A 2,000-year-old house of four rooms, built by the first generation of Roman invaders in Britain, has been discovered on the site of a £20million offices and flats development..
Archaeologists have uncovered the large Roman building, featuring exquisitely decorated wall plaster and formal gardens – which may have been a sort of motel or Air BnB for visiting imperial personnel.
It was discovered by staff of the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) during excavations at the site set to become a multi-million pound development of homes, offices and shops in the heart of Southwark.
The scheme is close to one of South London’s most highly-charged archaeological sites, the Crossbones Graveyard in Redcross Way, Southwark – which is to be preserved and enhanced as part of the development. Crossbones, now turned into a shrine and memorial garden, is the site of graves of thousands of orphans and prostitutes buried over hundreds of years until the Victorian era in unconsecrated ground owned by the Bishop of Winchester.
The Roman building is thought to have been built on the south bank of the river around AD72, about 25 years after the Romans founded the settlement of Londinium – Roman London – in the area which is now the City of London.
It is made up of four rooms, one of which may have been an internal courtyard, and it was surrounded by formal gardens potentially containing raised beds. Archaeologists have found large quantities of painted wall plaster, including some with beautiful and intricate flower motifs. The floors were equally as ornate, with both a mosaic and opus signinum – terrazzo style – floor uncovered.
Other finds from the site currently include coins, jewellery, oyster shells, pottery, copper bowls and a gaming counter.
The counter appears to have been lost when it fell in the gap between the floor and the wall – a frustration clearly shared throughout the ages. The discovery of a phallic-shaped pendant could indicate that high-ranking soldiers involved in building big military projects stayed there, as this is a symbol often linked with Roman garrisons.
MOLA Senior Project Manager Derek Seeley said: “The quality of materials found at this site suggests that this building was occupied by only high-ranking members of society. It is rare that we are able to investigate such a large area in central London. It provides a fascinating window into the living conditions and lifestyle of elites residing in Roman Britain.”
The northern part of the building was previously excavated in the 1980s and at the time was interpreted as a Mansio – the Roman equivalent of an upmarket motel, where high-ranking officials would stay and rest on long journeys. The latest findings suggest this may well have been the building’s function, although it is also possible that it was the private residence of a wealthy individual or family. The archaeological remains indicate the structure had several different periods of occupation, so both these interpretations may have proven true over its roughly 150-year history.
Excavations at the site are part of the construction of development The Liberty of Southwark, being built by U+I, specialist regeneration developer and Transport for London (TfL). Once completed, it will have new homes, shops, retail and workspace on a previously empty site on Southwark Street. MOLA, in partnership with Keltbray and TfL, delivered a two-week ‘Get Into Archaeology’ access programme for Londoners interested in learning more about construction and the work of professional archaeologists.
Paul Patenall, Projects Director at U+I, commented: “The site’s history is a complex and fascinating tapestry. MOLA’s archaeologists have quickly made some fascinating discoveries and we are eager to see what more the excavation might reveal before we begin to deliver the next chapter and bring forward The Liberty of Southwark, a development that will stitch the streetscape of Southwark back together, providing contemporary workspace, homes, shops and restaurants, all set within a carefully considered masterplan.”
Scott Anderson, Head of Property Development at TfL, said: “These discoveries demonstrate the interesting and intricate history of both our site and the capital. We are proud to supporting this enriching work as part of our long-term development process, which has already given a number of people who have previously had little experience of the world of archaeology an opportunity to delve in and discover more. It is exciting to see what else we may learn from these excavations. We hope the homes, commercial opportunities and public realm improvements that we will create will also become an important part of the community’s present fabric.”
The Liberty of Southwark will provide 36 new homes, including half affordable housing, along with 200,000 sq ft of commercial space. The scheme will also create new pedestrian routes, reinstating some of the medieval yards and lanes of historic Southwark.
These lanes will be lined with the shops, cafes, restaurants and market stalls to bring activity during daytime and the evening. Smaller retail units have also been included as part of the proposals to encourage small independent traders.
The scheme has been designed by local architects Allies and Morrison as “contemporary brick buildings, sensitive to the scale of their surroundings and full of references to the Victorian industrial and commercial architecture of the area”. One building, 15 Southwark Street, which dates from the 1860s, will also be restored as part of the development.
Work is expected to complete in 2024.
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