Archaeology: Marshland Covers Its Tracks

Article excerpt

A VAST network of prehistoric roads still exists beneath London's eastern suburbs, according to archaeological research carried out over recent months.

Discoveries made by archaeologists from the Passmore Edwards Museum in Newham, east London, suggest that underneath a 25- square-mile area of former marshland lie the well-preserved remains of around 11,000 miles of Bronze and Iron Age trackways and roads.

Until now, the archaeologists have discovered just five examples, stretching for an estimated combined ty~OYYmiles. But so far they have only looked in four places, one particularly successful excavation having yielded two examples. On average, for every 44 cubic metres of excavated peat, the archaeologists are finding one metre of trackway.

"Every tme we dig a hole anywhere in the southern parts of the boroughs of Havering, Barking and Newham we come across evidence of prehistoric trackways," says museum archaeologist Frank Meddens. The discoveries have immense implications for calculating the probable population densities in the London area in prehistoric times.

The tracks and roads discovered so far include the oldest proper road ever found in northern Europe. Made of gravel 2,500 years ago in what is now Dagenham, it was four metres wide and at least a mile long. There is some evidence that it was used to drive cattle and horses along, and probably led to a Thames ferry or some sort of Thames-side Iron Age village built on piles or stilts.

A substantial 3,000-to-3,500- year-old wooden trackway has been found, built across marshland in what is now Beckton. Probably more than a mile long, it had sophisticated construction. Brushwood was laid in a "cradle" of wooden stakes, arranged in pairs at 45- degree angles every metre. This Brone Age trackway was 1.3 metres wide and probably led to a marsh village or Thames-side river mooring.

A small 3,300-year-old Middle Bronze Age wooden trackway, probably constructed by fishermen or hunters, was discovered in what is now Rainham. Made of coppiced alder-brushwood, it was half a metre wide and around 300 metres long.

Discovered in Barking were a small 300-metre-long brushwood trackway of probable Bronze Age date, running past a large square timber structure (perhaps a wharf or even a landing stage), and another half-metre wide Bronze Age trackway built of bundles of alder brushwood secured to the ground with wooden pegs. …