Things That Have Been Dug Up In London: A Brief History

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 24 months ago
Things That Have Been Dug Up In London: A Brief History

London is in a constant state of rediscovering itself. While we're now uncovering the graffiti of Victorian workers in the Tate Britain, Victorian workers were finding Roman houses in Billingsgate. Even 16th century writer John Stowe was in awe at the unearthing of Roman urns and bones — waxing lyrical about the "great nailes of Iron... there found... being each of them as bigge as a mans finger."

Here is a potted history of things dug up from the London clay. We are, naturally, only raking the surface.

One silver lining of the Blitz was that it tilled the soils of time; a house partially destroyed on Castle Street (now the site of the Museum of London) was revealed to have part of a medieval tower inside it.

The Temple of Mithras — a place where young Romans probably sacrificed animals and bathed in the blood — bubbled once more to the City's surface, during rebuilding works in 1954.

The Temple of Mithras in a temporary location. It was surrounded with barbed wire to deter souvenir hunters. © Illustrated London News Group

400,000 Londoners flocked to see the temple before it was scooched out of the way, so an office block could be built on the site. If you think that sounds like some crude 1950s feng shui, the temple will soon be ensconced in Bloomberg headquarters (though you'll still be able to see it).   

It wasn't until 1985 that the amphitheatre beneath Guildhall Art Gallery was revealed. Amazingly, it was discovered that the Romans had a penchant for 1980s Tron-style visual displays:

Photo: helenoftheways

Or perhaps the light show was added in after the excavation. We forget.

A less flashy/visited Roman excavation lies in Orpington; Crofton Roman Villa saw the light again in 1926, and is now the fascinating skeleton of a roomy Roman farmhouse.

Theatre was the descendent of the amphitheatre, and London's dug a few of these up too. Bankside's Rose Playhouse was discovered in 1989, and (sort of) saved by Dustin Hoffman. More recently, the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch — an erstwhile hangout of Shakespeare's — was unearthed. We went to take a look:

A deeper dig around the Temple of Mithras in 2013 unearthed all kinds of goodies, including an amber amulet shaped of a gladiator's helmet. Which brings us to our next section...

Cheapside in the City was 'the Oxford Street of its day' — a thoroughfare selling souvenirs, slightly flashier and better-made than the ones we get now. In 1912, 340-odd buried trinkets — including brooches, rings, tankards and salt cellars — were brought to the surface at Cheapside, and gleamed in the London sun once more.

101 years after it was found, the Cheapside Hoard went on display at the Museum of London, where an oversized copy of one of the flashiest brooches slithered along the wall. The hoard had become semi-iconic — how many other London icons, we wonder, await discovery in the clay?

Photo: Dave Pearce

There's a good argument that Crossrail has brought about a new era of archaeology in London. Whole books have been written about the Crossrail digs. The project has also unearthed a good deal of treasure — as in the kind of proper treasure that pirates are partial to, like this gold sequin from 1501, found at Liverpool Street.

One man's junk, of course, is another man's treasure, such as the cache of pickles, jam and ketchup pots discovered during a Crossrail dig beneath the Astoria nightclub in January 2017. Our condiments to whoever discovered this hoard.

Where there are buildings and treasure hoards, so there are people, which brings us to...

Picnickers of London, be warned — you are possibly eating your Ginster's pasty on top of a plague pit. So riddled is the city with these, there's even an ominous-looking map:


These pits get dug up from time to time; we've got Crossrail — yup, that old chestnut — to thank for the discovery of a plague pit at Liverpool Street, which led to the identity of the DNA of bacteria that caused it, in 1665. In fact the 'Bedlam burial ground' revealed was 3,000 bodies from between 1569 to at least 1738 — a veritable city of bones.

Other versions of plague — syphilis, smallpox, tuberculosis, Paget's disease — were found on bodies excavated at Crossbones, which lies in the shadow of The Shard. The 1990s excavation of these paupers' bodies is still commemorated with candlelit vigils — amazing how historical digs can strike a chord in the hearts of the living.

Crossbones. Photo: John Hodson

Sometimes it's not mass graves, but single ones, that cause a stir. Such as that of the Spitalfields Roman Woman, uncovered in 1999. She was found in a lead coffin decorated with scallop shells, and laying on pillow of bay leaves. In an echo of the Temple of Mithras unearthing, 10,000 came to see the skeleton when it went on display at the Museum of London.

Sometimes, the world of human and animal bones bizarrely collide. Take the series of walrus bones dug up in a coffin at St Pancras Old Church. It wasn't a whole walrus, mind. As if that makes it OK.

And so to the things we know, or think, lie beneath London's soil — but aren't quite sure where. Like London's most famous bit of cheese:

I did dig another [pit], and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.

So says Samuel Pepys of burying his prize fromage in a Seething Lane garden. He never revealed if he dug it up again — maybe it's still down there, ageing nicely.

Not a contemporaneous image of Boudica. Photo: Nigel Bewley

And, if we plunge back way further in time, was the flame-headed warrior Boudica buried beneath the platforms of King's Cross or the rugby fields of Peckham Rye? We wrote an article on it... and we still don't know.

We've not included any mudlarking find here because mudlarkers aren't allowed to dig, so there.

Also read: The Time Capsules Buried Beneath London.

Last Updated 01 February 2017