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Treasures of Londinium

By C. Theodore Houpt / April 14, 1987



WHEN my wife and I first went to London in the 1950s, we had business with the (then) National Provincial Bank, whose main branch in the City (the financial district) stood opposite Mansion House, the Lord Mayor's residence. The bank officials were very kind to us, not only allowing us to watch the Lord Mayor's Parade from their balcony, but also pointing out particularly an exhibition on their second floor. This was our introduction to Roman London. In the glass cases were items recently found after the German bombings of World War II. There were coins, hundreds of them, many minted in London in the first and second centuries after Christ. There were sections of Roman pavement, bits of pottery and glass bottles, tools, spearheads, pewter cups and spoons, knives, needles, brooches and other jewelry, all in an amazing state of preservation. It was enough to make anyone an archaeology enthusiast!

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At this time we could still stand at St. Paul's Cathedral (whose preservation during the bombings is a thrilling story of persistent heroism) and look around at an area empty of the towering structures that have since been built there. We could look over the protective railings into pits where archaeologists were making daily finds. Most of these treasures have found their way into the Guildhall Museum.

Discoveries of Roman artifacts in London, we learned, go back to Elizabethan times. In the latter part of the 17th century, when he was rebuilding churches after the devastating fire of 1666 (recorded in detail in Pepys's ``Diary''), Sir Christopher Wren, the architect, discovered the remains of four Roman pottery kilns when he was excavating the site of St. Paul's Cathedral. He also turned up the remains of a ``Roman Causeway of rough stone, close and well rammed, with Roman Brick and Rubbish at the Bottom for a Foundation, and all firmly cemented.''

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, knowledge was gradually expanding as to the extent of Roman civilization in England. In 1833, the widely read Gentleman's Magazine showed a detailed cross section of a Roman road uncovered in London. But, as such evidence as this was, by the 20th century, buried under a dozen feet of earth, it was not until so much of the City was laid bare by German bombs that the archaeologists really had their day.

Most of the discoveries of the 1950s were made in the Walbrook area, close to Mansion House. The Walbrook was actually a brook or tributary of the Thames in Roman times before it, like the Fleet River (now Fleet Street), was filled with gravel, dirt, and rubble so that it could be built upon. During the early centuries, brick-lined culverts allowed the stream to pass through the Roman city wall on its way to the Thames; hence its name.

Some of the items found in this area, on the site of Bucklersbury House, were coins, personal ornaments, tools, and more than 100 styluses, pencil-like instruments used to write on wax-covered tablets. The most significant building in this area in Roman times was the Temple of Mithras on the east bank of the Walbrook. This temple was associated with a pagan mystery cult.

The most extensive masonry structure in Londinium was, of course, the wall which in Roman times and until the Middle Ages indicated the borders of the old city. Within the wall, at the northwest corner, was a fortress covering 12 acres, probably built during Trajan's reign, in the early second century. Traces of a basilica, a great hall for public gatherings, 500 feet long, and an open forum or marketplace have been found in the Gracechurch Street area, both buildings, discovered in 1955, opposite the Mary-le-Bow Church. Again, both buildings date from the late first or early second century.

What conclusions concerning the Romans in Londinium can be drawn from these archaeological efforts? As Ralph Merrifield puts it in ``The Roman City of London'' (1965): ``Roman London seems to have been a city of contrasts, a curious mingling of civilisation and barbarism, of the exotic and the native, in which luxury and squalor went hand in hand, and where imposing stone buildings stood in close proximity to wooden shacks.''