Horseshoes and plague victims: Digging up 2,000 years of London beneath Liverpool Street

| 10 February 2015

Jay Carver, the Lead Archaeologist on the Crossrail project, on the Bedlam burial ground where 3,000 skeletons are about to be excavated

A photo of a man holding an ancient book inside a library lined by shelves and light
Jay Carver (right) takes a look at some of the archives relating to Bedlam© Crossrail
“Here at Liverpool Street we’ve got probably the longest sequence of archaeology on the Crossrail project.

It spans 2,000 years – basically the age of London - from around six metres below the ground level, right up to the 19th century when Broad Street Station www.disused-stations.org.uk/b/broad_street/ was constructed on this site in the 1860s.

We’ve identified a Roman road – it’s a kind of suburban road that seems to follow the northern edge of the city wall.

We’re going to be spending five months here with the archaeology team, excavating Bedlam burial ground and then the levels of the Roman city which lie several metres below us. The burial ground is particularly important because it’s a period of London’s history from around the mid-1500s to around the early 1700s.

It’s got extremely interesting construction for soft ground and we think the reason for that is that we’re just, in this location, about to cross the old River Wallbrook.

A photo of two men in bright orange high visibility clothing walking through a tunnel
Liverpool Street Station, beneath Finsbury Circus© Crossrail
So clearly they encountered soft ground, put in the construction - layers, rather like how we use geotextiles and light layers these days, they put in a layer of branches and so on - and clay and gravel interspersed to create this river crossing.

What we’re hoping to find out here is exactly what was going on outside the city wall in the Roman times.

The centre of the city is very well investigated over time but we’re outside of where the key Roman city findings were in the past.

I think we’ve got a really good window here to see exactly what was going on outside. On this road we’ve found several horseshoes – interestingly, out of all the horseshoes found in Roman London, the great majority are in this area.

The big question is why. You know – is there a stable close by? Is this an area where goods from the countryside to the city are being offloaded onto city transport? And so on.

It’s known colloquially as the Bedlam burial ground, or in fact it was set out as the New Cemetery because actually it was a brand new cemetery acquired by the Lord Mayor of London to tackle a problem that all the city churchyards were experiencing, and that was overcrowding.

Literally all their burial grounds were overflowing and a new piece of land was needed. So this was the very land that was set out in 1569.

We’re told in the historical records that a brick wall was put up around the one-acre plot and instantly the burial ground became extremely well used. It had some of the cheapest burial fees in London at the time.

A photo of an enormous cylindrical tunnelling machine being dropped into a shaft by a crane
One of the largest cranes in Europe was used to lift a giant tunnelling machine into a 40-metre chaft adjacent to Canning Town station© Crossrail
It wasn’t attached to a church, so in terms of the maintenance fees it was a lot cheaper to bury your kin here. We also know that the burial ground was used for many of the homeless and dispossessed of London.

Those that didn’t belong to a particular parish, typically, would be buried here as well. So in terms of the skeletons we’re excavating and the stories they tell, we’re going to have a really interesting cross-section of Londoners here in the cemetery.

And of course the work that we’re doing to excavate those will culminate in the detailed analysis we’ll do back in the Museum of London labs to really try to understand exactly who’s buried here and what their story was.

One of the reasons that we’re excavating a lot of the burials in quite a lot of detail is that we know we’re on the very western extent of the cemeteries according to the old maps. We’ve come across a brick wall that lines up pretty well with that.

One of the things that we hadn’t seen in any previous work was exactly how far the burial ground goes westward. We’re trying to build up a picture.

We’re probably going to excavate around 2,000, 2,500 individuals from the cemetery as a whole. It’s a very good sample to really start studying how they lived, what they suffered from in terms of trauma and disease, certainly identifying the cause of death, the age of death where we can, and also potentially where they were from.

You know, we imagine London in the 16th century was already very diverse – a huge range of population, both from UK and abroad were coming to trade in London. So we’ll be looking to see what we can say about the diversity of London from the 1560s to the 1590s.”

  • You can see photos from the project in an exhibition, Breakthrough: Crossrail’s Tunnelling Story, at London Transport Museum until August.

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More from Culture24's coverage of the excavations:

Archaeologists create public database of thousands of plague victims buried at Bedlam burial ground

Search for 16th and 17th century plague victims ahead of London skeleton excavation

Skeletons buried beneath square were malnourished London victims of Black Death

Picture Gallery: Skulls, tools and cremations from 9,000 years of London archaeology
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I would imagine by now you would have found Robert Lockyer. I wondered if you might have dna on him so that some of us might see if he is related. Some of his kinsman came to America very early on and mixed with my people, the Native Americans. Please reply.
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