Revealed: the earliest London of them all

New excavations suggest that the Romans started building soon after they invaded, using soldiers to do the work, reports David Keys
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The Independent Online

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest remains of the original city of London, built by the Romans almost immediately after their invasion of Britain in AD43.

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest remains of the original city of London, built by the Romans almost immediately after their invasion of Britain in AD43.

In the past, the earliest substantial remains of Roman Londinium found by archaeologists - including finds reported in the Independent earlier this year - have dated from at least 15 years after the conquest.

But archaeological investigations over recent months have discovered the remnants of substantial areas of the original city built years earlier - in the mid to late 40s AD, as well as a second phase built a decade later.

The new evidence suggests that this original city, founded by the Emperor Claudius after the invasion, was much bigger and more densely occupied than archaeologists had suspected.

Of great historical significance, this apparently grander scale confirms the impression given by near-contemporary Roman authors who implied that very early Roman Londinium had a population of many thousands, but who, up till now, had not been believed by historians.

The discoveries suggest that by the late 40sAD London was a thriving mercantile and manufacturing centre strung out along both sides of an east-west road, the remains of which now lie under Cheapside, the eastern part of Lombard Street and the western part of Fenchurch Street. And by the late 50s the city had expanded massively, with large numbers of buildings laid out along two or three parallel east-west streets linked by a substantial number of smaller north-south roads.

So far, archaeologists from the Museum of London excavating at one key site - near the western end of Fenchurch Street - have discovered at least a dozen of these buildings from the 40s and 50s, and circumstantial evidence for at least 20 more. Significantly, they all seem to have been built by the Roman army, though probably not for military use. It is likely that, at the very beginning of the Roman period, the army was given the task of constructing buildings for the civil administration and for merchants or others contracted to service the new civil and military authorities.

All the buildings were of identical design, 90ft long by 20ft wide, built on timber base-plates and with 15in-thick timber-framed mud-brick walls. Most of them seem to have been multi-purpose - having been used for metalworking, craft activity, grain storage or even bread-making, as well as for living in. At another site, just east of the Bank of England, other buildings have now been dated to the late 40sAD. "All these discoveries are dramatically changing our view of the scale and population density of the very first London,'' said Trevor Bingham of the Museum of London, the director of the Fenchurch Street excavation.

The investigations are also shedding new light on the anti-Roman revolt of AD61 by the native British ruler, Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe. The excavations have revealed that, although the Roman military were forced to abandon London, they quickly returned after it had been burned by the rebels, and immediately proceeded to construct the settlement's first town wall. The decision to build an emergency defensive enclosure - consisting of what appears to have been a one-and-a-half-mile system of double ditches and timber-faced palisade-topped banks - shows that the Roman authorities were far from convinced that the revolt was over.

Many of the timbers used in its construction are charred and had obviously been salvaged from the ruins after the city had been torched by Boudicca's army. The excavations also yielded additional evidence for the destruction itself. At Fenchurch Street, an intermittent burned layer between 3in and 1ft thick was found.

In the remains of one building the archaeologists found traces of burned roof timbers lying across the floor and a range of kitchen pots lying smashed and charred on the ground where they had fallen from a wooden shelf, the charred fragments of which have also survived.

In another building, the excavations yielded a bag of six ivory ink pens complete with ivory nibs - all of them charred by the heat of the inferno that had engulfed Roman London.

Other more gruesome evidence of the revolt has also been coming to light in the excavations. As yet unpublished evidence from previous digs along the old Roman Thames waterfront suggests that the remains of many victims of the Boudicca revolt lie entombed under the modern buildings to the north of Upper Thames Street. It appears that when the imperial authorities decided to construct London's first purpose-built port just two years after the revolt, much of the debris from the wrecked city was used as hardcore for the port's quays. And in the debris used to build these new mercantile facilities were the remains of some of the victims of the revolt.

Significantly, the scattered and fragmentary nature of these human remains strongly suggests that someone had cleared away most of the corpses, presumably for normal burial, well before the quays were constructed. Indeed, they were probably moved just after the revolt - at the same time that London's first town defences were being constructed.