A MOLA archaeologist measures a section of mosaic floor discovered within one of the Roman rooms.

A window into Roman life in Southwark

Andrew Henderson-Schwartz
12.10.2021

When you hop-off the train at London Bridge, wander around Borough Market, or gaze up at The Shard, do you ever wonder what this part of London used to look like? Well, we've been busy leading excavations at the site set to become The Liberty of Southwark cultural quarter near Borough High Street. What we've discovered provides a fascinating window into what life was like in Southwark almost 2,000 years ago.

What has been found?

So far, the team have uncovered a large and impressive Roman building. It was made up of four rooms, one of which is thought to have been an internal courtyard. The walls were decorated and large quantities of painted wall plaster have been found. This includes some particularly pretty pieces featuring colourful flower designs. The floors were also beautifully finished, and both a mosaic and opus signinum (broken tile) floor have been discovered. It is likely that the structure was surrounded by lush gardens containing raised beds for planting.

The building is thought to have been constructed around AD72 – about 25 years after the Romans founded the settlement of Londinium (Roman London) in the area we now know as the City of London. Other finds from the site currently include coins, jewellery, pottery, oyster shells, copper bowls and a gaming counter. Interestingly, the gaming counter appears to have been lost when it fell in a gap between the floor and the wall – a frustration clearly shared throughout the ages!

An overview of a large section of the excavation site, with archaeologists engaged in various activities
An overview of a large section of the main site, with MOLA archaeologists busy excavating and recording the Roman remains.

Who would have lived there?

The northern part of the building was previously dug in the 1980s and at the time was thought to be a Mansio – the Roman equivalent of a fancy motel. Here important officials would have stayed and rested between long journeys. The latest findings suggest this may well have been what the building was used for. However, it is also possible that it was the private residence of a wealthy person or family. The discovery of a phallic-shaped pendant indicates that high-ranking soldiers might have stayed there, as this is a symbol often linked with the Roman military.

As our Senior Project Manager, Derek Seeley, summarises: “The quality of materials found at this site suggests this building was occupied by only high-ranking members of society. It is rare that we are able to study such a large area in central London. This has provided a fascinating window into the living conditions and lifestyle of elites in Roman Britain.”

Why are these excavations taking place?

Excavations at the site are taking place ahead of the construction of The Liberty of Southwark, a new mixed-use development by Transport for London and specialist regeneration developer and investor U+I. Sitting between Southwark Street, Redcross Way and Union Street, The Liberty of Southwark will provide 36 new homes, including 50% affordable housing, along with 200,000 sq. ft of commercial space. The scheme will also create new pedestrian routes, reinstating some of the medieval yards and lanes of historic Southwark.

Find out more about the excavations on The Dig at the Liberty website.

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