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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

DSC09938b_200Next week the remains of the Temple of Mithras will be open to public view once again. Unloved and open to the elements for almost fifty years, the development of its original site by the financial information giant Bloomberg presented an excellent opportunity to give this highly significant Roman building the type of home it deserves. Bloomberg, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and other partners have enthusiastically and painstakingly carried out a project which unearthed by far the largest number of ancient Roman artifacts from a single British site. The quality and variety of them are truly staggering. The survival of many of the perishable objects – typically wood and leather – is thanks to the muddy conditions in the vicinity of the lost river Walbrook. The most significant object of the dig must surely be a tablet from circa 53AD which mentions “Londinium”, the oldest known reference of this name.

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There were Mithraeums in most urban centres of the Roman Empire. Its symbol was Mithras killing a bull with a knife.

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This tablet is inscribed with the earliest known use of the word Londinium.

As someone whose degree strongly featured ancient Rome and who has visited the Eternal City many times over past decades, I’ve always been a bit sniffy about what I considered the paucity of London’s surviving Roman remains. With the best will in the world, there can be no comparison. The bits of Roman wall near the Tower and the ribbon along London Wall combined with the Roman bath house in Lower Thames Street hardly set the pulse racing. Perhaps that’s just me. But with this new development to add to the Roman amphitheatre installation beneath Guildhall Yard – only discovered in the 1990s – that has all changed very significantly indeed, I think.

Londinium was, after all, the beginning of this most historical of cities. Suddenly, with the addition of the London Mithraeum, we have, I feel, a truly weighty and credible Roman London collection for all visitors to enjoy and Londoners to be proud of.

We must thank and congratulate Bloomberg for not just paying lipservice to our heritage but for embracing it and wholeheartedly backing this project. An example for all businesses and developers to follow.


Find out more and book your free places at the London Mithraeum.

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curtain theatre 200Last week, as guests of Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), we visited one of their current explorations, that of the old Elizabethan playhouse, the Curtain Theatre. The opportunity for access comes about prior to a new developement on the site for retail and office complex to be called, appropriately, The Stage.

The Curtain ran from 1577 to 1627 in Shoreditch, initially under the proprietorship of Richard Burbage. Like its counterparts in Southwark – the Globe and the Rose – the theatre was sited outside the walls of the City of London, which held restrictive laws against public entertainment of this sort.

One for the team’s key findings is that the theatre was a rectangular building of approximately 22m by 30m, and not polygonal as previously thought. As is usual in virtually any excavation in London, many historic artifacts have been unearthed. One of particular interest in this instance is the remains of a bird whistle, in this case probably for theatrical sound effects rather than a child’s toy. There are numerous references to bird song, for example, in Romeo and Juliet, for example: “That birds would sing and think it were not night. ”

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Although selling out fast, there are still places left on the public tours of the site, which are taking place on Fridays, full details of these are listed on the MOLA web site.

This visit is quite typical of a wide variety of Events undertaken by London Historians, most of which are nowadays Members only affairs. Join us!

 

 

 

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Today we honour the memory of a most courageous and remarkable academic – the archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad – who was murdered in cold blood at the cowardly hands of ISIS in his homeland of Syria. His crime? Refusing to give up the secret locations of Palmyra’s antiquities which he had hidden from their vandalistic intent. One can only wonder at such bravery and dedication. Dedication to his craft. Dedication to the honour of his home town, Palmyra, and to Syria. Dedication to History.

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Khaled al-Asaad, the Director of Antiquities and Museum in Palmyra, in 2002.

As London Historians we have little in common with him in the narrowest sense but everything in common as historians. It’s a je suis Khaled thing. We would urge those in a better position than us to condemn and reject the agenda of ISIS by honouring this man in a meaningful and concrete way. The most appropriate institutions in England to do this should be led, of course, by the British Museum. Other guardians of antiquities such as the Ashmolian and Fitzwilliam museums should join in. They could each name a room after him or at least mount a plaque in his memory. How about the Khaled al-Asaad Annual Lecture? Please add your ideas in Comments, below, and use #HonourKhaled on Twitter.

