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Ugh ... those crass Roman malls

Archaeologists are increasingly making their presence felt in the way cities are organised and developed, since it is now a condition of planning permission that archaeologists are allowed onto a site before construction starts. For those involved in the construction industry, particularly developers, the prospect of a major find is a potential nightmare which could seriously delay the construction process.

On a large-scale infrastructure project, the scope for investigation is enormous. But Alistair Greene, from the Museum of London Archaeology Service, who delivered a lecture on the archaeological site of the Jubilee Line extension at the London Transport Museum on Monday, was quick to point out that the digs organised by the museum along the route have made no contribution to the much-publicised late running of the project. Each one was carefully scheduled into the construction programme, and completed within the allocated period.

Significant finds have been made at sites underneath Borough High Street and London Bridge Station. Working in daunting conditions, in a jungle of services suspended from the underside of a temporary metal road deck, the archaeologists found extensive remains of the Roman settlement of Southwark, showing not only that there was a continuous frontage of buildings along the road, even at the time, but also that they had been razed to the ground in 61ad. Queen Boadicea of the Icenae took revenge on the Romans by burning Colchester to the ground at this time, before subjecting north London to the same fate. It now seems fairly certain that she also crossed the river and did her worst in Southwark. Within five years of the destruction, however, the site had been rebuilt. Evidence of a blacksmith's, butcher's and baker's, along with the remains of a colonnade, suggests that the concept of the shopping centre has a long and illustrious history in this country, and that critics should not be so quick to blame American mall culture for its proliferation in towns today.

Other remains found at the Southwark sites confirm that the area functioned pretty much as the Soho of its day, with numerous taverns and places of entertainment. But an impressive wall of dry bones was also discovered, the remains of bodies from a pauper's grave, thrown aside when later building work was carried out. More bodies were found further down the line at Stratford. Underneath the depot here were the remains of Stratford Langthorne Abbey, where 680 skeletons were found in the monks' graveyard. After examination, the remains will eventually be taken away to Leicestershire for reburial by a present-day Cistercian community there.

Significant remains such as these lie at most two metres below ground level. The tube line runs 25m underground - so as you go down the escalator, you are literally descending through layers of history.

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