Arts: Diggers probe for treasures of Tower moat

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The Independent Culture
For the first time in 700 years, the Tower of London's moat is being excavated to determine what treasures lie buried beneath its grassy surface.

Every year 2.5 million visitors and tourists walk the drawbridge over the vast moat to enter one of the world's most famous monuments. Few ponder on the waters which formerly lay outside the walls.

Yet the moat was filled in only in the mid-19th century, by order of the Duke of Wellington. By then it had dwindled to a brackish ditch, partly thanks to the slops and rubbish thrown in over the centuries.

The infill work was carried out with Victorian precision, but the engineers did not investigate for archeological remains.

Last week experts began the first excavations since the Tower was built in the 11th century, and the moat 200 years later. Initially, three evaluation trenches have been dug, but by the end of the summer 18 points in the moat will have been investigated using remote sensors.

The project is part of the Tower Environs Scheme, jointly run by the Historic Royal Palaces Agency, the London borough of Tower Hamlets, the Port of London Authority and Taylor Woodrow, a property company. Last September the scheme was awarded pounds 500,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund after presenting a plan to improve the area surrounding the Tower and reflood the moat. As a result of the excavations, Historic Royal Palaces, which runs the Tower, will know by the end of the summer whether reflooding is possible. If so, it is hoped the work can be finished by 2000.

A spin-off of the project is that archaeologists will be able to unearth the moat's centuries-old treasure. Dr Simon Thurley, curator of Historic Royal Palaces, said yesterday that artefacts could include swords, rifles, cannons, and jewellery.

"It's very uncertain what we will find, although one should remember that until the late-18th century the moat would have been regularly sluiced and cleaned. So it is reasonably unlikely we'll find much medieval stuff. It's more likely to come from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries," he said.

Dr Thurley added that while a parade of disgraced nobles, clergy and queens - including two of Henry XIII's wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard - were brought by barge via Traitor's Gate for execution at the Tower, their journey would only have involved crossing six feet of water, across the moat.