Museum of London Archaeology at St Bartholomew's Hospital: excavating the London city ditch

MOLA team

Barts Hospital is undergoing a massive 10-year redevelopment programme by Skanska as part of the Barts and The London New Hospitals scheme. The redevelopment project includes the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel and is carried out in three phases.

Phase 1 at Barts, along the east side of the hospital, was excavated by MOLA in 2005 and the new Barts Cancer Centre has been open since March 2010. A team of MOLA archaeologists is now excavating a large trench in the centre of Phase 2 of the redevelopment.

During the current excavation, our archaeologists have found the Roman and medieval city ditches, both of which survive across the southern edge of the site and were partially seen in the excavation trench in 2005, which lay some 100 metres to the east.

The Roman city ditch was probably first cut around AD 200, contemporary with the first defensive masonry wall around the city, immediately to the south of where the hospital now lies. As originally built, the ditch was probably two or three metres deep and 15 metres across. Together the wall and ditch functioned as the city’s defence against possible attack. After falling into disuse at the end of the Roman period, from the 9th until the16th century both the ditch and the City Wall were continually enlarged, repaired, rebuilt, recut and reused.

Throughout the life of the ditch, people living in the city used it as a rubbish tip, throwing away items they no longer wanted. Today our archaeologists are recovering some of these items - our finds have included tobacco pipes, tweezers, pots, leather shoes and arrowheads.

By the late 16th century, the need for a defensive wall and ditch around London was perceived to be diminishing and regular maintenance of the ditch stopped. Neglect soon became an active policy of abandonment, and large quantities of the city’s rubbish were dumped into the ditch in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Eventually the ditch was built over; post-medieval foundations and cellars have been found during the excavations.

As the archaeological excavation at Barts Hospital is taking place, Skanska, the contractors responsible for the hospital’s redevelopment programme which completes in 2016, continue to demolish the old buildings and redevelop the site. This involves a close partnership between the archaeologists and the Skanska team. A short piece,  ‘A day in the life of…’ one of our archaeologists, Rachel English, has recently featured in the Skanska team newsletter and is posted on the Museum of London blog.

MOLA's project team at St Barts is managed by Nick Bateman and Beliz Tecirli and supervised on site by Robin Wroe-Brown and Tim Braybrook.

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