Fast track to the past: Celebrating Crossrail’s archaeology

14 mins read

The construction of the capital’s new railway, Crossrail, through the heart of London resulted in one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken. With the digs just complete, what have been the highlights? Nadia Durrani reports.

The Crossrail archaeology project has uncovered a wealth of finds across London, spanning all aspects of the city’s past. At Liverpool Street, the MOLA team uncovered both part of Bedlam’s cemetery and Roman remains.
The Crossrail archaeology project has uncovered a wealth of finds across London, spanning all aspects of the city’s past. At Liverpool Street, the MOLA team uncovered both part of Bedlam’s cemetery and Roman remains.

In December 2015, after six years in the field, the final trowel hit the ground in the Crossrail archaeology project. The following pages offer a round-up of some of the greatest discoveries that were made – as voted for by the team, which involves specialists from MOLA and Oxford Archaeology/ Ramboll UK. But before we dig any deeper, a quick recap of some of Crossrail’s main stats.

Crossrail, London’s new railway, is one of the largest and most ambitious infrastructure projects ever undertaken in Europe. Costing £15 billion, the line has been designed to accommodate 200 million passengers per year, and will transform how people travel across the capital. Crossing London from east to west, and off into the commuter zones on either side, it stretches some 118km (76 miles). The engineering work involved the construction of 42km (26 miles) of tunnels, eight new stations, and the upgrading of 28 existing stations. Work began in 2009, and the tunnelling is now complete, with the stations taking shape. Services will start in December 2018.

Archaeologists have been involved from the start and, given the mind-bending scale of Crossrail, the project is understood to be the UK’s biggest archaeological endeavour. At its conclusion, the team had worked on over 40 construction sites, and revealed more than 10,000 artefacts.

Across time and space

Of course, this has not been any old (big) archaeological dig: the new railway passes some of the capital’s most archaeologically interesting areas, including through the heart of the West End of London and along the north edge of the Roman and medieval city.

Most of the construction sites were tunnel portals (up to 1km long and 35m wide), deep tunnel shafts, and station sites, together with utility diversions. This meant that the archaeological programme provided an extraordinarily detailed cross-section of London from west to east, spanning the period from early prehistory into the mid 20th century. To ensure a consistent approach, an archaeological strategy was prepared in consultation with the former English Heritage, together with relevant county and local authority archaeologists. When teams began on site in 2009, the project had been three years in the planning.

As part of this planning, the archaeologists, led by Jay Carver, assigned each site a rating: critical, high, medium, or low. As Jay explains, ‘Critical programme sites were those we knew would have important archaeology, such as Liverpool Street’s Broadgate ticket hall (see p.41). There, the predicted archaeology was of very high quality, including a deep sequence of Roman remains and the 16th- and 17th-century Bedlam burial ground. As such, it was essential that we were given access to the earliest levels, even though doing so would not be easy. In this case, a road closure was required, so that we could undertake evaluation excavations 6m deep.’

Archaeology does not always go to plan, and sometimes the team was faced by last-minute finds, such as the large haul of Ice Age finds right at the point where the western tunnels were to start at the Royal Oak Portal near Paddington (see p.39). In such cases, the archaeologists had to come up with solutions to accelerate the work, including increased resources, extended hours, and carefully agreed work stages to allow construction and archaeology to continue concurrently. As Jay recalls of this challenge, ‘Each dig had to be fully integrated in the construction programme. This is vital on any such project, and couldn’t be achieved without a very close working relationship with construction and engineering teams!’


The infrastructure initiative involves the construction of 26 miles of new tunnels, upgrading 30 stations, and building ten new ones – as well as the UK’s biggest archaeological endeavour.
The infrastructure initiative involves the construction of 26 miles of new tunnels, upgrading 30 stations, and building ten new ones – as well as the UK’s biggest archaeological endeavour.


Portals to the past

Given the scale of the work, and the unprecedented access to certain sites – especially those beneath major thoroughfares – a core value of the Crossrail archaeology project has been to ensure that this vast bank of information is shared, both within the wider archaeological community and with local communities. At some of the sites, such as Liverpool Street, viewing platforms allowed members of the public to find out more. Meanwhile lectures, exhibitions, and school visits have been ongoing, while videos and articles are available on the Crossrail website. Now that the digging is over, Crossrail’s archaeological team is busy writing up, including the production of ten detailed reports, which will be published in a special journal specifically developed for the project. Readers will also be able to access a dedicated digital archive to investigate the vast literature of site reports. Finally, all the significant artefacts are due to be held by the Museum of London and the Natural History Museum for all of us to study and enjoy in the future.

In the meantime, here is a preview of the team’s highlights from this extraordinary project.

