Aberdeen Asset Management]

“These excavations have provided us with fascinating snapshots into the lives of Londoners through the ages,” says Don Walker, a human osteologist, or bone specialist, for MOLA. “It makes you realize that we all are just small, passing players in a very long-running story.”

By far the biggest boon to London archaeology has been the $23 billion Crossrail project, the new east-west underground commuter rail link that is both Europe’s largest engineering project and its biggest archaeological dig. Since work began in 2009, Crossrail’s 26 miles of tunnels and more than 40 construction sites have turned up thousands of artefacts and fossils spanning the past 70,000 years.

Half of London’s population died during the Black Death pandemic of 1348-1350. Victims included these individuals, whose skeletons were uncovered near Charterhouse Square [Image: MOLA/Crossrail]

The largest and most spectacular excavation was launched this past spring in front of the busy Liverpool Street Station. Plans to build an underground ticketing hall meant cutting through the old Bedlam burial ground, the city’s first municipal cemetery. The job entailed exhuming the skeletons of more than 3,300 Londoners; most died in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the city’s streets were often stalked by plague.

Story by Roff Smith

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit