Roman treasures found under the streets of London

One of the things I show on some of my tourists in London is how when a new building is being put up, excavations must be carried out to see if there is anything historically or architecturally interesting beneath the soil before it is destroyed or rebuilt over and lost for decades to come.

This can be a trying time for those behind the construction project as it is they that must pay for teams of archeologists and researchers to scour through the dirt and if something important is found then this could bring on further research that delays the project indefinitely.  Such an event has recently occurred in central London when two years ago in preparation for the construction of a new TV centre for Bloomberg News, long held suspicions of the area being rich in Roman history were confirmed.

Of course there were people already living in the London area but the city of London really came to prominence with the Romans.  Ages ago, the River Thames was much wider than it is today and shallower too and London was the place closest to the sea where the Romans could easily traverse it.   Londinium quickly became a port, a trading centre, a political, economic and cultural city of importance and of considerable wealth… all aspects  that barring the odd revolt, fire, plague and bombing have continued to this day.

Though the Romans set out the foundations of the city, only a few ruined remains are easily visible above ground though some of the streets are Roman roads.  Underneath London however there is an untapped wealth of Roman history that are regularly discovered.  The most recent discoveries include dozens of the earliest written texts ever found in Britain and it has taken over two years for some of our top Latin experts to transcribe and translate them.

Graphics from Daily Mail newspaper

Graphics from Daily Mail newspaper

The texts were written on Roman wooden writing tablets and found deeply buried in waterlogged ground just 400 metres east of St Paul’s Cathedral.  If they were located a few dozen metres in any direction then it it likely that they would have not survived but in his precise location.  Here, 2,000 years ago lay the River Walbrook  which is not an underground river / sewer  and its associated mud had protected the objects and now we have the first ever relatively detailed series of brief written accounts of what London was like in the first forty years of its existence and possibly the oldest ever manuscript yet found in Britain as well as Roman streets, and a multitude of objects.

The documents provide insights into what life was like in London almost 2,000 years ago.They also include the city’s earliest known financial document – dated 8 January, 57 AD, referring to a debt of 105 denarii (around £10,000 in modern equivalent terms).

The wooden manuscripts reveal the cosmopolitan nature of early London – and the huge variety of people who lived there.  Key characters in the texts include Tertius the brewer, Proculus the haulier, Tibullus the freed slave, Optatus the food merchant, Crispus the innkeeper, Classicus the lieutenant colonel, Junius the barrel maker, Rusticus (one of the governor’s bodyguards) and, last but not least, Florentinus the slave.

Even at a very early stage in its history, London already held a special status .  A document refers to a member of governor’s personal bodyguard suggesting it had become the capital of Britannia, usurping Colchester after both cities were razed to the ground by Queen Bodiccea.

Another manuscript, indicating London’s high status, suggests the presence in the city of a former member of a Roman emperor’s bodyguard unit – the famous Praetorian Guard. But whether he was in London to help train the governor’s guards or whether he was one of his senior officers is not known.

As well as painting a picture of the very first Londoners, the manuscripts also provide a number of tantalising vignettes of life in the provincial capital.  Even at that early stage, the newly-revealed ancient manuscripts demonstrate that London was a major commercial and financial centre. Around 50 per cent of those documents, where the subject matter is known, refer to loans or debts.

One such financial manuscript refers to the “principle and the interest” on a loan and an understanding that it will “be properly repaid in genuine coinage” and states that a man called Aticus (presumably the borrower) has “properly, truly and faithfully promised that [the repayment is] to be given” to a man called Ingenuus (presumably the lender or his agent).

In another document a man seems to be desperately pleading for his business associate to send through some urgently needed funds.  “I ask you, by bread and salt, that you send as soon as possible the 26 denarii in Victoriati [older coins with higher silver content] and the 10 denarii of [the man] Paterio.” The total amount was the Roman equivalent of around £3500 – and the need for it seems to have warranted a plea from the heart (“by bread and salt”, probably meaning metaphorically “in the name of our friendship”).

Other manuscripts are about freight transport and trade. One describes how a man called Taurus lost his draft animals – presumably oxen or horses.

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“Taurus to Macrinus, [my] dearest Lord, greetings. [I hope you are] in good health.” “Catarrius” took my “beasts of burden away – investments that I cannot replace for [the next] three months.”

