Hidden Londinium: What Will be the Next Big Find From Roman London?

Buried under the bustling modern London is the remains of our ancient past. Image Credit to Ian Muttoo.Roman London is mostly intangible, hidden and largely forgotten. Today it’s buried under tons of concrete and glass in the shape of the City of London London’s financial district with its busy streets, packed offices and underground networks. It’s not surprising that getting a peak at the remains of the Roman city founded soon after 43 AD is not easy, but archaeologists have excavated several large areas, often when construction projects and post-war reconstruction have provided opportunities to open up the ground. However, areas remain that have yet to be studied by a professional archaeologist, so what Roman structures could still be lurking under London, waiting for their chance to see the light of day again?

It’s an interesting question that may be impossible to answer. Some parts of the City may never be excavated or at least not within our lifetimes. The pressures of space and investor money make the probability of an archaeological excavation at some sites quite low. But the next best thing to hard evidence is an educated guess so by comparing the landmarks typically found in a Roman town with those already known in Londinium, could we come up with some of the missing Roman structures?

A Typical Roman Town?

First of all what are the main landmarks and buildings usually found in Roman towns? There are several ‘stock’ features, such as the forum and the Decumanus, but it’s also worth noting there were different types of Roman towns. Some were ‘colonia’ often towns built to house retired legions and others were ‘civitates’ more like a provincial market town in the middle of a native community. It’s not clear which status was assigned to London possibly neither, as it grew mainly as a trading town with sea access.

London's Roman amphitheatre lies beneath the Guild Hall off Gresham Street. Image Credit to Burc Ozkan.Colonia in particular and sometimes civitates too were usually built on a grid plan with streets laid out at regular intersections. Some of the main features of these types of Roman towns included the main north-south and east-west roads, the Cardo (Cardus Maximus) and the Decumanus Maximus, respectively. Other major landmarks would include the forum, near to the intersection of the Decumanus and the Cardo, a marketplace, an amphitheatre (for combative-type sports shows) and a theatre (for drama and musical performances).

You could also expect a basilica (used as an official public meeting place much like a town hall, rather than a religious building), the public baths (there were often several of these in larger towns), an inn (called a mansio) for travellers, several temples dedicated to a variety of gods, as well as the residential insulae. Sewers, hypocausts (under-floor heating systems), the city walls and burial grounds are other features usually found in Roman towns.

Many of these features have already been identified in the excavations of Roman London. Public baths have been found at as many as five different sites. The Roman amphitheatre lies beneath the Guild Hall off Gresham Street, the forum and basilica is approximately at the area of today’s Leadenhall Market and a third century AD Mithraic temple was found on Walbrook in 1954 (it was later moved to Temple Court, off Queen Victoria Street).

Not Your Average Town…

But Londinium wasn’t an entirely typical Roman town and there were several differences between it and other colonia or ‘civitas’ in Britain. For a start, the streets of Londinium weren’t planned in a geometric grid system in fact they were completely irregular. Londinium also had a fort and a palace (near the north end of London Bridge), which were unique features not found in every Roman town.

The fort was built in 120 AD and was roughly in the area now occupied by the Barbican Estate. The area was known as Cripplegate from Medieval times until it was bombed during World War Two. The palace, on the other hand, is thought to have been built for the rogue-emperor Allectus at the end of the third century AD.

Londinium’s basilica, underneath Gracechurch Street, is said to have been the biggest basilica north of the Alps, which also suggests Roman London was exceptional in some way. Apparently it was built badly and hastily, only to fall out of use not long after it was built (hmm, does that sound familiar to anyone?).

Between Queen Victoria St and Poultry, in front of the Bank of England, stands the controversial building, No.1 Poultry. Its pink and cream stripes and sharp angles mark it out as one of London’s more eye-catching buildings, but one that’s been met with disapproval from critics and Londoners alike. However, it was also the site of a big excavation of Roman London. Archaeologists working at the site found part of the Decumanus, along with some stone residential buildings (one with a mosaic floor) and some timber shops.

Another excavation revealed a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guild Hall, about 200m north of the Poultry site. The amphitheatre, made in stone, dates from around the second century AD and is one of the most important Roman structures to have been found in the city, although only one end of it has been excavated.

Scholars have also commented on the lack of Roman villas found near to the Roman city walls, even though there were many villas further away from Roman London, outside a radius of about 10 miles. This is a further indication that Londinium wasn’t your average Roman town. It may have had a special status. It certainly had some unique features and landmarks.

The question remains though with so much of the area of Roman London under concrete, what else could be left undiscovered?

The Discoveries of Tomorrow?

During the second century AD, Londinium’s population grew to between 45,000 and 60,000. Lugdunum in Gaul (modern-day Lyon) had a similar-sized population in the second century (it had 40-50,000) and, like Londinium, it was also a regional capital. While the two towns are situated in different geographical locations and have different climates, some comparisons can perhaps be drawn between the two.

For example, Lugdunum was served by four aqueducts. Of course, this doesn’t mean London also had four aqueducts for a start, London’s wet climate and the south of France’s long dry summers presented different requirements. The Romans did build aqueducts in Britain although not as many as were built in southern Europe, where there was a greater need for fresh water during the summers. The Romans in Londinium may have relied on wells and spring water but it’s possible that an aqueduct would also have been built.

Lugdunum also had its own mint, and it is certain that London also had a mint between 296 AD and 325 AD coins marked with L or LON would probably have been minted there. However, there is no mention of the location having yet been found.

Lugdunum also had several temples where Roman gods, as well as eastern gods and traditional Gallic gods were worshipped. While the remains of several Roman-era temples are known in London, it’s possible that others still lie undiscovered.

Another distinct possibility is that more Roman settlements will be discovered outside the Roman city walls. In 2003, Roman buildings were found during construction work at Shadwell, east London, which enabled archaeologists to rethink the history of Roman London. They previously believed that the Roman settlement extended no further east than the Tower of London.

Perhaps a Roman theatre could also reasonably be hoped for, as could further Roman homes or trading/industrial buildings. As for the rest it’s anyone’s guess what actually could lie beneath parts of the City. As London wasn’t a typical kind of town, it may well have several surprises for future excavators.

Watch the video below to see what HAS been found in Roman London.

HD Video: Londinium Tour (Part 1)

(Click here to read a transcript of this video)

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