The Archaeology of the Olympic Park – London’s first East Enders

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Excavating Temple Mills (c) PCA
The 19th century revetments of Tumbling Bay Stream are excavated on the site of the new Olympic Velodrome. Over the course of the 19th century, the river waters were increasingly intensively exploited as a source of hydraulic power. Photo: PCA

Preparations for the 2012 games provided a unique opportunity to investigate an area of London’s East End the size of the walled City. Nick Bateman of MOLA, Gary Brown of PCA and Pippa Bradley and Andrew Powell of Wessex Archaeology told Matthew Symonds how 121 trenches produced 10,000 finds spanning 10,000 years.

This summer, images of the River Lea will be beamed around the world. Flowing gracefully past the new velodrome, arena, and stadium, the Lea meanders through the heart of the Olympic Park. Probably owing its name to the Celtic lug, meaning ‘bright’, the river provides an appropriate backdrop to a festival of human endeavour. Excavations from 2005-2009 revealed a story of human activity spanning 10,000 years. It is a story that revolves around mankind’s complex relationship with water.

Lying approximately 5km east of central London, the Olympic Park has a footprint of almost 250ha. This created the challenge of excavating and recording an area not far shy of that occupied by the entire City of London in a single go. To achieve this, a team of archaeologists was assembled from two separate organisations – MOLA and PCA – who collaborated closely on the excavations. Some 4,000 boreholes from across the site helped them to target areas most likely to have hosted human activity. Subsequently, Wessex Archaeology analysed the borehole logs, and numerous radiocarbon dates, to construct a detailed model that mapped the shifting areas of wet and dry ground during the valley’s long history. Yet even with this knowledge, reaching the archaeology was far from straightforward.        

The Olympic Stadium under construction
The Olympic Stadium under construction. Photo: Tony Hisgett

The Blitz left a devastated London with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of building debris to clear before reconstruction could commence. The nearby Lea Valley offered a convenient dumping ground. With landfill continuing into the late 20th century, ground level rose by as much as 9m in places, requiring deep trenches with stepped sides to reach the remains below. At its peak, this task occupied 60 archaeologists. Their work provides a glimpse into the lives of the earliest East Enders, and an essential counterweight to the wealth of information from London’s urban core.

Taming the wilderness

It was at the dawn of the Holocene, in around 9,700 BC, that the River Lea first carved its valley through the landscape. With the climate warming and woodland developing, it is likely that from the very beginning the floodplain marshes attracted hunter-gatherer bands. Forced inland as the North Sea plains flooded, river valleys would have provided these groups with convenient passages through increasingly dense forest. The earliest direct evidence for human activity within the Olympic Park comes from a handful of scattered Mesolithic flints, including a microlith, a burin, and a notched blade. Those carrying them could hunt wildfowl, or deer, aurochs, and pig roaming pockets of open grassland in mixed hazel, elm and, by the Late Mesolithic, alder and oak woodland.

This trench revealed a Neolithic riverside, complete with alder stakes from a timber structure and a thin-butted flint axe (pictured below). The computer reconstruction shown right gives an idea of the local environment when the structure was built. Images: MOLA

Dense vegetation survived into the Neolithic, with human activity remaining focused on seasonal foraging rather than farmland clearance. A small, but important, assemblage of Neolithic material was found in a trench sunk over an ancient riverbank near the Greenway transport hub. Here a fine, thin-butted flint axe had been placed in shallow water next to a timber structure – perhaps a trackway or platform – supported on sharpened alder stakes. Hardly used when it entered the channel, the axe may have been clearly visible from the bank. Yet despite being a prestige object it was not retrieved. As both the platform and a modest pottery scatter signal repeated activity rather than a fleeting visit, accidental loss seems to be outweighed by the possibility of a deliberate offering that no one wished to disturb. This is reinforced by examples of similar axes from elsewhere in the Lea Valley, including three found at Temple Mills in the late 19th century. Either way, the axe and stakes provide the earliest surviving traces of human interaction with water in the Park.