I’d go further and suggest that this crime of ISIS, which contrasts so starkly al-Asaad’s sacrifice, deserves an even wider and bolder response. Every museum and gallery, every history, classics, antiquities and archaeological faculty and institution – here and elsewhere – should make a gesture in defiance of the ISIS agenda.

From us at London Historians: Khaled al-Asaad, we salute you.

The Murder of Khaled al Asaad.
The Guardian
The Telegraph
The Spectator
BBC News

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Our visit in perfect weather to the Crossrail archaeology site at Liverpool Street yesterday. It’s just north of the old London wall at Moorfields, near where Bedlam #2 was sited, making it London suburbia in ancient and medieval times. In a previous phase, the team have discovered human remains of thousands here and nearby in recent months, far more than would have come from the Bethlehem Hospital and probably more than can be explained away as plague pits. More research and analysis is required, which will take some years in all.

The sometimes notorious Bethlehem Hospital in Moorfields by Robert Hooke.

The sometimes notorious Bethlehem Hospital in Moorfields by Robert Hooke.

But right now they are down to the 1C/2C Roman layer next to an old road and a tributary of the Walbrook river. A very marshy area historically which the Romans, naturally, succeeded in draining. We were shown close-up a variety of objects – some unidentifiable at the moment – which have been discovered in the previous several days. I find it quite moving to hold things which have been hidden from us for nearly two millenia, things which because they are freshly excavated seem to connect us more directly with long-dead Londoners, our predecessors. You get far more of a buzz, I think, examining these items before they have been properly cleaned, identified, “museumified”. That’s why I enjoy mudlarking.

Our thanks to Marit Leenstra from Crossrail who generously gave her time to open up the site and tell us all about the project, which will draw to a close in the coming months. There are scheduled public viewings if you’d like to have a go. Details here.

There is further information and events relating to the Crossrail project here.

Here are some pictures from our visit.

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The dig. Crossrail archaeologists.

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Marit does show and tell.

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Excavated last Monday. Possibly 1C, more analysis required.

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Copper coin showing head of Emperor Antoninus Pius (r 138 – 161 AD), one of the so-called “Good Emperors”.

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Finds on display 1.

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Finds on display 2

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Finds on display 3

 

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royal hospital chelseaIf you watched the moving Remembrance concert at Albert Hall on Saturday evening you will have seen the contingent of Chelsea Pensioners prominently featured. This is one of their busiest times of year, understandably. But you see small numbers of them out and about at other great occasions and if you’re ever in Chelsea, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter them simply out for a walk.

I had walked past their home – the impeccably symmetrical Royal Hospital Chelsea – many times, usually on my way to the National Army Museum nearby. With three sets of imposing gates out front, I had no idea that the place was open to members of the public. But it very much is (see below for details). During the summer I joined a group of our friends from the Westminster Guide Lecturers Association for a wonderful tour of the complex. Led by the excellent Michael Allen, who features in these pictures.

The moving spirit behind the Royal Hospital was Charles II, inspired during his exile by Les Invalides in Paris. With a waft of the royal hand, Sir Christopher Wren – with quite enough on his plate thanks very much – was contracted to design our very own version, using 66  acres of land originally acquired by James I in Chelsea, then of course pretty much countryside. Unsurprisingly, he did a fantastic job, which is more or less unchanged to this day.

In Wren’s day and from medieval times, the word hospital had a much wider meaning than today, being a derivation of “hospitality” rather than more narrowly a place for sick people, although it did generally imply a charitable function. There are usually around 300 in-pensioners (colloquially: “Chelsea pensioners”). As these terms imply, for a place in the Royal Hospital,  you must be over 65 and surrender your army pension in return for total accommodation and provision. You must be able to look after yourself in day-to-day normal routine and until very recently, you had to be male. There is a tiny handful of female pensioners. (In a ballot, the overwhelming vote by the pensioners in favour of staying all-male was overruled.). Generally, inmates are from “other ranks”. The only officers who may apply will have spent 12 years or more in the ranks. Pensioners retain the rank they left the forces with, hence you will see badges of rank on the tunics of some.

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Figure Court. Accommodation in the wings ot the left and right. Great Hall and Chapel immediately left and right of the main portico and tower.

