Sunday, July 8, 2012

'Bison to Bedlam - Crossrail's archaeological story so far' at the Music Room, 7th July 2012

The question of exactly what lies beneath the surface of London's streets is one that always fascinates me.  With the Crossrail project has come a valuable opportunity for London's archaeological community to excavate in locations that are normally inaccessible.  Crossrail have been conscientious in allowing archaeologists to conduct studies while sites are prepared for tunnelling and this exhibition displays just some of the artefacts they've unearthed during this process.

Putting something like this on is a nice gesture, the exhibition was only open for a day and yet it seemed like quite a lot of effort was put into the visual displays and layout.  Speakers from the Museum of London and Oxford Archaeology gave short explanatory talks hourly through the day, and staff (helpfully wearing fluorescent Crossrail tabards) were on hand to answer any questions we'd have about the artefacts.

The exhibition was laid out by area, with artefacts from the Liverpool St, Stepney, Royal Oak, Greenwich, Canning Town, Canary Wharf, Paddington and Soho crossrail sites.  The range of time covered is immense, the earliest finds being from the Pleistocene era, and the most recent being from the late Victorian/early Edwardian period.  So we get an odd mix, with fragments of prehistoric bison bone in display cases next to mugs from Brunel's railway reading "Please return to Paddington Station".

Skeleton of a man from Bethlem Hospital burial ground
This wide range means there's a lot of history to take in here, but several things stand out as particularly interesting or peculiar.  The first is this skeleton of a man unearthed from what was once the burial ground of Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam).  This is just one of an astonishing 4,000 skeletons that were lying undisturbed beneath Liverpool Street station.  The bodies were buried between 1247 and 1815, presumably inmates of the asylum who weren't claimed upon their deaths.  It's always interesting just how much information archaeologists can deduce from his skeleton.  We are told that based on the wear to the head of his femurs that this man was engaged in strenuous manual labour for a large proportion of  his life, that he ate a diet consisting of a lot of rough bread with some sugar (indicated by teeth decay) and that he was maybe 25 when he died.  This all serves to humanise these dusty old bones and I found myself feeling a little bit sorry for the guy who, having died in an asylum probably didn't lead the cheeriest of lives.

Chamber pot found at Stepney Green
On a somewhat lighter note, there was this very strange chamber pot uncovered at Stepney Green.  The inscription on the side reads "When in it you want to piss, remember they who gave you this".  The 'shocked man' on the inside of the pot is a marvellously executed little cartoon, and it's pretty funny to think of some Georgian woman scrabbling around for this under her bed late at night and having a chuckle to herself as she thinks of whoever it was that gave it to her.

Mushroom Catsup bottle - found in Soho
One aspect of this exhibition that I appreciated was that we were able to handle quite a few of the artefacts without supervision.  A large number of bottles and jars were unearthed under Soho from the old Crosse and Blackwell stores.  A sign breathlessly informs us that "the finds are thought to be the largest discovery of late Victorian and early Edwardian jars in the country", if that doesn't get the blood pumping I don't know what will.  Still, while they may not be the rarest pieces of archaeology around, they are still nice examples of Victorian graphic design and being able to handle them gives the exhibition a nice tactile dimension.  It's also a good sign that they trust their public enough not to break or steal anything.

Closeup of 'clinker' fragment found at Canning Town
Another interesting and tactile artefact is a section of a 'clinker' boat uncovered at the Limmo peninsula, near Canning Town.  It dates from the 13th to 15th centuries and is a showcase of a style of boatbuilding developed by the Vikings.  This was a hard-worked boat, which probably carried building materials, hay and wool up and down the Thames to London.  They haven't carried out any dendrochronological studies on it, so the wood has to be kept constantly damp: if it dries out it'll fall apart.  The smell of the wet wood creates an instant association with the boat as it once was, as does the feel of it under your fingers.  

Unfortunately I arrived too late to see Robert Hartle from the Museum of London give his talk, but I did manage to see the speaker from Oxford Archaeology who explained to us some of the processes behind excavating in a working building site to a tight schedule.  The short lecture was dry and a little stilted, but imparted some interesting information.  For example, that the Pleistocene silt under Paddington station is very rare and could contain evidence of human habitation that would help pin down the date that humans settled in what is now the British Isles (and was then connected to mainland Europe).  Silt like this is rare as glaciation has tended to churn up the soil elsewhere in the country, but searching for any evidence of habitation is apparently like trying to find a needle in a haystack, "only the haystack is underground and we don't know where exactly it is".

Fragment of reindeer antler (Pleistocene) found at Paddington
The raising of street levels in Georgian times was also explained. As London gradually expanded westwards in the 17th and 18th centuries, new townhouses were built, with effect of raising the street level 3m to allow the houses to have cellars.  At the same time, rivers the Tyburn were redirected and covered over*. As London has been built up, many of these Georgian houses have been demolished and built over, but in a surprisingly large amount of cases their cellars were merely bricked over, leaving hundreds of sealed underground rooms under the West End functioning as sort of time capsules.  The idea of hidden subterreanean spaces containing who-knows-what all over London definitely appeals to my sense of mystery.  Crossrail has found a number of these cellars around Soho Square, some of which contained the bottles and jars described earlier.

Brick fired in a Soho kiln (probably Georgian)
Finally we were shown some much more recent history, objects from Brunel's Great Western Railway from the 19th century.  One aspect discussed a steam engine maintenance facility which was state of the art when built, and is historically and architecturally significance.  It's being demolished relatively soon, and parts from it are being donated to various rail museums around the country.  A person asked why it wasn't listed, and the speaker shrugged his shoulders and said "you can't save everything".  He's right, but it's still somewhat depressing.  Even though the building is being laser-scanned to produce an accurate 3D model of the place, it'll still be gone.  

It's easy to forget as you're looking through these fascinating objects that the reason they've been found is because a giant hole is about to be bored through the ground.  The rare Pleistocene sands, the burial grounds at Bethlem Hospital, all of these will soon be obliterated by the steady march of progress.  The archaeologists at these sites are working to a strict timetable, and have to fit their work into the construction schedule.  As fascinating as the past is, it has to make way for the future.  

Victorian marmalade container found in Soho
Even though this is the case we must be thankful that we're given the chance to reap what scientific and historical benefits we can get from these sites.  In the next few years they'll be doing deep level work in Smithfields and Moorgate, sites which are sure to turn up hundreds of fascinating archaeological significance.  I'm looking forward to getting to see them.

*As a side note, I wandered down some stairs into Greys Antiques just after leaving, and stumbled across something I'd read about, but never been able to find.  In the basement of the building they have a channel of water which they claim is the last remnant of the Tyburn.  It's all bollocks though, the Tyburn is now connected to the London sewerage system and I doubt you'd want any part of it running through your shop, but at least it's interesting bollocks.

(not) the Tyburn, but still interesting.

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