Friday, April 12, 2013

Londinium Resurrected

Londinium - Artist's Impression
This has been a truly exciting week. 

In my off time I’m constantly scouring the web for articles and videos on the latest archaeological and historical discoveries and theories. When I stumbled upon the news from London on the BBC website, I was totally blown away.

Our knowledge of Roman London, or Londinium, has increased exponentially of late with excavations at a site along Queen Victoria Street. This was the heart of Roman Londinium. The site has been dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the North’ due to the fantastic preservation of the finds.

How many finds? Ten thousand, to be precise. At least that’s the number that’s being given out. It could be more.

But Roman London wasn’t always the massive metropolis we know it as today. In fact, after Emperor Claudius’ invasion c. 43 A.D. Camulodunum (modern Colchester) was the administrative capital of the province.

Londinium was established roughly about the same year and by about 50 A.D. was a civitas, a civilian settlement.

Artist's Impression of Queen Boudicca
Then came Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, who destroyed a Roman legion sent against her from Lincoln and set Camulodunum and Londinium aflame around 60 A.D. As many of the structures were likely made of wattle and daub, the fires would have been devastating. Here is a video on how structures in Roman London were made.

In the wake of the bloody Boudiccan revolt and the defeat of the tribes by General Paulinus, Londinium was rebuilt as a proper, planned Roman town and in a short time became bigger than Camulodunum.

At its peak in the early 2nd century A.D., Londinium covered over 350 acres of land. Much of the buildings of this period were constructed for the Emperor Hadrian’s visit to the province and the town which was now the administrative capital of Britannia.

Londinium was later rendered more defensible between 190 and 255 A.D. when the Romans built the ‘London Wall’. This defensive work was 20 feet high, 8 feet thick and stretched for 3 miles. Some believe that it was begun by the Governor Clodius Albinus at the end of the 2nd century when civil war broke out between him and the future emperor, Septimius Severus.

Excavations in London
These most recent excavations have yielded some pretty amazing finds that will expand upon our knowledge of Londinium and the picture we have of it.

This is exciting for the historic novelist as well. These are the sorts of things that can add detail to the world of a novel. The finds include writing tablets with the ink still legible, charms and talismans, a wooden door, the remains of timber buildings and yards, clothing, an ornate dish set, and ornate pieces of leather work. BBC has posted a slide show of some of the more beautiful finds HERE.

Also uncovered were part of a lost Londinium riverbed, entire streets of with complex Roman drainage systems, and part of a previously unexcavated section of a temple of Mithras. Part of this temple was discovered in 2010 during a previous dig. You can read that article HERE.

Find from the site
It will be interesting to see how and if the finds change the current maps we have of Roman Londinium and I, for one, am looking forward to getting up close to some of the finds. Someday at least.

London is one of those fantastic places where one can walk upon layers of civilization. Thank goodness there are strict laws in place that allow for excavations to be completed before building projects are allowed to continue. If these laws were not in place our historical record would be much the poorer.

Sadly, when Rome left the British to their own defences in the early 5th century A.D. Londinium went  into decline. By the end of the 5th century there were almost no residents.

Amber charm in the shape of
a gladiator's helmet
That’s why excavations and the finds that come out of them are so important. They can fill the gaps in our knowledge and preserve the historical record. These can also inform fiction which is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to resurrect and ancient city. 

Up for a bit of fun? Try the Museum of London's online game: LONDINIUM

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