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Statue of Charles II in classical garb, by Grinling Gibbons. Gilded for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. I’m not convinced such a great idea.

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Central cupola.

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The Great Hall, where the pensioners take their meals.

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The chapel.

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Extremely rare example of a Royal Mail letter box with two slots, for when the gate is locked.

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The public cafe does excellent cream teas.

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Warriors on mobility scooters. Old soldiers are less steady on their pins than once they were.

In addition to what you see in these pictures, the Royal Hospital also has an excellent museum and shop, the entrance to which is the Wellington room, featuring portraits or the Iron Duke himself, Her Majesty, a superb diorama of the Royal Hospital in the 18C and a panorama of the battle of Waterloo painted in 1820.

You may visit the places here described for free if you’re on your own or in a small group. Groups of 10 or more must make a group booking which comes with a Chelsea pensioner guide. Or you can join an existing group booking if you want the tour. These occur twice a day. Details and opening times here.

For more of our images from the Royal Hospital Chelsea, see our Flickr account here.

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Review: The Cheapside Hoard, London’s Lost Jewels

The Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

In June 1912, workmen digging under the former premises of a goldsmith in the City’s once-fashionable shopping thoroughfare of  Cheapside discovered a sensational stash of treasure. It comprised over 500 pieces of precious jewels and stones, mainly from the late 16th to early 17th centuries, but some very much older pieces too. The objects were encrusted in the raw mud and clay. The excited diggers took their haul directly to the antiques dealer GF “Stoney Jack” Lawrence at his shop in Wandsworth. Stoney Jack was known to every navvy, builder and mudlark in London as the man who would know what to do with your find and give you a good deal.

The Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London

Stoney Jack

From there the collection found itself split between the Guildhall Museum (1826) and the London Museum (1912), but reunited when those institutions joined together as Museum of London (1976). Amazingly, the Cheapside Hoard as it became known, has never been exhibited in its entirety. Until now.

This new show at the Museum of London displays the hoard in all its glory. All bags to be left in the lockers downstairs, you have to pass security guards and specially-installed thick barred high specification floor-to-ceiling turnstiles before entering the dimly lit exhibition space. Once inside, you encounter dozens of glass cabinets in which curator Hazel Forsyth and her team have lovingly arranged the long-lost treasure. Rings, necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets, costume jewellery, perfume bottles, scientific instruments, watches, hairpieces, combs, lockets, cameos and on and on. I used to drool over this sort of thing as a boy reading pirate comics.

What immediately strikes one is the design and the craftsmanship that went into these items. On display are some contemporary design books, works of art in their own right. But it is the skill that went into the build of this jewellery that is breathtaking (there are large magnifying glasses on hand, for the use of) – these Tudor and Jacobean jewellers must’ve ruined their eyesight over the years.

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Museum of London staff had painstakingly to thread fine wire through each link of these necklaces to make this stunning display.

The oldest piece. Ptolomaic cameo, possibly of Cleopatra.

The oldest piece. Ptolomaic cameo, possibly of Cleopatra.

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Gold and enamel scent bottle. Use of perfumes made a comeback during the Tudor period.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

An assortment of gorgeous pendants.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Elizabeth Wrothesley, Countess of Southampton, 1620. National Portrait Gallery.

The fascinating thing about the hoard is that it tells us a lot, and yet it holds deep secrets too. Jewellery tends to be messed about over time. Fashions change, tastes change and so a lot of pieces get broken up, adjusted, reset, made into something else and so on. The jewels represent therefore a massive survival for jewellery and fashion historians to learn from. Second, a huge proportion of the precious stones are from the New World, particularly striking are emeralds from South America, reminding us how the maritime powers of Europe were dicing for global supremacy across the high seas, Elizabethan England not least of them, taking early steps on the road to becoming in time the number one player.

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Watch set in South American emerald. Amazingly, the translucent lid is actually closed!

