Liquid History: Excavating London’s great river, The Thames

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Prehistoric forests, the skull of a child, the slipway of a Victorian engineering masterpiece and part of a Tudor palace jetty: all have emerged from the mud and gravel on the foreshore of the Thames, thanks to an exciting new project to record the archaeology of London’s great river.   Nathalie Cohen tells CA about the Thames Discovery Programme.

In September 1665, Samuel Pepys visited the excavation of a new dock in Blackwell. In his diary he records: ‘…were found perfect trees over-covered with earth. Nut trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them… Their shells black with age, and their kernell, upon opening, decayed, but their shell perfectly hard as ever…’ It seems likely that the diggers had encountered the remains of a prehistoric submerged forest, similar to the deposits recorded at a number of locations along the foreshore.

A skull found by a metal detectorist in 2009. Police investigated the scene, before ruling out a recent crime.

Active collection of artefacts from the foreshore really began in the 19th century, as a result of Victorian infrastructure development such as the 1830s rebuilding of London Bridge, the sewer improvements of the 1860s and dredging of the Thames to maintain and improve navigation channels. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from the Thames and the finest are displayed in the prehistoric galleries of the Museum of London, the British Museum and many of London’s local museums.

‘Liquid history,’ was how the 19th century MP John Burns described the River Thames. The Thames has always played a central role in the life of our capital city; its rich history encompasses all aspects of London’s life – economic, social, political and cultural. It has been a ritual location, a source of food and water, a commercial routeway, a crossing-point, an international port and a focus of political power and grand residence.

The Thames tide rises and falls twice a day, with a difference of as much as 7m in water level. If you look from the riverbank at high tide, all you see is water; however, at low tide the river uncovers the Thames foreshore: London’s longest archaeological site, stretching from Richmond in the west to Bexley in the east. The river itself is excavating the site, revealing ancient remains with each ebb and flow. As features are exposed in this dynamic environment, they also begin to disintegrate, meaning that opportunities to record and understand these fragile sites can be limited.

Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from the river, but what do we know about what lies beneath the swift-flowing water: the archaeology of the riverbed and foreshore itself?

Foreshore Pioneers

Surprisingly, though, there has been relatively little systematic archaeological investigation of the Thames foreshore until recent times. The earliest excavations, under the directorship of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, were carried out by the London Museum in 1928 on the foreshore near the mouth of the River Brent. Parts of a structure were revealed, dated to the 2nd-3rd century AD and interpreted as a hut floor. In 1949, Ivor Noël Hume of the Guildhall Museum recorded the foreshore along the south bank between London Bridge and Cannon Street Railway Bridge and produced a plan of his discoveries.

Investigations of the Brentford foreshore continued during the 1950s under Noël Hume’s direction and evidence was recovered of possible domestic structures, this time dating to the Iron Age, and further artefactual material suggesting occupation during the Romano-British period.       Work continued at Isleworth into the 1970s and the Wandsworth Historical Society (WHS) began a campaign of systematic recording of areas along the borough’s foreshore.

In 1976, the newly created Museum of London was opened, and a process was established specifically to deal with artefacts retrieved from the foreshore, a link that has been further strengthened in recent years by the development of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Additionally, numerous commercial archaeology projects have revealed a wealth of data regarding Roman and later Medieval waterfront construction and provided vital information in understanding the development of the river and its role in the lives of Londoners over time.

Into the 21st century: the Thames Discovery Programme

The Thames Discovery Programme is supported by the National Lottery with a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The TDP runs an innovative, interactive website which is an ever-expanding resource, including information, training, events and images from the foreshore, blogs, and a series of films made especially for the project. Photos of the foreshore can be added to our Flickr pool and shared with the wider public.

Community Involvement: The FROG

The principal aim of the Thames Discovery Programme is to train members of the public to monitor and record the archaeology of the foreshore, both during the lifetime of the project and beyond. The public is encouraged to join FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group). FROG training is an intensive process held over two days, beginning with a classroom-based day of lectures and workshops, and followed by Day 2, planning and recording on the foreshore. All the foreshore sessions are supervised by professional archaeologists from London’s contract units.

There are many ways in which volunteers can become involved with the project, both through public events and the TDP website. We run guided walks, Foreshore Open Days, evening seminars and lectures, and temporary exhibitions across London. There is also an annual conference ± the Foreshore Forum ± where the FROG members are encouraged to present the results of their own fieldwork and research.

We are also developing Riverpedia, with the support of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit, a community research project which encourages e-publication of articles across a variety of subjects through seminars, workshops and other events. Key research themes include studies of The Thames at War and The Thames at Work. A key part of our commitment to community archaeology is supporting the creation of a publicly accessible online archaeological record through images, blogs and articles submitted by FROG.

For the full article, with more on the Thames Discovery Programme, see Issue 244 (July 2010) of Current Archaeology.

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