Westbourne Park Depot: Gauge Wars

Our journey into London’s past begins in the west, where Crossrail enters its central tunnelled section at Royal Oak, a kilometre or so outside Paddington Station (CA 298). Building the tunnel approach required major works that, rather fittingly for the Crossrail project, allowed the team the unique opportunity to investigate an early chapter of London’s railway history.

Brunel versus Stephenson

Paddington New Yard occupies the site of Westbourne Park Depot, the Great Western Railway’s first permanent locomotive depot in London. Built in the early 1850s, this depot was an important milestone for the GWR’s visionary Chief Engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and his young Locomotive Superintendent, Daniel Gooch. Its centrepiece was a vast shed for Gooch’s new generation of locomotives.

Crossrail’s archaeologists recording the remains of Westbourne Park Depot’s standard-gauge engine shed.

Gooch had built his engines to run on the GWR’s 7ft ¼ inch wide ‘broad-gauge’ track, devised by Brunel in the late 1830s, which the ever-innovative Brunel reasoned gave a smoother ride and allowed greater speeds than the ‘narrow’ (4ft 8½ inch) gauge adopted a few years earlier by George Stephenson. While Gooch and Brunel were wedded to the broad-gauge concept, few others were. It caused great inconvenience and cost wherever the conflicting gauges met.

This led, in 1846, to the passing of the Gauge Act. To the dismay of Gooch and Brunel, from that moment new railways were to be laid to Stephenson’s gauge, which became known as the ‘standard gauge’; all subsequent GWR railways were laid to a mixed-gauge system. Mixed-gauge railways reached Paddington in 1861, two years after Brunel’s death, and (although Brunel must have turned in his grave) a standard-gauge shed was then added to Westbourne Park.

Crossrail’s excavations revealed that Gooch’s original shed was also adapted to mixed-gauge working. But rather than add a third rail to the shed’s tracks, as was common elsewhere on the GWR network, the digs demonstrated that the GWR added a new rail to each side of the shed’s inspection pits. Thus Brunel’s broad gauge physically straddled Stephenson’s system, a detail that may have given Gooch, who remained an advocate of Brunel’s gauge to the last, quiet satisfaction.

Following Gooch’s death in 1888, plans were made to remove the last of the company’s original broad-gauge track. Over the course of a single weekend in 1892, the remaining stretches were converted to standard gauge, and broad-gauge railways in Britain were consigned to history.

Paddington: Back to the Ice Age

Elsewhere at Crossrail’s Royal Oak portal near Paddington, the team identified a fascinating sequence of sediments containing bones of animals now extinct in the UK.

The remains were discovered just on the edge of an ancient valley through which flowed an early form of the River Westbourne, and Optically Stimulated Luminescence dating suggests the earliest layers of sands and silt at Paddington were deposited c.80,000 years ago. Within these sediments, archaeologists recovered over 100 identifiable large mammal bones – almost exclusively those of bison and reindeer – with most concentrated in a single horizon within a prehistoric channel dated to c.68,000 years ago.

Bone revelations

Reconstructed bison bone from the Portal site, dating back c.68,000 years.
Reconstructed bison bone from the Portal site, dating back c.68,000 years.

What does this unusual site tell us about the ancient flora and fauna of Paddington? Previous palaeontological studies of the last Ice Age indicate that, where reindeer and bison were the dominant herbivores, conditions were relatively warm, with grassland or open boreal (subarctic) woodland. The scarcity of trees and low quality of the forage is ascribed to the grazing effect of large herds, while evidence from beetles suggests summer temperatures approaching those of the present day, but with colder winters. This contrasts somewhat with the periods of harsher climate during the last Ice Age, where megafauna such as woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros roamed a landscape of tundra steppe.

The bones from Paddington were studied at the Natural History Museum. The small size of the bison suggests the vegetation was of low nutritional quality or that the growing season was very short. Analysis of the shed reindeer antlers implies the animals were overwintering, at the southern limit of their range. These are migratory animals, often travelling hundreds of kilometres, with herds numbering thousands. So how did the beasts perish? Their bones indicate that humans did not hunt them: no clear sign of butchery was discovered. Instead, the animals probably died naturally near the water. Gnaw marks indicate their carcasses were later scavenged, perhaps by bears, wolves or other carnivores.

Very few well-preserved ‘bison-reindeer faunas’ have been excavated under modern scientific conditions with associated dating evidence, making the collection from Paddington of great significance. The discovery of this exceptional site highlights the potential of small tributary valleys, sheltered from the erosive action of larger river systems, to preserve rare evidence of this very remote period.

Charterhouse: Black Death emergency cemetery

Let us now move along the line and into Charterhouse Square, just outside the medieval walls of the City of London. In 2013, the Crossrail project gave MOLA archaeologists the rare opportunity to investigate ‘Spitalcroft’, an emergency cemetery for plague victims.  As history tells, by the summer or autumn of 1348, plague had reached England, and by 1350 up to one-half of London’s population had succumbed to the infection. Spitalcroft was created in response to this catastrophe, the land having been leased from St Bartholomew’s Hospital in late 1348 or early 1349. Very few Black Death burial grounds have ever been excavated in London, and only glimpses of Spitalcroft had previously been seen. Thus the results have been game-changing.