A thin-butted flint axe
A thin-butted flint axe. Photo: MOLA

Attempts to tame the landscape accelerated in the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,500 BC, when undergrowth was cleared and large, rectangular fields laid out on the site of the new Aquatics Centre. At least 60m long, the fields were lined by ditches that helped drain the boggy soil, and also provided a convenient repository for offerings and rubbish. One ditch contained 256 pottery sherds, including Deverel-Rimbury forms, concentrated near its terminals, as well as flint and sheep bone. Charred barley and a cattle skull were also deposited, testifying to a mixed farming economy and – perhaps – a touch of superstition. During the summer months riverside grazing here would have kept livestock away from crops maturing on the higher ground. Although no buildings were directly associated with the field system, a roundhouse gully dated to 1,400 BC lay only 140m away. The picture is of a sparsely inhabited area, with individual or small groups of roundhouses speckling a developing agricultural landscape.

Two un-urned cremation burials were excavated within the Park. One lay 3m from the Bronze Age field system and contained the remains of a female aged 30 to 40, while the other held a 13- to 16-year-old. A score mark on one rib appears to be the scar from a healed blade wound, indicating that life here could turn violent. Both burials returned radiocarbon dates of around 1,000 BC, assigning them to the Late Bronze Age. By then the adjacent fields were no longer being worked.

Bronze Age ring ditch (c) PCA
The best preserved of the seven Middle Iron Age roundhouses forming a small farmstead. Photo: PCA

Around 300 BC, the abandoned Bronze Age fields became the setting for a Middle Iron Age farmstead, represented by at least seven roundhouses. Although their precise relationship could not be established, it is clear that they were not all occupied at the same time. A pit sunk just inside the gully terminal of one of the roundhouses contained 25 pottery sherds, burnt flint, and a goat skeleton, perhaps representing a grisly foundation deposit. Initially an open settlement, the 31m-long sides of a later enclosure ditch sliced through two roundhouse gullies. While occupation may have continued inside the enclosure, it is equally possible that this was a stock pen, with permanent settlement forced to retreat higher up the valley sides by increased flooding.

Only four inhumation burials were discovered during the excavations, and all lay within 40m in the vicinity of the Iron Age farmstead. Unaccompanied by grave goods, only one of the bodies returned a radiocarbon date, assigning it to 110 BC-AD 60. Of the four individuals, the most interesting was a male aged 45 to 60. Lying flexed on his right side, his grave was cut by the Iron Age enclosure ditch, revealing he was buried earlier than the radiocarbon-dated body. Striations on the man’s teeth indicate that he experienced famine in his formative years. Far from stunting his growth, he reached 5’ 9” tall, well above average for the period. Taking advantage of his imposing stature, the man’s upper body and arm bones show he was no stranger to hard graft. Yet in what could be an Iron Age rags-to-riches tale, his spine bears signs of the onset of DISH (Diffuse Idiopathic Skeletal Hyperostosis), a condition often associated with obesity. After an active life, were his twilight years devoted to a more sedate and indulgent existence?      

Birth of London

A timber from a Roman riverside structure
A timber from a Roman riverside structure attests to ongoing land management in the Lea Valley, but in general the Empire left few traces within the Olympic Park.

The foundation of Londinium around AD 50 added a new dimension to Lea Valley life. Bringing the region into the hinterland of an urban area, the first major infrastructure project to bisect the valley followed soon after: the main road linking London to the then capital at Colchester. Although stretches have been detected both east and west of the Park, the road proved elusive within it. Perhaps the marshy conditions prompted the road to be constructed on less archaeologically visible brushwood foundations, or alternatively the Roman love of long, straight routes may have been sacrificed for a pragmatic course hugging the edge of the dry ground.

Although London would ultimately exert an influence on the valley that trumped even that of the Lea, there is little physical evidence of its impact during the Roman period. While ditches and channel revetments reflect ongoing land management, and environmental evidence confirms the survival of open grassland, there is no sign of the economic boost that might be expected from a major new market. Instead, a horse skeleton radiocarbon dated to AD 60-230 evokes a landscape where a festering carcass could be left in the open long enough for scavengers to gnaw at it. Despite this, those working the valley may well have grown dependent on the mouths that needed feeding in the nearby town. The collapse of Londinium in the 5th century and hiatus before the foundation of Saxon Lundenwic in the 6th sent a shockwave through the valley, devastating its agricultural regimes.

Archaeological evidence for activity in the Park during the Saxon period is sparse. Yet the Lea remained a major landscape feature, and in AD 879 a treaty between Alfred the Great and Guthrum recognised it as the border between the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex and the Danelaw. This made its banks the edge of the Christian and Pagan worlds. Yet the Saxon period also saw the waters of the Lea harnessed in a new way: to power the water mills founded along its banks. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, there were eight such mills in the manor of West Ham. Here corn shipped in from the rich agricultural hinterland of Essex could be processed into flour before being sent on to the London markets.


