Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail

9 mins read
One of the four Roman Walbrook valley skulls on display. (Photo: Museum of London)
One of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects brought with it one of the most extensive archaeological programmes ever undertaken. Lucia Marchini takes a trip through London’s buried past at the Museum of London Docklands’ exhibition of highlights from the Crossrail excavations.

Tens of thousands of artefacts were unearthed at 40 construction sites dotted across London between 2009 and 2015 as part of the Crossrail archaeological project (CA 313). The 42km of new tunnels constructed 40m below London were too deep to disturb the archaeology above, but new stations and tunnel portals gave over 200 archaeologists, led by Jay Carver, a chance to excavate closer to the surface. Many of their finds, as well as plans, images, and records, have entered the Museum of London’s collections and now a selection of around 500 key objects are on display in Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail.

Among the earliest evidence of human activity unearthed by Crossrail is this Mesolithic flint scraper. (Photo: Crossrail/MOLA)

Starting in the east at Abbey Wood and travelling along the Elizabeth line to Old Oak Common in the west, the exhibition takes us on a journey through time and space, offering a cross-section of archaeology in the capital through 8,000 years of human history. The exhibits are arranged according to geography, with clear orange signs overhead marking out which of the nine sections of the line you are in. They range in time from prehistory to the present, and in size from the jaw bone of a house mouse and coins to full human skeletons and the large iron chain from the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company.

Among the earliest finds, and in the eastern stretch of the line, are Mesolithic flint flakes, a microlith, and scraper that provide a snapshot of toolmaking 8,000 years ago near the Thames in North Woolwich. Also in the east, work at Stepney Green involved the first major Crossrail excavation to uncover a large amount of material culture. Here, on the site of a 15th-century moated manor house, a Tudor bowling ball was found, offering a glimpse into the preferred pastimes of the wealthy. By contrast, a humorous 19th-century chamber pot reveals a light-hearted Victorian approach to bodily functions.

Animal bones like these were used for skating on the frozen marsh at Moorfields. (Photo: Crossrail/MOLA)

Travelling further along the line to Liverpool Street and Moorgate in central London, the finds were so plentiful in this area that this stop has been split into two – Roman and post-Roman. Again, the artefacts recovered from this busy district are varied in nature and give glimpses of business and leisure and life and death across the centuries. Among the earliest of the post-Roman objects found near Liverpool Street are medieval animal-bone ice skates, also attested by the late 12th-century writings of William Fitzstephen, who describes young men tying bones to their feet to skate on the frozen Moorfields marsh. Footwear of another kind is on show in the form of Roman iron hipposandals (horseshoes). These are from the largest single find of Roman horseshoes in London and perhaps suggest heavy traffic across the Walbrook stream. Also stemming from the Roman Walbrook valley are four skulls, which add to the c.300 found in the valley over the past 200 years.

Buried deep

Throughout the exhibition, the relationship between engineering and archaeology is celebrated, with impressive projections of footage of tunnelling and archaeological excavations, large photographs showing archaeologists at work, and panels on the tunnel-boring machines. It is especially apparent in the case of a particular artefact from Roman Liverpool Street – a cremation urn. Trained miners hand-excavated one of the sewer tunnels at the site that was unsafe for archaeologists to work in, and as they went along they took photographs every metre for the archaeologists to record their findings. They also recovered human skulls and a cremation urn. The urn, made in Brockley Hill c.AD 100-160 and still containing remains when it was found, is a lucky survivor caught by a miner as it fell from the tunnel ceiling.

Another important engineering feature of the project was the use of grout shafts to firm up the ground below surrounding buildings. Archaeologists also worked in these spaces, measuring just 4.5m across. One such shaft has been recreated in the exhibition, presenting a burial from Charterhouse Square. Excavations for a grout shaft here revealed the remains of a Black Death cemetery established in 1348/9. The plans on the walls show how some burials were damaged by construction and reflect the realities of some of the restrictions archaeologists face – they can only excavate within the space of the shaft.

Excavations at the New Churchyard uncovered a mass grave of plague burials. (Photo: Museum of London)

This is not the only plague burial in the exhibition. A later skeleton from the New Churchyard near Liverpool Street (also known as the Old Bethlehem Burying Ground or Bedlam) is on show. The site yielded over 3,300 burials during excavations. These included a mass grave of 42 individuals, five of whom have tested positive for the plague pathogen in the first certain identification of plague DNA from 16th-17th century Britain.

Tunnel vision

The role of non-excavation archaeology in development projects also features. Several historic buildings were demolished to make way for the new railway line. Detailed records were made of these, through surveying and photographing the interior and exterior (and occasionally, as in the case of Old Oak Common, through laser scanning). One of the most famous demolitions was that of popular venue the Astoria on Charing Cross Road, which, in 1926-7, had been converted from part of a Crosse & Blackwell warehouse. Photography from the early 1930s, Second World War pencil sketches, a 1975 film poster, and a 1991 club flyer for the venue from the Museum of London’s collections make up a vibrant and diverse timeline of 20th-century entertainment in Soho.

More modern still is the figure of St Barbara, who now watches over the tunnel and those who enter. It is a long-held and widely practised tradition to have a statue of St Barbara, patron saint of tunnellers and miners, in a tunnel to protect the workers inside. Crossrail was no exception, and the St Barbara on show introduces some contemporary material remains from the recent project. And with unrecoverable parts of two of Crossrail’s tunnel-boring machines now buried near Farringdon station, what will archaeologists of the future make of this 21st-century feat of engineering?

Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail runs until 3 September 2017 at Museum of London Docklands. Entry is free. Visit museumoflondon.org.uk/tunnel for more information.

This review was published in CA 325.

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