Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Forum of London.

The redevelopment of a large area at the centre of Roman Londinium in 1969 was an event of signal importance. Although prior archaeological excavation was clearly essential there was then no full time team in London. Accordingly, Norman Cook then director of the Guildhall Museum, invited the CIB rescue-team, long experienced in this sort of operation on sites throughout Kent, to undertake the task. It was clear that any permission depended on work being carried out between the demolition of existing buildings and the construction of the new. The first phase was intended to be a four-week rescue excavation under total archaeological control with, hopefully, some subsequent salvage work in the contractors' trenches. In the event, the first phase was overlapped and overhung by the demolition and then cut by the contractors to just eight days; but a vigorous watching-brief and a small scale excavation programme was pursued for another four and a half months. The anxious main contractor was under a penalty of 8,000 per week for any delays; four groups of sub-contractors and their plant competed for the limited space and the general atmosphere was seldom refined or academic. Even so, in spite of the dangers, the poisonous fumes and the bad winter weather the Kent archaeologists stuck to the task until all the foundation-work was completed; and without causing any delay.

The site did contain a number of major Roman features. Firstly there was certain proof that a major east-west street flanked the area throughout the Roman period and even suggested a focal military origin. Secondly, it contained the first evidence of major buildings as part of a formal Claudian lay-out. All these buildings had been destroyed by the fierce Boudiccan fire that destroyed the town in AD 60, as the deep layers of fire debris showed. Thirdly, the site contained a large section of a grand public building which had dominated the centre of Roman London after the fire. With an overall reconstruction of the plan now possible the building looks remarkably like an early forum and even suggests that London had achieved the status of a municipium by pre-Flavian times. Finally, sitting partly across and framing this structure, were the south and east ranges of the palatial forum-basilica complex of the late-first century, clearly the biggest of its type in any Roman province north of the Alps. The considerable new evidence now greatly increases knowledge of its form, its axis and its relationship with other structures and also removes many anomalies of earlier excavations. In addition, a number of pier-bases, found on the central axis of the forum, suggests a monumental entrance comparable to the great forum of Trajan in Rome.

The whole exercise is thus one in which those who took part can have the satisfaction of an important and difficult job well done. It also demonstrates just what can be achieved by a determined and enthusiastic team of part-time archaeologists working under bad conditions. It proves that highly significant results can be obtained by crisp rescue-excavation and sensible salvage work. This is a sharp contradiction of the claim by 'Hillfort Syndrome' archaeologists that only work on ideal sites under ideal conditions can succeed. Certainly by 1978 standards some would even claim that it was quite impossible to do anything under these conditions and that nothing should have been attempted. Quite apart from the obvious question of priorities, the simple truth is that this site contained evidence of vital importance to the centre of the capital of Roman Britain. It was available to archaeologists for just a few hectic winter months in 1969. It has now gone forever.

Copies of the report on the excavation are now available from: Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit, CIB Headquarters, Dover Castle, Kent. Price: 1 each (including postage) Cheques payable to KARU, please.

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