Digging for Britain: Expert explains findings at London Rotunda
London and other major cities in Britain are full of archaeological treasures, but also present many challenges to archaeologists. Each generation builds on what came before them, sometimes completely obscuring previous layers. Such activity means that it is particularly rare to find prehistoric remains under the capital.
On the south bank of the Thames at Barn Elms – just across the river from Fulham Football Club – they found just that.
London is generally believed to be originally a Roman city since no significant pre-Roman settlements have ever been identified near the city centre.
But archaeologists have discovered remains of an Iron Age [800BC to AD43] regulation.
Two battle shields and an Iron Age helmet were unearthed from the riverbed in Victorian times, and several other things have since been found.
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Archaeologists previously believed that London’s history was largely Roman.
One of the helmets unearthed from the riverbed in Victorian times.
Jack Russell is the archaeologist for the London Super Sewer Project. He told the recent BBC documentary Digging for Britain: “The Thames has always rejected a lot of things from this period.
“But nobody really knew where the people who put these things in there lived.”
Excavations at Barn Elms, which began in 2019, revealed the first signs of this dwelling – a round house.
The site’s lead archaeologist, Mike Curnow, told the BBC: “What we really found was a lot of postholes, and all of them are really quite big postholes.”
An Iron Age battle shield was also discovered.
Holes this deep and wide would have housed wooden posts capable of supporting a massive structure.
Footprints of rounder houses were discovered later. Professor Alice Roberts, the presenter of the documentary, revealed further finds offering evidence of a “vibrant community with a thriving iron working industry”.
One of the smaller finds on the site provided the biggest news.
The coins found at Barn Elms still had the maker’s tabs that would normally have been removed, meaning an Iron Age mint could have been located there.
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The parts found still had the manufacturer’s tabs that would usually have been removed.
The design of the coins, Prof Roberts said, suggests they were made for the Cantiaci tribe – Celtic Iron Age people living in Britain before the Roman conquest. They lived in the area that is now Kent and used Canterbury as their capital.
They were known to be among the earliest coin users in Britain and traded with other Europeans.
Mr Curnow said: “The site expands our understanding of the Iron Age.
“It’s filling in the prehistory of London. Almost rewrite, if you will, this idea that nothing happens in London before the Romans.
Mike Curnow said the finds could “rewrite” the idea of London history.
Adam Sutton, an Iron Age specialist at the site, investigated the pieces further. He confirmed that these were indeed the first pieces made in Britain.
He said: “There is a lot of debate about the role of coins in Iron Age society and whether they had a monetized economy.
“But it is entirely possible that the fact that we have evidence of manufacture here means that people must have come to exchange the items they wanted to buy for what is effectively money.
“There is also potentially a ritual aspect. They could possibly be intended for offerings.
“The river is very close and we know people liked to throw metal objects into the river as a ritual.”
Other finds in and around the round house testify to cooking and iron making.
An artist’s impression of the site’s appearance has provided archaeologists with a revised idea of London’s communities at the time.
Mr Sutton said: “They really give us a sense of life in London before London was there, which I think is really amazing.”