Excavating the CA archive: River Thames

12 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 6 September. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI343, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

In June and July this year, the archaeological organisation CITiZAN (Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network) had two good pieces of news to share: firstly, they had won the 2018 Charity Award for Arts, Culture, and Heritage (see CA 342); and secondly, they had gained backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the initiative beyond its initial three-year funding cycle. CITiZAN’s remit covers the coasts of England, but it has its roots in a more focused location, that of the River Thames in and around London (where it is headed by MOLA). In the spirit of my recent columns on ‘great’ excavations, here I explore the story of how fieldwork along the Thames dating back to the early 1990s grew into the flourishing success that is CITiZAN today.

The Department of Urban Archaeology’s excavations of the London waterfront featured on the cover of CA 66 (April 1979). The image by T J Hurst shows timbers at Trig Lane that were part of the 14th-century waterfront reclamation.

Like all great excavations, CITiZAN’s journey has not been quick nor easy, but rather one, to take a riverine tone, of ebbs and flows. Like other great excavations, it has also had a coxswain steering the boat along, in this case the much-loved Gustav Milne, known to many readers of CA. Gustav first appeared in the pages of CA in issues 44 and 45 (May and July 1974), when he was one of an energetic team of archaeologists undertaking rescue archaeology on sites of many ages and locations around the City of London (down the years, that team has affectionately become known as ‘Hobley’s Heroes’, in reference to Brian Hobley, longtime head of the now defunct Museum of London Department of Urban Archaeology: see the splendid Hobley’s Heroes website at www.hobleysheroes.co.uk).


Gustav, along with so many of his colleagues, continued working on sites across London into the 1980s and 1990s as the profession of archaeology became more formalised. This culminated in official planning guidance requiring archaeological investigation prior to development (PPG 16: Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning (1990)). Like many of his peers, Gustav also maintained strong academic links, in his case with UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. This mix of commitments led, by 1993, to archaeological investigations on the Thames at Vauxhall. This and other riverside projects demonstrated the potential for surviving archaeological deposits on the foreshore, and, by 1995, led to a pilot study jointly instigated by the London Archaeological Research Facility and the Museum of London: the Thames Archaeological Survey (TAS). The pilot project was so successful that it was turned into a full three-year project between 1996 and 1999.

Human remains unexpectedly found on the Isle of Dogs foreshore appeared on the cover of CA 244.

CA’s first – and, strangely, only – mention of the TAS is in issue 157 (May 1998). The summary there reads like a resume of all that has been best about the TAS, and later the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP, another MOLA project), and most recently CITiZAN: great sites, surveyed by a mix of ‘professional’ and ‘voluntary’ archaeologists working in harmony, utilising from the outset the best tools and techniques. As CA summarised: ‘archaeological societies on the whole tend to flourish if they have something to do and do not just spend their time listening to lectures, and the scheme demonstrates what can be done if local societies are offered a suitable project for their talents.’ The TAS trail in the pages of CA then goes quiet for a decade, until, in issue 222 (September 2008), the launch of the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) was announced. As CA explained ‘the aim is to get the public involved with the longest archaeological site in London, which is the foreshore on the Thames.’

CITiZAN volunteers at work in Birling Gap (CA 306). The project reached a higher level of recognition between the publication of these two issues, and has recently won a national charity award.

Throughout 2010 the TDP popped up regularly in the pages of CA, with a series of finds, features, and awards. For example, CA 240 (March 2010) reported on the unexpected discovery of human remains on the foreshore at Burrell’s Wharf in the Isle of Dogs, a site that the TDP subsequently excavated and dated to AD 1735-1805. CA 244 (July 2010) featured the same site as its cover story, an in-depth interview with TDP (and former TAS) archaeologist Nathalie Cohen, another name familiar to many readers of CA. This report serves as a reminder of the range of site locations, ages, and dates that the TDP examined, the bulk of this work being undertaken entirely by volunteers in extremely challenging conditions – the muddy, often cold, and regularly very stinky Thames foreshore. To persuade people to visit such a site (and perhaps a nearby pub) on a sunny summer afternoon is one thing, but to persuade them to come out again and again, in the depths of winter or when the tides mandate it at the crack of dawn around midsummer, is quite another. And such volunteers are trained to the highest of standards. This was and is public archaeology with a vengeance.


As the TDP came to the end of its Heritage Lottery Funding in 2014, the next iteration of the basic intertidal model established by Milne and co. appeared in the pages of CA. CITiZAN was launched. CA 289 (April 2014) commented with enthusiasm that ‘the project will build on the award-winning TDP, which has featured frequently in the pages of this magazine.’ Such support continued on in the pages of CA: issue 306 (September 2015) explored the emerging work of the project, demonstrating how well the basic principles of volunteers undertaking foreshore recording on the Thames could be scaled-up to the national level, revealing a wonderful array of sites as well as, at times, some frankly frightening levels of loss through erosion.

CITiZAN volunteers at work at Bridlington (CA 324).

CA’s most recent, but surely not last, foray with CITiZAN came in issue 324 (March 2017), with a feature focusing on the little-known coastal legacy of the First World War. But in the brief intervening period between CA 306 and 324, the project had come to much wider public attention through the Channel 4 documentary series Britain at Low Tide. This show, now with two seasons under its belt, introduced millions of viewers around the world to the wonderful sites being explored by the project, as well as to Gustav Milne, still as infectiously enthusiastic as ever. The show also served as a welcome introduction to a new generation of muddy-booted enthusiasts too, such as Tori Herridge, who is also one of the team behind the Trowelblazers initiative (https://trowelblazers.com). Tori’s Twitter bio (@ToriHerridge) proudly bears a quote from The Times that she is ‘passionate to the point of parody’, a description that is as apt for Gustav and indeed the entire CITiZAN team. (Gustav is also on Twitter @Gustav_Milne, as is CITiZAN, @CITiZAN1).

Parodied they may be, but the passion and energy first shown by Gustav and colleagues along the banks of the Thames back in 1993 remains undimmed. In the intervening quarter-century, much has changed in our world and in our community, but the importance and value of dedicated volunteers who undertake often unglamorous work under such trying conditions is praiseworthy indeed. We owe all those involved a great debt of thanks.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 6 September. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI343’

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