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The River’s Tale: Archaeology on the Thames foreshore in Greater London by Nathalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg.


MoL Docklands One Colour LogoI am somewhat late with this. A year late, to be precise. In mitigation, a year ago I wasn’t a trained FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group) operative, hadn’t been on several related outings, nor joined in the Thames Discovery Programme‘s 10th anniversary celebrations in October.

The Thames Discovery Programme is the organisation primarily responsible for observing, measuring and recording the archaeology of the foreshore of the tidal Thames. Put simply, this runs from Teddington in the west to well into the estuary in the east. Hence it is a massive site, managed by a mere four full-time staff at the most (it has often been just two or three). Through most of TDP’s  short but already illustrious history, two of those have been the authors of this book. The group’s additional responsibility involves – among other things – public outreach and engagement with schools and children’s groups. An impossible task for so few, you may think, except for the aforementioned FROGs – trained volunteers – of whom there are around 500, with about 35 new additions each year.

But interest in exploring the foreshore is not a recent thing. Famously, the Victorian mudlarkers of Henry Mayhew’s acquaintance searched for anything sellable for a living. Their better-off near contemporaries – antiquaries like Sir Montagu Sharp and collectors such as Thomas Layton – paid close attention to the clues which Thames shared with them. But the father and early guiding spirit of modern Thames archaeology has to be Ivor Noel Hume, who from the early 1950s and off his own bat began systematically to observe, survey and map the foreshore, albeit on a short piece of it in the City. ‘Proper’ archaeology of the Thames sites began in the 1990s by the Thames Archaeological Survey (TAS) which ran from 1996 to 1999. After this various organisations, including UCL and the Richmond Archaeological Society, kept the flame alive until the advent of the TDP in 2008.

It’s important to note – as the authors do – that there are other organisations involved in related activity, notably the Thames Explorer Trust ; also a huge and constant presence in the person of Dr Gustav Milne who has been intimately involved in riverside archaeological projects for over three decades, written, broadcast and talked about them and to this day spread the good word with infectious enthusiasm.

Since its genesis a decade ago, TDP has organised hundreds of field trips and guided walks. The discoveries, finds and observations have added immeasurably to our understanding of the historic peoples of London – their buildings, their diet, their lifestyles and habits. Samples and objects include human and animal remains, building materials, clay pipes, domestic objects, tools, nails, wire, crockery, coins etc.

The book continues, chapter by chapter, examining the many different roles of the river. Nathalie Cohen covers fish and fishing; also the Thames as a vast sacred site, both of burial and ritual deposits. Eliot Wragg addresses the river’s industrial role as both a busy port and a centre for shipbuilding, ship repair, chandlery etc. Both writers address the historical topography of the Thames: embankments, bridges, wharves, stairs, jetties and slipways.

The book is richly illustrated with photos of sites, site activities, objects, maps old and new, aerial photos as well as maritime paintings and engravings. There is a good list at the back of Sources and Further Reading.

Thanks to organisations such as MOLA and the TDP, London’s ‘liquid highway’ is giving up some of its secrets. Acquaint yourself with these vitally important programmes through this excellent introduction.


The River’s Tale, (116pp) by Natalie Cohen and Eliott Wragg is published by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) has a cover price of £15. You can buy it online at MOLA,

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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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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.

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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.

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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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a monumental act, wellington arch, quadriga gallery, english heritage

The Office of Works. It’s almost a cartoonish name, like the Daily Mash’s Institute of Studies. To those of us of a certain age it has a black-and-white, Andy Capp, post-war era quality. Its staff, we might imagine, would probably be middle-class improvers with a modest terrace house, a modest car and a mousy wife. Its an organisation from a bygone age and nobody knows what it was or probably few people did back then either. In reality, it was far more exciting that its name suggests, particularly if you appreciate history and heritage issues.

The Office of Works was an ancient department dating back to the 14th century. Its job was the maintenance of Crown property; it also participated in organising Royal ceremonies: weddings, coronations, funerals. In 1882 the Ancient Monuments Act gave it the job of acquiring and maintaining prehistoric monuments; from 1900 this was extended to historic buildings.

