Cleopatra's Needle at Embankement in London

Sinking Ships: archaeology, Crossrail and Cleopatra’s Needle

Daniel Harrison

The Thames Iron Works 1837-1912: A Major Shipbuilder on the Thames Daniel Harrison is a Senior Archaeologist at MOLA and author of our new Crossrail publication ‘The Thames Iron Works 1837-1912: A Major Shipbuilder on the Thames’. In this blog he discusses the history of one of the Iron Works’ most unusual ships, the Cleopatra, which transported Cleopatra’s Needle to London.

I was seven or eight when I first saw Cleopatra’s Needle. The ancient obelisk standing on its plinth by the Thames left me in awe. How had such a huge and ancient thing found its way through three and a half millennia and thousands of miles to rest by Embankment station in the heart of London?

In 2012, Crossrail’s ambitious plans to build a new high capacity rail line across London gave me the opportunity to revisit the Needle and finally uncover its story for myself. At Canning Town, further downriver from where the needle now stands, we undertook excavations within the footprint of two massive shafts needed to provide access for the tunnel boring machines. The excavations revealed extensive archaeological remains of the once world-renowned Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company. It was whilst writing up our findings for the publication that I, somewhat unexpectedly, finally found out how Cleopatra’s Needle came to London.

The obelisk actually predates Cleopatra by about 1,400 years, having originally stood in Heliopolis before being moved to Alexandria in 12BC. Having toppled, it lay in the sands, which protected it through the centuries. In 1819, then Pasha of Egypt and Sudan, Muhammad Ali, presented Cleopatra's Needle to the British Government in honour and recognition of the victories at the Battle of the Nile the Battle of Alexandria. The obelisk however remained moribund for the next 78 years due to the expense and difficulty of moving it.

It wasn’t until 1877 and with the financial backing of philanthropist Sir William J Erasmus Wilson, that engineer John Dixon came up with the idea of encasing the obelisk in a cylinder-shaped iron vessel, which could be towed from Alexandria. The vessel, named Cleopatra in honor of her precious cargo, was built at the Thames Ironworks, quite possibly using furnaces like the one we uncovered during our excavations. She was constructed with an iron case surrounding a number of iron rings designed to hold the obelisk in place. The vessel was taken apart, transported in pieces and then reassembled in Egypt, being built around the obelisk in sections.  

In September 1877, the Cleopatra set sail, reaching the Atlantic by 7 October. One week later, the Cleopatra and the Needle were caught in a storm off the Bay of Biscay, leading to its abandonment. Bizarrely, the Cleopatra was rediscovered by another British ship, the SS Fitzmaurice floating in the sea the same evening. It was towed to safety in the Spanish port of Ferrol before finally being towed to its current home by the Thames tug Anglia.

The Needle was erected on the Victoria Embankment on 12 September, 1878 to the awe and fascination of Londoners and visitors ever since. I’m very thankful to have had the chance to learn about the Cleopatra’s unique journey and to have excavated the place of its inception.

You can read more about the Cleopatra and Cleopatra’s Needle in The Thames Iron Works 1837-1912: A Major Shipbuilder on the Thames.

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