Archaeology, Archaeology Research

Upper Pool – prehistoric to Roman

A brief post on ‘eyots’ and the results of excavations north of Tooley Street on the Soutbank has turned into a rather longer one… I hadn’t realised how interesting the area was until it was too late! During it’s time as a port in the 18th-19th centuries it gained the name ‘Upper Pool’, which is what i’ve used here.

Here’s the first section on the prehistoric to Roman period:

For most Londoners, the Thames is a constant – we see its familiar snake-like shape on the credits of Eastenders, and know it mostly through the famous bridges that cross it.

However, step back 500 years and the river would have looked completely different, with Southwark almost completely covered by mud flats and swampy marshland.

Archaeological work on the near-shore areas focuses not just on objects or buildings or buried monuments, but on the different layers of soil, clay, gravel and sand that sit under our buildings. As a result evidence from the many excavations that have taken place indicate that in the past the Thames was significantly wider than it is today. Over the last five hundred years we have successfully reclaimed the edges of the Thames, hemming the river in to its current narrow path, but the prehistoric Thames was a much bigger beast.

Evidence suggests that the earliest Thames was a fast flowing river, slowing and spreading out into a broad floodplain as it aged. This subsequently filled with soil washed down due to the change in sea-level, resulting in further slowing of the river and turning the prehistoric Thames valley into a swampy area.

Very little of this landscape survives today, but there is one part that is still discernable to the archaeologist and geologist. During the prehistoric period the area of Southwark was formed of islands, sandbanks referred to as ‘eyots’. One, referred to as the Horselydown Eyot, was roughly oval in shape, and centred on the junction of Tooley Street with Tower Bridge Road. It stretched from the junction of Crucifix Lane and St Thomas Street in the west, to St Saviour’s Dock in the east.

Whilst this island is buried and invisible today, a thousand years ago it was more than 600m long and maybe 400m wide, making it approximately the same width as the Thames today. The Romans used it as a base for the south end of their bridge across the Thames, and it has been an important suburb of London for the last thousand years.

However, the section that interests me particularly is the area north of Tooley Street, which runs from London Bridge to Tower Bridge: it’s highlighted in the map below.

The eastern part of this area was subject to extensive excavations in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the massive redevelopment that took place under the London Bridge City Phase II project, which oversaw the demolision of all of the Victorian warehousing and housing between Hay’s Galleria and Tower Bridge.

The excavations, undertaken or supervised almost exclusively by the Museum of London, uncovered evidence that this part of the Eyot was subject to rising river levels from the Bronze Age onwards. Although London did not have a major settlement, the Eyot appears to be one of the areas where small groups of people lived.

Although Iron Age settlements in the small area discussed would only have been a metre or so above river level, pits, post holes, stakeholes and a ditch have been recorded. It is likely that the post holes and stakeholes represent small buildings and structures, which would have been constructed from timbers. The pits were likely dug to dispose of rubbish, the ditches to mark out land or to facilitate drainage of the land. Certainly the Iron Age people were taking advantage of the wealth of wild birds and fish that would have populated the tidal mud flats of the surrounding Thames.

However by the Roman period this small area was becoming increasingly wet and marshy. Although the settlement around the bridgehead at London Bridge is known to have been thriving, evidence to the east is sparse and is often dominated by drainage and land management features such as timber revetments.

Excavation shows that our area of the Eyot was subjected to periodic flooding from the Roman period onwards, and it is therefore not surprising that the Southwark settlement did not seem to spread to or utilise this area. Indeed, the area seems to fall out of use completely by the end of the Roman period, and this area of the Eyot was abandoned until the medieval period…

Information derived from reports by Museum of London Archaeology, some of which can be found online under the Southwark fieldwork summaries, or general fieldwork summaries (search for ‘Tooley Street’ for starters), or under “Excavation Reviews” in the back issues of London Archaeologist available at ADS here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s