Hard hats, rats and a trap door

Gladiators at The Guildhall - Heart of the City
August 16, 2002

A stone's throw from the Bank of England, at No. 1 Poultry in the heart of the City, there is now a weird-looking postmodernist office block. It is a monument to capitalist vanity: to build it, they knocked down eight listed buildings, including Mappin and Webb. But the vandalism of modern redevelopment is how most of London's archaeology gets done these days. With pile-drivers clanking in the background, young graduates in hard hats and overalls scrape away at several metres of buried deposit to recover the City's Roman and medieval past. And one thing these two books show is that the Museum of London Archaeological Service is one of the best excavation units around.

If you had stood on the spot - No. 1 Poultry - in AD 100, what would you have seen? The buildings were mostly single-storey and wooden, and life inside was pretty squalid, with small, dimly lit rooms, floors of beaten earth or plain concrete, no baths or toilets, and mice and rats lurking in corners. Outside, in backyards and alleyways, pigs and chickens rooted about amid thistles, stinging nettles, piles of refuse and faeces, and the buzz of flies. Even so, life could have been worse. London was a port and the shops were full - of wine, olive oil and fish sauce, along with exotica such as pine nuts, almonds and pomegranates - and people had time off to play dice in a tavern, unwind at the baths, or even go to a big show at the London Arena.

We know this because No. 1 Poultry had excellent archaeological preservation - including the nettles and flies - and from 1994-96 one of the biggest digs in London's history was organised on the site. Peter Rowsome's book is a perfect guide: it weaves together the process of discovery, the main evidence, our best guess at reconstruction, lots of background context, and a handful of colour pictures on every page. The focus is on early Roman London, but he deals with later phases equally well. Originally published to accompany a major museum exhibition, Heart of the City is aimed at the general reader, though most archaeologists will find it a great substitute for the usual arm-aching official report.

Nick Bateman's book on the Guildhall Yard excavations from 1992-99 is in the same format and just as good. Here was another landmark City dig: London's long-lost Roman amphitheatre rediscovered and, with heaps of preserved timber, some astonishing detail about how it all worked, including the drains beneath the arena, a sliding trap door entrance and the spot-on dovetail jointing of London's first carpenters. Later phases included a Viking settlement of wattle-walled houses and the great rebuilding of the Guildhall, the seat of London's mayor, in the 15th century.

Both books are fitting tributes to their respective projects and the teams. And what a relief it is that archaeologists are finally shedding their traditional stuffiness and finding the confidence to speculate, popularise and have some fun with their subject!

Neil Faulkner is honorary lecturer, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Gladiators at The Guildhall: The Story of London's Roman Amphitheatre and Medieval Guildhall

Author - Nick Bateman
ISBN - 1 901992 19 5
Publisher - Museum of London Archaeology Service
Price - £5.99
Pages - 92

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