Sanctity amid chaos

Overlooking the Charterhouse shaft, where part of an emergency burial ground was found to contain the remains of people who died during 14th- and 15th-century outbreaks of plague.

Within the footprint of a Crossrail shaft, the team uncovered some 25 skeletons, buried within three distinct phases. The first phase, containing 11 bodies, is probably contemporaneous to the original outbreak of plague; the second, comprising just two burials, dates to the second half of the 14th century; and the third dates to the first half of the 15th century. Plague pathogen DNA was found in all three phases, according to scientific analysis by Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University Ancient DNA Centre, indicating the site’s continued use as a plague cemetery.

As for the identity of the victims, most (23) were adults, although one was a child aged 8, and another was around 17 years old. Three were female, 13 were male, and the others were of unclear sex. The majority, however, were not native Londoners, according to stable isotope analysis carried out by Janet Montgomery at Durham University and Julia Beaumont at the University of Bradford. Instead, many had grown up in southern and eastern areas of England, with a few coming from even further afield, including northern England or Scotland.

That London has always been a magnet for migrants is well known, but what may surprise is that most of the dead were buried in single plots, and not in a mass burial. This signifies that there was sufficient time to dig individual graves, and that care was accorded the dead, despite the calamitous situation unfolding in the city.

This emergency site puts a very human face to the plague, and adds greatly to our understanding of the disease. The findings will be explored in Smithfield: Black Death Cemetery to Meat Market, due to be published later this year.

Liverpool Street: Beyond Bedlam

The construction of Crossrail’s new ticket hall at Liverpool Street provided yet another golden opportunity to explore beneath a main central London thoroughfare not normally accessible to archaeologists. The work was intensive, requiring 60 MOLA archaeologists to work in shift patterns from 7am to 11pm six days a week in intermittent chunks over four and a half years, and was completed at the end of 2015. This extraordinarily rich site provides a deep slice of London’s history, from the Romans to Bedlam Hospital and beyond.

London layer-cake

Archaeological work at Liverpool Street revealed multi-period burials. The gravemarker of Mary Godfree, who died in the 17th century, was reused in an 18th-century structure.
work at Liverpool Street revealed multi-period burials. The gravemarker of Mary Godfree, who died in the 17th century, was reused in an 18th-century structure.

Rather appropriately for one of London’s busiest commuter zones, some of Liverpool Street’s earliest evidence comprises a well-used 2nd century AD road, complete with deeply ground-in wheel ruts and a collection of Roman horseshoes. To the south of this road, the team found a number of Roman burials, three of which showed evidence of decapitation. A further 20 skulls and a few other disarticulated bones were recovered from one of the roadside ditches and from the gravels of the Roman Walbrook River. This caused a media sensation: Why were they here? What sinister behaviour was at work in Liverpool Street? Current analysis rather prosaically suggests that most of the bones may have originated from the Roman burial grounds to the north and east of the site, and were displaced by seasonal flooding.

Thereafter, the Roman archaeology was overlain by the remains of Moorfields Marsh, which formed from around the late 3rd century, after water-management efforts in the area declined. By the early 16th century, the St Mary Bethlehem Hospital (or Bedlam, as it became known) established gardens on the site. In 1569, Bedlam’s gardens were again transformed: this time into the ‘New Churchyard’, a vast overflow burial ground for the City. Here the team excavated over 3,300 burials: the largest collection of human remains dating to this period yet analysed in London (see CA 257).

The burial ground spanned a period of great change and unrest, including civil war, several plagues, and the Great Fire. Among the discoveries was a mass-burial pit that appears to date to the 17th century, possibly containing the hastily interred victims of the 1665 Great Plague. DNA testing is currently under way to discover more.

After the burial ground closed in 1739, the site was rapidly developed, as represented by the remains of 18th-century houses, shops, and cess pits, plus later features, including the foundations of the 19th-century Broad Street Station. And so, this extraordinary and complex site has revealed layer upon layer of London life. Post-excavation work is currently being conducted by MOLA’s specialists, due for publication in 2017.

Stepney Green: Digging Darcy’s mansion

Heading eastwards, the Stepney Green Crossrail shaft was excavated by MOLA archaeologists, and bears witness to some of England’s most turbulent sociopolitical events from the Tudor era onwards.

Overlooking the moated remains of Worcester House, once home to Lord Darcy, executed for rebelling against Henry VIII.
Overlooking the moated remains of Worcester House, once home to Lord Darcy, executed for rebelling against Henry VIII.

