glass bead found in Roman context at 10 Gresham Street

How Roman were the first Londoners?

Antony Francis

Our new book, Romano-British round houses to medieval parish, explores archaeological evidence from excavations at 10 Gresham Street. Antony Francis, an archaeologist who helped run the site and co-authored the book, reveals his highlights.

As excavation at 10 Gresham Street drew to a close, the significance of our discoveries for understanding the transition in London from Iron Age to Roman ways of living became clear. What we found was the largest group of Romano-British roundhouses yet excavated in the capital. These were part of a semi-permanent camp of Iron Age-type circular buildings, dating 60–70 AD, alongside a rectangular building, a form more associated with Roman traditions. There was another surprise inside the rectangular building – evidence for glass bead-making using Iron Age techniques. Along with pottery and seed evidence for diet, it seemed that the artisans, living at the margins of the newly-established town, had adopted a ‘Roman’ or ‘Iron Age’ lifestyle as it suited them. 

These people were swept away by a Roman road built around 70 AD. But although the road flattened the early buildings, it also preserved them below its successive layers of hard-packed gravel. The road was part of a centrally-organised plan to extend the town west of the Walbrook stream. It ran north from the town’s main east-west highway that roughly follows the line of modern Cheapside. A series of strip buildings sprang up along its edges, squeezed together in a frontier-town fashion. These had hearths, internal walls, one even had a urinal. As time went on, the area became more affluent. In the south of the site, we found the walls of a grand 2nd-century townhouse complete with courtyard. One room boasted a fine polychrome mosaic, with an intricate pattern of lozenges, triangles and twisted chains and leaves, the earliest of its type found in Britain.

We also discovered the remains of the 15th-century tower of the church of St Michael of Wood Street, a deep chalk foundation. John Stow relates a rather gruesome story in his 1598 Survey of London of how the head of James IV of Scotland was buried at this church. After his death at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the King’s corpse had been ‘lapped in lead’ and moved to a monastery in Surrey. Here the head was ‘hewed off’ by workmen ‘for their foolish pleasure’ and taken to London by the royal glazier ‘feeling a sweet savour to come from thence’. Evidently tiring of this smell, the glazier ordered it to be buried along with other charnel from the church. This splendid artefact sadly eluded the excavation team.

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