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Sunday, 15 July 2012

From Bison to Bedlam - Crossrail's archaeological discoveries

Bison bones from the late Ice Age, pieces of amber, up to 4000 skeletons – London’s Crossrail project is producing an incredible variety of archaeological finds that give a glimpse into the capital’s past.

These bison bones, some 68,000 years old, were found in west London, at Royal Oak. Experts say a small bump on a foot bone suggests stress caused by migration. Did huge herds once gallop along the same routes now followed by commuters? The precious amber, formed 55 million years ago, has also caused excitement. Larger and clearer than any previously found in the UK, it was unearthed more than 15 metres under Canary Wharf and contains bubbles of trapped gas that may help research into global warming. .
The human skeletons are from an ancient burial ground under Liverpool Street, which for about 200 years from 1569 was used by St Bethlehem Hospital, known as Bedlam. Work on the site is continung - so far some 300 burials have been uncovered and will give an insight into the physical health and condition of the area's inhabitants before being moved to a cemetery. This skeleton has already been analysed and found to be that of a man who had a hard, active life from an early age, possibly involving manual labour. He had well-developed arm muscles, probably suffered from back pain and had injured his knee. Plaque on some teeth suggests poor dental hygiene and a carbohydrate-rich diet.

For archaeologists, Crossrail is providing the chance of a lifetime to see what lies beneath a wide swathe of London. It passes through the heart of London’s West End and along the north edge of the Roman and medieval city.Twenty-one km of tunnels are being dug, often where excavations have not previously been possible. This is the site of the Bond St station on Oxford St.

The curious had a chance to catch up with all this at a recent display of some 100 of the finds.These included many everyday objects reflecting the lives of past inhabitants: an amber, glass and bone bead necklace from a post-medieval child’s burial (left), late Saxon to medieval ice skates fashioned out of smoothed cattle bones, clay pipe bowls made after tobacco was introduced in the 1580s, and a grave stone with a name that looks like John Bail. It says he died aged 25 weeks in April 1664. One coin found in Broadgate, a silver denarius of Severus Alexander, was minted in Rome between 228 and 231 AD and would have been the equivalent of more than a day’s pay for a legionary.
There are also glimpses of the capital’s industrial history: the fragment of a boat that could be 900 years old was discovered at the Limmo peninsula in East London while Victorian jars and bottles (left) have been unearthed from the site of the Crosse and Blackwell bottling factory near Oxford St.
The excavations will continue into 2014. Much work remains to be done at the Bedlam area, but the focus is now moving to four large portal tunnel sites at the eastern end of the project. There, archaeologists are hoping to find where Bronze Age people lived, farmed and hunted some 3,500 years ago. Eventually, the items uncovered will be donated to the Museum of London or Natural History Museum, but hopefully before then, Crossrail will put on another, more extensive display.