Walking the Greenwich foreshore with Dr Sophie Hay
In this blog new MOLA Ambassador, Dr Sophie Hay, joins the Thames Discovery Programme on the Greenwich foreshore for her first Archaeology Ambassador event.
Although I chose the sunnier climes of the Roman Empire to study as an archaeologist—living and working in Italy for nineteen years—my recent return to London has renewed my curiosity in the archaeology of this magnificent city. On a recent visit to the London Mithraeum I was introduced to MOLA’s Sophie Jackson and as she told me about the Bloomberg excavations I was reminded how wonderfully rich and potent the evidence for London’s past can be. The conversation led to an invitation to become an MOLA Archaeology Ambassador and I could not say ‘yes’ fast enough. It is a not only a great honour but a fabulous way to learn more about London’s history and share with others my experiences of archaeological fieldwork in Pompeii and across the Mediterranean.
The timing could not have been better, as within weeks I was signed up to go on an Ambassadors trip to walk the foreshore at Greenwich guided by Eliott Wragg of the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) – an organisation that encourages the understanding of the archaeology of the Thames foreshore by training the public to actively participate, monitor and record. Given the nature of our excursion, there was only one way to arrive in Greenwich to meet my fellow Ambassadors, and that was by boat. Hopping on a Thames Clipper from London Bridge, the boat snaked its way through London and on the journey I began to appreciate the aspects of river life: the bridges, the pontoons and the frontier between the built up city and its watery neighbour. The presence of the River Thames has been a constant in the history of London so it is gloriously contradictory that the continual rise and fall of its tide reveals evidence for past settlers in intermittent and fragmentary glimpses.
The Thames foreshore undergoes changes influenced by fluctuations in the strength of the current and the effect of the wash created by every passing riverboat. These glimpses, that span the ages, come in two forms: small artefacts of metal, glass, stone, leather or ceramic that get washed up and spotted by sharp-sighted archaeologists and mudlarkers; and substantial structures associated with the river as a transport network. Courtesy of the lack of oxygen and shifting surface of the riverbed, timbers are preserved and at low tide the foreshore is awash with the remnants of wooden jetties, mooring posts and even bridge supports as well as fragments of boats themselves.
On meeting the other Ambassadors, I was delighted to discover that we were an eclectic bunch but all with a shared passion for archaeology. After descending onto the shore we were soon all slightly hunched over, scouring the shingle hoping to spot an artefact nestled amongst the stones. As we crunched our way over the pebbles, I admit to being so taken by conversations with the group members that I paid very little attention to what was underfoot. Others engrossed themselves in “pebblelarking” and were soon eagerly comparing pottery sherds and bottle tops.
Listening to Eliott, it soon became apparent how diverse the evidence of the past is, even over a short stretch of the foreshore: from a dense scatter of bones jettisoned from the kitchens of the Palace of Placentia to some upright water-smoothed timber posts that demonstrate the position of a Tudor jetty. It is in talking about the jetty that it becomes clear just how important the work of the TDP is. The instability of the foreshore is both a blessing and a curse: as new evidence is uncovered, so old evidence is washed away. In order to avoid losing vital information, the TDP’s trained recruits, affectionately known as FROGs (the Foreshore Recording and Observation Group), are responsible for continually monitoring the foreshore, which means that as archaeological evidence is revealed it can be recorded before it potentially disappears. In some instances, this gradual accumulation of evidence has been the only way that larger structures have been identified – only by overlaying a series of plans recorded over many years do seemingly unrelated timber piles form patterns and the footprints of structures become clear. The work of the TDP is invaluable to our understanding of this archaeologically rich yet fragile and ever-changing liminal zone of London.