The Most Important Ancient Site in London

Metal vessels found in Roman wellThe outstanding website Heritage Key is running a series of London-themed challenges for bloggers. There are neat prizes to be won, but most of all, much love for London’s marvelous wealth of history to be expressed.

I missed the first challenge because I got all freaked out under pressure and went completely blank, so I’m hoping I can squeak in just under the deadline for The Most Important Ancient Site in London challenge.

For my most important ancient site in London I choose (drumroll please) Drapers Gardens. This soggy patch of land on Throgmorton Avenue had the great fortune of being deemed basically undevelopable until 1967, when the Drapers Company decided to build an office tower on their garden space.

When the eponymous skyscraper was demolished in 2007 in preparation for a new building to be erected on the spot, an archaeological survey stumbled on a massive treasure trove of daily life in Roman London from the 1st to the 4th century A.D.

Drapers Gardens’ sogginess had not only kept this mother lode from being obliterated by two millennia of development and redevelopment, but it also helped keep these objects in an exceptional state of preservation.

Among the treasures are 19 metal vessels from the mid to late 4th c., possibly hidden in a well by a wealthy family fleeing one of many Saxon raids on the city, or they may have been left behind intentionally as part of the ritual closing of the well. The vessels are made from copper and lead ore and include wine jugs, dishes, ladles, even a set of three nesting bowls. They’re in such spectacular condition that the articulating handles on some of them still swing.

Wooden ruler with Roman inches markedA total of over 1100 artifacts were found at the site. Other remarkable finds include hundreds of brooches, a wood door with its original hinges, a roman road with wood footbridges over the ditches on both sides, a wooden ruler with the lines marking the Roman inches still visible, an infant burial site and the skull of a brown bear that probably died in the amphitheater nearby.

The dig uncovered not just rare and beautiful artifacts, but really the entire structure of the neighborhood for 300+ years of Roman life in London: streets, alleys, floors, clay and timber foundations of dwellings, waste disposal and plumbing systems. In Rome itself you don’t find this kind of staging because the city has been built and rebuilt so many times, and because timber or clay housing just doesn’t tend to last 2000 years.

The Drapers Garden find is a microcosm of Roman city life, not only a worthy candidate for the most important ancient site in London, but surely in the running for one of the most important discoveries of Roman social history, period.

Pictures courtesy Pre-Construct Archaeology

Edit: Holy crap, I won! :boogie:

6 thoughts on “The Most Important Ancient Site in London

  1. All I can say is WORD. I’ve never heard of this site but it sounds unbelievable! How can it be so poorly publicized? I’ve been to London multiple times and never had an inkling. Is the site at all open to visitors? Where did all the finds go??

    1. Some of them were donated to the Museum of London by the Drapers Company, namely the collection of 19 metal vessels. I don’t know if the Museum of London got the rest of the 1100+ collection of artifacts, though.

      The vessels went on display at the museum the winter of 07-08 right after the find, but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, they and the rest of the artifacts have been out of public view since then.

      I don’t even know if the site itself is viewable, or if the structural remains were kept in place. I do know the Drapers Company built a new tower on the property, but I can’t imagine they’d be allowed to fill the remains with concrete footings or something tragic like that.

      I’ve got a couple of emails out to people asking for more news. I’ll keep you posted on what I find out.

    1. It made very little international news, and the local interest was a small blip. There’s so little follow-up to find that I had to email Pre-Construct Archaeology for updates. (Still waiting for the details.)

      1. Pre-Construct Archaeology, along with the Drapers Company and the developers, produced a book of the find called ‘Secrets of the Gardens’

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