A Whiff of Roman London

Article excerpt

A NEW EXHIBITION, High Street Londinium, at the Museum of London challenges existing notions about Roman London, promising visitors a chance to see, touch, even smell it, as it really was. Far from the impressive stone edifices, mosaics and bath houses associated with Classical Rome, excavations by the Museum's archaeology department have revealed that most buildings were erected quickly and cheaply out of local timber and mud brick.

When several nineteenth-century buildings, including the famous Mappin and Webb shop, were demolished in the heart of the Square Mile in the mid-90s, many were horrified. However, for archaeologists at the Museum, the two years they were given by the property developers to excavate No. 1 Poultry, threw up some fascinating discoveries.

The single largest and most complete section of Roman London yet to be unearthed was discovered beneath the Victorian foundations. Some seventy-three Roman buildings, complete with back yards were found spanning AD 50 to AD 410. The shallow basements were excellently preserved, along with thousands of individual artefacts within them. From finds such as tools, (including a rare find: a complete wooden spade), thousands of animal bones, seeds, jewellery, and some 800 coins, the functions of buildings could be identified. Stashes of unused crockery in a basement pointed to a shop selling tableware, for example, while concentrated evidence of a type of insect found in grain stores confirmed a bakery.

Established in the mid-first century AD, Roman Londinium attracted settlers to Britain from all over Europe eager to capitalise on the trading opportunities afforded by the commercial centre of the new province. Public baths and a wooden amphitheatre were constructed c. AD 70-90. As the city expanded, dwellings were built haphazardly to house the new arrivals in close proximity to those of the native population. Rooms tended to be small, with several living and working under one roof. …