Another document is historically very significant because the information in it suggests that Queen Boudica’s revolt probably took place a year earlier (60 AD) than that stated by the Roman historian Tacitus. That’s because the information implies that London, which had been destroyed by Boudica, was up and running again as a city by October, 62 AD.

“I, Marcus Rennius Venustus [have written and say that] I have contracted with Gaius Valerius Proculus that he bring from Verulamium [to London] by the Ides of November, 20 loads of provisions at a transport charge of one quarter denarius for each”

Virtually all the early Londoners and other British-based Romans mentioned in the newly studied documents are individuals who were previously unknown to history.

One particularly interesting exception is an important Gallo-Germanic nobleman called Classicus who, it now seems, was posted to Britain (probably in 61 AD) to reinforce the Roman military presence immediately after Boudicca’s revolt – but who subsequently helped stage an anti-Roman uprising of his own – centred on and around the lower Rhine region in 69-70 AD.

One of the London Roman manuscripts refers to him as the “prefect [lieutenant colonel] of the Sixth Cohort [battalion] of Nervians” – a Gallo-Germanic tribe from what is now Belgium.

Significantly, Classicus (himself a member of a Gallo-Germanic tribe called the Treveri – from around Trier in modern Germany) was almost certainly related to the new Roman Imperial procurator of Britain, Julius Classicianus – and his appointment as prefect of the sixth cohort in Britain may therefore have been due to Classicianus’ influence.

Mention is also made of individuals from across the Roman Empire as well as many Celtic Britons who were obviously doing well in the thriving young city.

All the ancient documents – written between 43 AD and around 80 AD – were originally unearthed during a Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) excavation (funded by the international financial news organisation, Bloomberg) in 2013 and 2014 – but, at that stage, they were mostly illegible.

But detailed decipherment, transcription and translation work and other research over the past two years has finally succeeded in unravelling what these first Londoners were writing almost two millennia ago

The decipherment has not been an easy task. Originally most of the wooden writing tablets were covered with blackened beeswax, with text inscribed into the wax with metal styluses. Although the wax hasn’t survived, the writing occasionally went through the wax to inadvertently mark the wood. As tablets were reused, in some cases several layers of text built up on the tablets, making them particularly challenging to decode.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 08.51.20.png

One of Britain’s top classicists and cursive Latin experts, Dr Roger Tomlin of Wolfson College, Oxford, deciphered and interpreted the tablets – often using specially lit photography and microscopic analysis.

“The Bloomberg writing tablets are very important for the early history of Roman Britain, and London in particular,” he said.

Once excavated, the fragile tablets were kept in water before MOLA conservators carefully cleaned them and, using a waxy substance, PEG, which replaced some of the water content, treated them before they were freeze-dried.

Over 700 artefacts from the Bloomberg site excavation will be displayed in a public exhibition space that will sit within the new Bloomberg building, including the earliest-dated writing tablet from Britain. The permanent exhibition will also feature London’s Roman temple of Mithras and will open in autumn, 2017.

For more on how London developed over the last 2,000 years, check out the video below.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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6 Responses to Roman treasures found under the streets of London

  1. choosejoy says:

    So cool! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here in Seattle we sometimes have contraction stopped for the odd mammoth tusk! Much less decoding involved there. I am amazed at times at the “age” of London. Seattle is not even 200 years old yet…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well a Mammoth tusk is still amazing in its own way! Yes, we’re so used to thinking of London as old in a Tudor or Medieval way which is old enough let alone add another 1500 years onto that. I think it does such a good job of mixing the new, the old and the ancient whereas somewhere like Rome or Paris is mostly just old/ancient and Dubai or LA is new. It is the mix of old and new which makes London such a unique place.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ivana says:

    In a city of Beroun in Czech republic, where I used to go to high school, they found foundations and parts of ‘houses’ from 12th century, instead of preservation, they’ve just delayed all works to ‘observe’, afterwords put a huge amount of concrete on it and built parking house. In Prague, you can find Roman houses in very deep basements of some buildings in the centre of the city, with concrete columns growing up from them to support the new buildings. It’s interesting how we just build new age on the olders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting Ivana. I’ve been to Prague and I can imagine it has a very long history. In the British city of Bath, you can visit the old Roman Baths. Next to the Baths you can walk on an old Roman street and you can see it is 5 meters underground and the modern city is somehow above your head.

      Liked by 1 person

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