Roman gold in the City of London

‘Unparalleled’ Roman artefacts found in London

Artefacts “unparalleled in the Roman world” have been unearthed at London’s biggest archaeological dig for 20 years, shedding new light on the mercantile and social roots of the capital.

Up to 60 staff from Museum of London Archaeology have been digging since September at Bloomberg Place, a three-acre site in the heart of the City of London that will become the European headquarters of the media group.

About 8,000 objects have been found at the site, which the archaeologists have dubbed “the Pompeii of the north”. These include a hoard of pewter, fine leather upholstery and footwear, inked writing tablets and shoulder-high oak walls that channelled the Walbrook river which once ran through the area.

Though this tributary of the river Thames no longer flows, the waterlogged earth was crucial in keeping the leather, wooden and wicker objects in a remarkable state of preservation.

Among the hundreds of shoes found were cork-soled slippers used on the stone floors heated by Roman hypocausts, flip-flop style sandals and carbatina – footwear made from a single piece of leather.

But the artefact that has set archaeologists’ pulses racing is a large panel of leather upholstery that may have been used as the equivalent of a dashboard on a Roman horse-drawn chariot. Consisting of five stitched layers of leather, the 1.2m piece is decorated with an image of a warrior on a chariot flanked by two “hippocamps” – half-horse, half-fish creatures of Roman myth.

Staff said European museums could find nothing with which to compare the object. Michael Marshall, a Museum of London archaeologist, said: “It’s completely unparalleled in the Roman world.”

The scale of commerce in Roman London is also revealed by a mass of industrial spoil, including the offcuts from leather and metal working and evidence of a large mill that may have been powered by the Walbrook.

Mr Marshall said: “It is going to tell us a massive amount about the local Roman economy.”

With finds dating from the entire period of the Roman occupation of Britain, which lasted from AD43 to AD410, the dig also boasts the biggest haul from a single site of “fist and phallus” amulets – popular effigies thought to ward off evil – with 20 recovered for analysis.

Large parts of the Bloomberg site were also excavated in 1954, when archaeologists discovered the foundations of a Roman temple of Mithras.

But modern techniques mean far more will be saved this time than in the earlier digs, enriching academic understanding of the Roman occupation of London. “We’ve only looked so far at about 1,000 objects from the site, so much of the story has yet to be told,” said Mr Marshall.

The remains of the Mithras temple, dismantled for the current construction work, will be rerebuilt under the Bloomberg building to form part of a permanent exhibition also featuring objects from the dig.

Under the rules governing archaeological finds, Bloomberg – which is majority-owned by Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York – owns the artefacts retrieved from the site.

While the media group said no decision had been taken, large-scale finds in the capital have previously been donated to the Museum of London by their corporate owners after analysis and research has been completed.

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