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The Land before London: Long before the Romans Built Their First Trading Post on the Banks of the River Thames, London Was Home to a Succession of Groups and Tribes Who Lived, Hunted and Worked in the Fertile Valley. over Time, the Traces of These Ancient Londoners Have Come to Light, and Now Form the Focus of a New Museum Gallery. (Prehistoric London)

By Honigsbaum, Mark | Geographical, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The Land before London: Long before the Romans Built Their First Trading Post on the Banks of the River Thames, London Was Home to a Succession of Groups and Tribes Who Lived, Hunted and Worked in the Fertile Valley. over Time, the Traces of These Ancient Londoners Have Come to Light, and Now Form the Focus of a New Museum Gallery. (Prehistoric London)


Honigsbaum, Mark, Geographical


ON SATURDAY 29 JUNE 1935, ALVAN Theophilus Marston, a Clapham dentist and amateur flint tool collector, was excavating in a chalk quarry in the Thames estuary when he came across an unusual bone fragment. Barnfield Pit in Swanscombe, Kent, had long been known to archaeologists as a rich source of prehistoric animal bones, yielding everything from straight-tusked elephants and bears to the antlers of fallow deer. But it wasn't until Marston took a closer look at the tiny bone fragment that he realised he'd hit the jackpot: a piece of human skull dating back at least 200,000 years.

Marston continued digging and nine months later landed a second fragment from the same skull. But it wasn't until 1955 when John Wymer--the so-called `father' of the British Palaeolithic but then a 27-year-old novice on a dig with his father--carried out further excavations and found the third piece, that the skull of the pre-Neanderthal female could be assembled for the first time.

Since then other remains of early hominids have come to light--notably at Boxgrove in West Sussex and Pontnewydd in Wales. But what makes the Swanscombe find significant is that, so far, it is only pre-Neanderthal skull to have been found within the M25. "In other words," says Jon Cotton, the curator of Prehistory at the Museum of London, "Swanscombe Lady is the oldest known Londoner."

An untamed land

Indeed, according to the latest theories, Swanscombe Lady belongs to a branch of Homo heidelbergensis that probably emigrated across the land bridge to Dover around 400,000 years ago, making her not only the oldest Londoner but one of the first European asylum seekers too.

Those fragments--or at least a plaster cast of them (the originals are held by the Natural History Museum)--are central to the story told in the Museum of London's new prehistoric wing opening this month. `London Before London', as the new permanent gallery will be known, aims to take Londoners back to a time in prehistory when mammoths, woolly rhinos and hippos roamed Regent Street and Trafalgar Square and Essex Man was not so much a road warrior as a river traveller, fishing for sturgeon and salmon along a series of branching, estuarine waterways. More importantly, Cotton hopes the gallery will dispel the notion that London is a purely Roman construct and show that the true roots of `Londinium' lie in the same sorts of sediments that yielded the Swanscombe skull--sediments that only reveal their secrets haphazardly over time.

"Londoners have a very hazy notion of who their ancestors were. If you ask most people they would probably conjure up an image of savages with hearth-rug clothing and big clubs," says Cotton. "In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The original Londoners were ingenious people who were able to adapt a very harsh world to their needs, and at the centre of their existence was the Thames."

Travelling along today's highly constrained waterway, hemmed in by flood walls, sewerage works and monuments to Mammon, it is hard to imagine what this world looked like. Today's Thames is a product of centuries of engineering that begun in AD 50 when an unknown Roman had the bright idea of bridging the river close to where London Bridge stands today. Before that, the only way of crossing the Thames was by boat. Indeed, excavations by Museum of London archaeologists and the examination of artefacts that have come to light as a result of dredging, suggest that the Thames occupied a far more central role in the economic, social and cultural life of pre-Roman Britain than had been previously thought. The wealth of weaponry--ranging from bronze swords to copper halberds, and even a 6,000-year-old jadeite axe imported all the way from the Alps--suggest that the Thames was not only a highway linking the river's early inhabitants to the continent, but a `sacred stream' into which they consigned all their most valuable possessions, including their dead.

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The Land before London: Long before the Romans Built Their First Trading Post on the Banks of the River Thames, London Was Home to a Succession of Groups and Tribes Who Lived, Hunted and Worked in the Fertile Valley. over Time, the Traces of These Ancient Londoners Have Come to Light, and Now Form the Focus of a New Museum Gallery. (Prehistoric London)
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