Having recovered from the sensory assault dished out by the jewels themselves, one has time to take in the support displays which put the whole thing in historical context and the curators have done a fantastic job. Contemporary portraits of England’s elite hanging on the outer exhibition wall, showing of their bling. Puritanism still being in its infancy, this was a period was of ostentatious display among England’s ruling elite. Status symbols. We have a section showing what contemporary Cheapside looked like through maps and illustrations. It was London’s leading thoroughfare of posh retail, dominated by goldsmiths, silversmiths, jewellers. Another cabinet (my favourite after the jewels themselves) tells us about security, showing containers ranging from fancy jewellery cases through to ponderous iron-clad chests, secured by the most unimaginably complex locking mechanisms.

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Braun and Hogenberg map of London, 1574. Pic: author.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Reconstruction of contemporary jeweller’s workshop using actual tools from Museum of London collections. Pic: author.

Treasure containers. The fancy and the cautious. Pic: author.

Treasure containers. The fancy and the cautious. Pic: author.

Cheapside Hoard, Museum of London.

Ephemera. One of several typical shop signs from the era. Delightful. Pic: author.

So the hoard has told us much. But not its biggest secrets. Who owned it and why did they bury it? When did they bury it? And why didn’t they come back for it? The when has kind of been established. No earlier than 1640, because the newest piece has been successfully dated to that year. No later than 1666, the Great Fire, because the building under which the hoard was buried was destroyed in the Fire. As for the who and the why, there’s a short film clip at the end which throws up some possibilities. The English Civil war kicked off in 1642 and even after the Restoration in 1660, England was beset by religious and political uncertainty and strife. So they were dangerous times. In all likelihood the person who did the burying died and his secret died with him. But why did he do it, whose “side” he was on – religiously or politically? Who was he? We’ll almost certainly never know.

This is a landmark exhibition, wonderfully conceived and executed. highly recommended.
The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels runs until 27 April 2014.

All images Museum of London unless otherwise stated.

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Just downriver of Tower Bridge you have Wapping on the North bank (Middlesex, as was) and Bermondsey to the South (Surrey). To generalise a bit, the Wapping side has traditionally been about docks and wharfs – logically goods needed to load and offload near the consumers and manufacturers – that’s to say the City of London and what we know as the East End. The Bermondsey side tended to be where ships were manufactured, fitted out and repaired. Here were the homes and neighbourhoods of shipwrights and associated trades craftsmen.

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Before the modern docks were built from the beginning of the 19th Century, this section of the Thames was choked solid with thousands of vessels – an unbroken forest of masts and rigging of merchantmen with service vessels, river taxis, lighters and the like weaving between them as best they could.

Today at low tide, archaeologists go down to the river’s beaches and try to make sense of past from the valuable but shifting clues left behind. Last Thursday professional archaeologists and volunteers from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) hit the mud on the Bermondsey side to study a section. All tape measures, clipboards and wellies. One of their number, Eliott Wragg, gave a public tour of the area and the operation to about 20 of us “civvies”. We kicked off with a nice surprise: some ruins of an ancient manor house or possibly a hunting lodge dating from around 1350 . I knew of this building but not exactly where it was. Now I do.

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King Edward III’s manor house. Possibly.

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Archaeologists at work.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Eliott explains.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Rudder of an 18C frigate, re-purposed as part of wharf or dock structure.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

Heading upriver.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey.

“A Fine Summer’s Day in London”

Fellow LH Member Hannah Renier and I really enjoyed our outing with the TDP as we did at Vauxhall a few months ago.  We managed to squeeze in some mudlarking while we were at it. I was very excited to find my first clay pipe stem; an hour later we’d amassed dozens. Obvious, really, that “finds” should be more plentiful just down from the City.

Thames Discovery Programme, Bermondsey

Eliott, Hannah, Eddie the dog.

http://www.thamesdiscovery.org/

Some of the stuff we found. Crockery bits, rusty nails, clay pipe stems.

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The Thames Discovery Programme is an archaeological group comprising around 300 volunteers and a tiny complement of full-time staff (2.5 members, to be precise). Its mission is to record, measure, monitor the largest archaeological site in Britain: the Thames foreshore. A major part of its remit is public engagement: walks, talks, site visits. With a little training, you can join them as a FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), i.e. volunteer. Or just tag along for an outing as we did. It’s all on their web site.

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