But this side of the Office’s duties changed fundamentally into something we would recognise today on 15  August 1913 with the passing of the The Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act. 

The Act gave the Office powers to 1) list protected monuments which could not be altered without reference to the Office; 2) issue a Preservation Order where a monument was under threat and 3) take a monument into the care of the state, with or without the owner’s agreement.

Hence the Office of Works became the predecessor of English Heritage. In the first 20 years after the Act a small cadre of workers who included historians, restorers, builders and archaeologists and led by the formidable Charles Peers, rescued 229 monuments.

These include Rievaulx Abbey, Furness Abbey, Richborough Roman Fort and Goodrich Castle.

Peers, the first Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, was one of those leaders who seem to have disappeared from public life: driven, determined, competent and insistent to have things as he would have them. He reminds me in that way of his contemporary Frank Pick over at the London tube.

The other prime mover in this story was George, Lord Curzon. While Viceroy of India at the turn of the twentieth Century,  Curzon had restored the Taj Mahal and its gardens. Back in England, and shocked by the state of our monuments, in 1912 he personally intervened using his own money to prevent Tattershall Castle from being wholly exported to America. The government’s powerlessness and his example created the momentum which led to the Act.

The centenary of the 1913 Act and its aftermath is celebrated in a wonderful exhibition at the Quadriga Gallery within Wellington Arch, appropriately run by English Heritage. It includes lots of objects saved from rescued monuments, plus many photographs, portraits, paintings and plans.

A Monumental Act: How Britain Saved its Heritage
1 May – 7 July 2013, Quadriga Gallery
Entry: £4. English Heritage Members: Free.
More Information.

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Yesterday I had the great pleasure of joining two fellow Members, Victor Keegan and Hannah Renier, on a mooch around the Thames foreshore with the good people from the Thames Discovery Programme (Sunny, Eliott, John, Roger). They are a volunteer archaeology group whose mission is to discover and record as much as possible of the river’s shoreline: it is in constant flux and requires essential and frequent monitoring.

Afterwards we stopped at the local caff for much needed hot coffee and I was introduced to David Coke, co-author of the award-winning book Vauxhall Gardens: A History. I remember seeing this magnificent tome at the Vauxhall Gardens exhibition at the Foundling Museum last year, so it was nice to make the connection. My eyes popped out on cartoony stalks as David produced over a dozen historical maps of the tightly focused stretch of the river we had just explored going back many centuries and then right up until quite recent Ordnance Survey. Fascinating stuff.  David’s web site on Vauxhall Gardens is here.

On our beach stroll itself, Vic Keegan has beaten me to it (of course he has: he’s a Journalist with a capital J) and written this up on his fine blog, London My London. So I’ll simply share some captioned pictures.

If you’re a London Historians Member, we’ll be organising an outing with the Thames Discovery Programme later this year, look out for it on the web site and in your monthly newsletter.

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Mooching about the foreshore with the Thames Discovery Programme.

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Hardy LH Members, Vic and Hannah, with Ed the Dog.

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Wooden moldings for a concrete structure, not yet identified or dated.

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One of several bronze age piles thought to have supported a jetty or possibly even a bridge. As featured in the unlamented (by me) Time Team.

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Upriver or down, it’s impossible to take a photo of lovely Vauxhall Bridge without an ugly tower stinking up the joint.

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Vauxhall Bridge, very pretty. Opened in 1906, it replaced the original bridge of 1816.

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One of eight statues representing arts, sciences and manufacturing which decorate the bridge. This one is Pottery. Sculptors Drury and Pomeroy also made Justice on the Old Bailey.

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Vauxhall Bridge showing structure from the old paddle steamer jetty from before any bridge existed.

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Where lesser know tributary the Effra meets the Thames. Prior to embankement it was a tad upstream from here.

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Downstream of the bridge, the Albert Embankment, by the mighty Bazalgette. Serpentine lamposts reflect those on the Middlesex bank opposite.

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