Excavations at Billingsgate Buildings 'Triangle', Lower Thames Street 1974

David M Jones    Download (16 MB)


The purpose of the excavation was two-fold: to examine Roman terracing on the north bank of the Thames, seen to the west on either side of London Bridge in the 1920s, and to trace the line of the Roman Riverside Wall. (In 1974 the existence of the Riverside Wall, a late Roman addition to the waterfront, was not yet proven; the discoveries at Blackfriars were made a year later, in 1975-6.) A length of masonry supposed to form part of the Riverside Wall had been found about 95 m to the west, below the building frontage on the north side of Lower Thames Street, in 1911. Although the alignment, when projected, did not cross the present excavation trench, its plotting was not entirely satisfactory and further clarification seemed desirable. Moreover, the chance of excavating on the former river bank to the north of Thames Street was seen as a way of complementing the work then being undertaken on a sequence of Roman and later wharves at New Fresh Wharf, 45 m to the south-west.

The excavation revealed a series of artificial terracings of the river bank (Periods I-III). These had been undertaken in the late 1st and 2nd centuries AD and were represented by three sets of oak posts with horizontal planks retaining dumps of building rubble, soil and domestic refuse. These revetments, which had been buried or destroyed by the end of the 2nd century, may be the eastern continuations of more substantial box-structures excavated on either side of the likely line of the Roman bridge (at, or close to, the foot of Fish Street Hill) in 1920-9. It is clear that for up to 120 m on either side of the Roman bridge approach the northern bank was the subject of considerable terracing activity in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. The most southerly of these structures may have functioned as a quay, but the evidence is inconclusive both on the sites excavated in the 1920s and at Billingsgate Buildings. While the levels of the revetments are comparable with what little is known of Roman tidal levels, no specifically river-lain deposits were found lying against or over them. It is possible that such deposits were removed or obscured after the 2nd century, but at the moment it seems safer to assume that the late 1st and early 2nd-century quay lay a little to the south, under the present Lower Thames Street.

The dumps behind the revements produced building materials such as tiles, opus signinum, tesserae and window glass, together with fragments of wall painting, decorative stone wall (?) inlay, and straw, possibly from thatched roofs. Although the provenance of this redeposited debris cannot be established, it is unlikely to have been brought from any great distance. Roman buildings have been recorded close by: for example, to the west, under the present Pudding Lane, where a ragstone and tile wall with an adjoining hypocaust was found in 1836-41, and to the north-west, under Monument Street, where a portion of tessellated pavement with an obscure inscription in smaller black tesserae was discovered in 1887. Neither of these buildings has been dated, but they presumably followed the establishment of the terracing in the late 1st and early 2nd centuries.

In addition to building material, the exceptionally rich deposits – waterlogged except for the top-most layers – produced a large quantity and range of Roman finds. Predominant among them was pottery. This consisted mainly of sherds from vessels associated with the transportation, storage and preparation of food, and included Spanish and Italian amphorae. The Roman diet is indicated by a variety of nuts, fruit and vegetable seeds, by a cheese press, by quernstones for grinding flour, and by the bones of marine and freshwater fish, domestic fowl and ox, sheep, horse, goat and pig. Domestic life is represented by items of personal ornamentation or cosmetic use, most notably by a large number of men’s, women’s and children’s leather shoes. Other household objects include ceramic lamps, needles, spindles, furniture elements and scraps of leather possibly from upholstery. Items such as a plasterer’s tool provide evidence of small-scale workshops of the 1st or 2nd centuries, and there are indications of shoe-making and repairing, cattle slaughtering, and bone, lead and bronze working. Besides local trading, the pottery reveals extensive links with Gaul and the Mediterranean, while writing tablets demonstrate the importance of London as a legal and administrative centre.

The site yielded practically no material definitely later than the late 2nd century, nor earlier than the 11th or 12th centuries. A series of pile foundations, supporting ragstone blocks set into a shallow ditch, appeared to have been built on the destroyed or buried remains of the revetments in the late Roman or early Saxon period (Period IV). The precise date and function of these features remains uncertain, but work on the south side of Lower Thames Street, where definite remains of the Riverside Wall have been located, may, in the future, help with their interpretation. Most susbsequent features and layers had been destroyed by a modern basement. All that survived were the bottoms of a Saxo-Norman wicker-lined pit and timber-lined well, and of a medieval wicker-lined pit.

[ Special Paper 4 (1980); derived from the published abstract]