Thursday, September 21, 2023

New mini-museum showcases London’s massive Roman wall

An important section of London’s Roman wall that includes remains of a bastion added to protect the city from Saxon raiders can now be visited by the public.

The large wall fragment, which is a scheduled monument, has been conserved in situ in its original location. After the demolition of previous modern buildings on the site, it now stands within the Urbanest City building, which provides student accommodation and office space close to Aldgate and Tower Hill.

As a result of the redevelopment, it is freely accessible for the first time, enclosed by an exhibition space that houses hundreds of artefacts excavated nearby. It is also clearly visible to passers-by on the street.

Iain Bright, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, said: “Until now, this piece of London’s heritage has been languishing. One side was in a nightclub, behind the bar. And the other was in the basement of a commercial office building. So this is quite a turnaround. The exhibition really showcases the impressive and foreboding nature of the wall, particularly when you go and stand right next to it, looking up.”

The wall is now clearly visible to passers-by at street level. Photo: Historic England

The 36ft (11m)-long section of wall is part of the Roman land wall built between around 190 and 225AD to a height of around 20ft (6m) and thickness of 7ft-10ft (2-3m). The wall was about two miles long and enclosed an area of almost 330 acres. It may have been built partly as an expression of Roman authority and civic pride and for the collection of tolls and levies at gates. However, Britain was an unsettled province, with archaeological evidence pointing to a major revolt in the reign of Hadrian (117-138) — so it was probably intended as a serious barrier too.

Significantly, the section at Vine Street includes the foundations of one of a number of defensive bastions thought to have been added to the wall in the late fourth century. This was around the time of the Great Conspiracy of 367-369, when barbarians from today’s Scotland, Ireland and Germany attacked Roman Britain in supposedly coordinated attacks.

Roman rule ended decades later, around 410, and the area of Roman London was largely unoccupied from around the mid-fifth to late ninth centuries. Subsequently, the Roman wall was incorporated into medieval London’s defences and gave shape to the “Square Mile”. Much of the structure was lost or buried over centuries of development. The stretch conserved in the new building was uncovered in excavations in the early 20th century and 1970s.

Explaining the wall’s significance, Bright said: “This piece of engineering was vital for the protection of London in the Roman period and far into the medieval period. It was a key factor in determining the shape and the development of the City… This section is remarkable because it contains the remains of one of the bastions constructed in the later fourth century at regular intervals across the outer face of the eastern city wall. They were built as solid platforms for artillery machines [ballistae] that would launch iron-tipped catapult bolts. And they were built in response to fears of attack by Saxon raiders.”

Artist’s impression by Mikko Kriek of London’s Roman land wall around 200AD. The wall has a rubble and mortar core faced with Kentish ragstone banded at intervals by tile courses © Historic England/English Heritage Trust

Historic England, City of London planners and the Museum of London have all hailed the scheme as an example of constructive collaboration between developers and the heritage sector. As Bright explains, the redevelopment of the site required careful precautions to protect the wall remains. “We basically put it in a protective ‘box’. We installed monitors to detect vibration, so that there were no works undertaken that would exceed limits that could have a negative impact on the structural integrity — and also tilt monitors to make sure its axis remained and it didn’t start to fall down. And it stayed in that box for the whole duration of the demolition works and the construction around it.”

Later, grey steel props were added alongside the existing red steel jacks as a permanent support for the wall inside the new building.

The display includes hundreds of artefacts from the immediate surroundings, lent and curated by the Museum of London. The idea is to shine a light not only on Roman London, but on the full sweep of the city’s history, through one cross-section.

Bright said: “There’s a good selection of Roman: coins, roof tiles [one marked by a cat’s paw print], tesserae, fragments of hypocaust systems, amphorae and stuff like that. Then there’s loads of medieval and post-medieval stuff. Animal bones that tell us about what people were eating, fragments of German Bartmann stoneware jugs, tin-glazed pottery that was designed to emulate Chinese porcelain, along with actually imported Chinese porcelain… Up to 20th-century things like bottles containing premixed shaker cocktails from the ’20s to ’40s. So it’s not all about the Roman side. That’s where it started but it’s very much about the evolution of the site.”

Post-medieval ceramics, including Chinese export porcelain, are among the more recent artefacts on display. Photo: Historic England

He added: “This site demonstrates that archaeology and heritage need not be an obstacle to new development — as we see so often, it can bring significant value and character to a place. It should stand as an exemplar for future schemes by showing that you can celebrate the heritage of places whilst delivering something new.”

Finbarr Whooley, director of content at the Museum of London, said: “Like so many Londoners, I have always been fascinated by the rich stories that exist across the capital, around every corner and in unexpected places. This will be a fantastic way for people to stand in the shoes of Roman Londoners and discover more about our history, surrounded by the historic walls of the city. We’re delighted to work with Urbanest and Historic England to help bring this story to life and offer people new ways to discover our collection.”

The exhibition space is adjacent to the Senzo coffee shop within the Urbanest building. The team behind the development suggest that this would make a good refreshment spot for anyone following the London Wall Walk, which follows the line of the Roman land wall.

Curators say this grave marker, excavated near Vine Street and bearing a Roman-period inscription in ancient Greek, did not originate in Roman London and may have been brought to Britain in the 18th-century. Photo: Historic England

Fragments of the wall are only one category of Roman remains that can be found conserved within modern buildings in the City today. Others include the Mithraeum — a third-century temple to the god Mithras — at the site of Bloomberg’s European headquarters, and the Billingsgate Roman House and Baths under an office block.

Earlier this year, Historic England announced new protection for three sections of Roman London’s river wall. This dates from the mid or late third century and enclosed the city by running parallel to the Thames shoreline and connecting the ends of the land wall. It may have been built by the usurper Carausius who ruled a breakaway state in Britain and northern Gaul in 286-293.

The support system keeping the Roman wall section in place inside the new student accommodation building. Photo: Historic England

The City Wall at Vine Street is open from Monday to Sunday, 9am-6pm, and closed on bank holidays. Entry is free, but must be booked in advanced here. It is accessed via 12 Jewry Street.

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