A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 3

By glynn davis on 31 Mar 2012

The LAARC‘s residency at the Museum of London has come to an end, but our object of the month continues! This month it’s the Romans and now we’re into ‘proper’ history, as with the Roman occupation of Britain we gain our earliest written accounts of London.

The LAARC holds thousands of Roman artefacts, only some of which have made it into our galleries. Many still reside in storage waiting to be rediscovered, perhaps for a new gallery display.

So what object best to exemplify Londinium? I could have selected something iconic, such as the marble head of Mithras discovered by Professor Grimes in his chance discovery of the Roman Mithraeum. It is after all one of the finest Roman marble sculptures ever excavated in all of Britain…

Or perhaps I should have selected an artefact that brings us closer to, and makes real, Roman Londoners, such as this wooden writing tablet excavated from Poultry near Bank. Inscribed into the wood, its last permeated letter records the sale of a slave girl named Fortuna. Important as singular evidence of the slave trade, but also offering a glimpse at a real Londoner (who may not have been resident in London for very long and indeed wasn’t even ‘Roman’)…

I could even have chosen a more recently excavated object and one that showcases the ability of museum conservators to bring objects ‘back to life’ after their c.2000 year entombment. This reconstructed Roman bowl of millefiori glass was recently excavated from a grave at Prescott Street, east London and was painstakingly restored. It’s one of the finest examples known outside of the eastern Roman Empire…

Instead, I’ve not even chosen an artefact at all, but have hopefully blindsided you all by selecting an ecofact! I’ve chosen this as it highlights an important field of archaeological study – environmental archaeology – that forms a dedicated section in our Archaeological Archive. Additionally I hope this specimen illustrates how archaeology can in fact question our assumptions of written history…

Object 3

Roman (C1st AD) Carbonised Cereal Grain

These seeds are a sample of a larger deposit of grain that was excavated from a building in London’s Roman forum – essentially the marketplace of the Roman town – in 1976. The seeds have survived through carbonisation as a result of intense burning. The impetus of this particular fire is the well known: the Boudican sacking of Londinium in 60-61 AD. As such, these seeds form part of an important ‘event horizon’ in London’s archaeological stratigraphy. Such tangible contexts are key benchmarks that allow us to construct a basic chronology and formulate a historical narrative of the early city.

Analysis of this grain deposit revealed inclusions of einkorn, lentils and bitter vetch (as well as a couple of weevils!) which has led to the conclusion that this crop was not indigenously cultivated i.e. it was imported from the Mediterranean or near east. When excavated in 1976, these seeds were the first evidence of grain being imported into Britain. Up until then it had been assumed that grain was one of the main exports of Britain, based on the writings of the Roman author Strabo: “It [Britain] bears grain, cattle, gold, silver, and iron. These things, accordingly, are exported from the island, as also hides, and slaves, and dogs…” (Geographica 4.5.199). Although this cereal may not have been imported in any major quantity, it does emphasise the importance of archaeology in the appraisal of literary texts, which can often go unchallenged.

Since the 1970s, when professional archaeology was developing in the city of London, archaeobotany has continued to evolve and our knowledge of exotic imports has considerably grown. Recent discoveries at Poultry include evidence of mulberry, pine nut, pomegranate, black cumin and anise to name a few. Although this ‘object’ may not even be recognisably Roman, its selection hopefully underpins and does justice to Londinium’s legacy as a major commercial centre.

2 thoughts on “A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

N.B.: No HTML tags are permitted, only text.