Perhaps the best-known Medieval mill complex in the valley was Temple Mills, founded by the Knights Templar before 1278. While this lay just outside the excavated area, many traces of the increasingly sophisticated engineering employed to exploit the river as a source of hydraulic power were detected. A revetted channel diverting overflow around the Temple Mills complex dated back to at least 1500. Later known as Tumbling Bay Stream, its name came from the traditional term for a weir. Over time increasingly heavy industry was established amid the mills, and one side-channel branching off Tumbling Bay Stream powered the bellows or heavy machinery in a 17th-century foundry, possibly dedicated to manufacturing brass kettles.

Not all of the industry in the valley relied on water power. Windmills would also have been a familiar sight. In 1807 one of these was dismantled and rebuilt on a new plot to become Nobshill Mill – now the Olympic Stadium site. A wharf allowed easy access to the mill from the river channel network. Lying alongside this wharf was the finest find from the Park excavations: a near complete 19th-century clinker-built boat.

19th century boat (c) MOLA
The 19th-century boat found adjacent to Nobshill Mill wharf. Initially a light gig, the boat was later modified to become a pleasure craft, and then a gun punt. Note the planks of wood inserted to form lockers where shot for the gun could be stored.

Equipped with a shallow keel, the boat was originally a light gig or ‘water taxi’ designed for short hops from larger ships to the shore. Later modified by the addition of a deep plank keel, this transformed the vessel into a pleasure craft capable of exploring the waterways. After 30 or so years of service, this Lea Valley veteran had become worn and leaky, and was adapted once more. Pitched in tar, the vessel was converted into a gun punt. The shotgun was mounted on softwood supports, with its ammunition stored in lockers. Armed with this floating arsenal, the owner could bag wildfowl nesting in the lower Lea floodplain. This desire to exploit the river’s natural resources mirrors the motive that drew hunter-gatherers to the region thousands of years earlier. Yet the eventual abandonment of the gun punt to the channel waters could be taken as symbolic of a way of life that had finally come to an end.  

Between 1836 and 1839, the Eastern Counties Railway was built across the valley. Running east–west it created a major new division in the landscape. This was only one of a raft of infrastructure projects servicing the burgeoning metropolis that criss-crossed the Lea Valley. More railways followed, as well as waterways, including the Hackney and Limehouse Cuts, the great Northern Outfall Sewer – constructed to combat cholera in the City – reservoirs, and then roads. This reduced the region to severed blocks of isolated ground, robbing the valley of its value as agricultural land and making it available for industrial development.

Partitioning of the valley made it attractive to a range of noxious industries forced out of urban areas by the 1844 Metropolitan Buildings Act. While the antisocial nature of their work saw the region dubbed ‘stinky Stratford’, it also brought the area to the forefront of Victorian innovations in engineering and the chemical industry. The most architecturally important industrial building within the Park was the former starch department of the Clarnico jam and confectionary works. Built in 1904-1905, the building represents a hybrid of 19th- and 20th-century construction styles, with load-bearing brick external walls, and an internal steel frame. This example of transitional design has been preserved as part of the Olympic Park energy centre.

Once the Victorian industry declined, there was little left to recommend the region, making it the perfect dumping ground for bombed-out building rubble and other landfill. It is only now the Olympic Park has opened a new chapter in the Lea’s history that the site has been revitalised, inspiring visitors in greater numbers than ever before.

This article was originally published in Current Archaeology 269.

The Olympic Delivery Authority funded the archaeological investigation of the Olympic Park. Simon Wright, ODA Director of Venues and Infrastructure, said: ‘It was vitally important that, before the construction of the Olympic Park, we brought in teams of archaeologists to safeguard the site’s history. This is an area of great historical depth, and building work offered a unique chance to unearth these hidden pasts, which will be able to be enjoyed for years to come.’ Archaeology also forms one of the ten themes of the Olympic Learning Legacy – a website that provides the lessons learned across the project:

1 Comment

  1. Today I found what could be nothing, but might be part of a floor tile from a castle/monastery/church. Its ‘layered’ , about an inch thick with a cream pattern on a brown tile. I found it on a spoil heap where some digging is being done in Wallis Rd E9

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