Located in today’s borough of Tower Hamlets, the site was once home to a grand late medieval/ Tudor mansion. Among the discoveries were the foundations of its brick tower gatehouse, a privy, estate walls, and a sizeable brick courtyard building, surrounded by a substantial moat and crossed by a wooden bridge leading to an outer moat.

In 1516, the house was leased to its best-known occupant, Thomas Lord Darcy, infamously executed in 1537 for his part in the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ rebellion against Henry VIII’s closure of the monasteries. (Intriguingly, just over the road, Thomas Cromwell was in residence at Mercer’s Great Place in 1533.) Within Darcy’s moat, the team found objects befitting his wealth and rank, including rare examples of glassware with gold leaf trapped between layers of blue and clear glass. This Roman or Byzantine technique was copied by Venetian (Muranese) glassmakers and spread through the production centres of north Italy. Other finds reflecting the occupants’ leisured lifestyle include a wooden bowling ball the size and shape of a modern jack.

Changing fortunes

In the late 16th century, Henry Somerset, a converted Catholic, acquired the mansion, filled the moat, and remodelled the house and gardens. Within a cesspit, the team found more impressive glassware, including an English clear-glass beaker and flask in the latest fashion, and more Venetian-style glassware with white trailed decoration. Life was good for Somerset, and in 1642 he became the 1st Marquis of Worcester as a reward for financing Charles I at the outset of the Civil War. But three years later, the Marquis’s property was sequestered by Parliament. Historical records tell that the site was soon leased to Matthew Mead, a radical non-conformist Pastor of the Stepney Meeting and a leading light in the Independent Presbyterian and Congregationalist Churches, and that he built a Presbyterian Meeting House in the gardens. (No remains of it were encountered.)

By the early 19th century, much of the mansion had been demolished and the land, now called Garden Street, was divided into plots and sold at public auction. Subsequently occupied by people of more modest means, the archaeologists found 19th- and 20th-century domestic items including teacups and saucers, a domino piece, and a chamber pot. The area was heavily bombed in the Second World War, and MOLA’s oral history project gathered locals’ memories from this challenging time. Offering tangible links to important episodes of England’s past, the results of the dig and historical research are due to be published in Stepney Green: Moated Manor House to City Farm.

Limmo Peninsula: Building mighty ships

The year 2012 was momentous for London. While most eyes focused on the Olympic Games at Stratford, just a little downstream, where the River Lea meets the Thames, another story was unfolding: the excavations of the former Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company (1837-1912) on the Limmo Peninsula. This was one of London’s last great shipyards, and its closure heralded the end of centuries of ship-building on the Thames.

Archaeologists from MOLA were working on the footprints of two Crossrail shafts, and also at Instone Wharf, the site of a planned storage and barge-loading facility for material excavated from the tunnels. The finds are greatly illuminating all aspects of this lost industry.

Hammering out history

Over the course of their work, the archaeologists revealed extensive portions of the Ironworks, including smiths’ workshops, platers’ sheds, and engineering workshops. Among the most compelling finds was the discovery of a furnace in the old heart of the works. Unlike most other Thames shipyards, the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding yard created its own iron, on site, from London’s scrap. This furnace would almost certainly have been used for reworking scrap, and may have been employed to create some of the company’s greatest works, such as HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled and iron-armoured warship, built in 1860; or civil engineering projects including Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar and the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

Excavating the well-preserved slipway at Thames Iron Works, part of the shipyard that built the first iron-hulled, iron-armoured warship, and was involved in civil engineering projects including Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.
Excavating the well-preserved slipway at Thames Iron Works, part of the shipyard
that built the first iron-hulled, iron-armoured warship, and was involved in civil engineering projects including Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge.

Meanwhile, at Instone Wharf, the archaeologists discovered a well-preserved timber-built slipway dating from the 1860s, which once would have launched ships out of the mouth of the Lea and into the Thames. Among the slipway’s massive timbers, the archaeologists discovered dropped items such as a halfpenny piece (perhaps an apprentice’s lost lunch money?), a worn lady’s boot, and the favourite find of MOLA’s Danny Harrison: a simple piece of raw iron, likely produced in the yard. This find will resonate with any die-hard fan of West Ham Football Club, since the club began life as the works team, and its logo – which includes two iron hammers – symbolises the works. Thus this Herculean project, just down the way from the Olympics, has helped to illuminate the realities of a vanished industry. The results are available in a new MOLA book: The Thames Iron Works 1837-1912: A Major Shipbuilder on the Thames.

So ends our Crossrail journey into London’s past. The archaeological sites, each so different, and each previously so inaccessible, are adding untold riches to our understanding of the city. Our thanks go to all at Crossrail, MOLA, and Oxford Archaeology.


This feature appeared in CA 313. Click here to subscribe!

Images: Crossrail

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