Secrets of the Gardens


Archaeologists unearth the lives of Roman Londoners at Draper’s Gardens, City of London

Edited by Victoria Ridgeway, 2009.

ISBN 978-0956305411



Beneath Drapers’ Gardens, in what was once a damp and uninviting quarter of the Roman city of Londinium lies a buried valley, the Walbrook, home to some of the more unpleasant industries of the town, as well as some remarkable and unexpected finds. These include a hoard of metal objects buried in a fourth-century well, the rare discovery of a bear skull and a remarkable red jasper gemstone from a seal ring.

However, what really sets this site apart is both, the extraordinary preservation of finds due to the particular soil conditions of the Walbrook Valley and the sheer size of the area investigated. A near complete urban street with associated buildings spanning many years of the Roman occupation was uncovered.

Buried along with the rest of the settlement under centuries of detritus the land was bought from Henry VIII in 1543 by the Drapers’ Company, regulators of the cloth trade in. the City of London, The Company’s `Great Garden’ remained largely undisturbed for over 400 years, an oasis of calm in the thriving and bustling financial centre. “This resulted in fantastic preservation of the Roman remains buried beneath, despite the construction of one of the tallest buildings in the City here in the 1960s. It seems unlikely that we will ever have the opportunity to excavate such a large and well-preserved site as Drapers’ Gardens in London again

  1. Angela Wardle (Britannia 2012)

    Many of the artefacts in the collections of the Museum of London have come from the valley of the River Walbrook which flowed through the centre of Roman London and excavations in this area are always of great potential interest. This well-illustrated booklet is a popular interim account of the spectacular excavation carried out by Pre-Construct Archaeology at Drapers’ Gardens in the City of London, the site of the 1960s tower designed by Richard Seifert. The site lay at the confluence of three channels in the Upper Walbrook valley and the waterlogged conditions contributed to the remarkable preservation of both structures and finds. The booklet traces the history of the site from the construction of a simple corduroy trackway, with the very early date of the spring of A.D. 62, to the development of Drapers’ Hall and gardens and finally to the construction of the new building with its dramatic roof gardens.
    The main focus of the book is of course on Roman London. Contemporary with the trackway in the early Roman period were several infant burials, still in their wooden boxes. The discovery of a complete wooden door, only the second to be found in London, permits discussion of the techniques of timberwork and joinery, while effectively demonstrating the preservation of the woodwork, with impressive site photographs. A timber palisade cutting the timber trackway was constructed around A.D. 70 and with a probable height of about 2 m, appears to have been a defensive structure. The evidence for land reclamation in the Upper Walbrook valley is discussed briefly; this was followed by phases of intense building and industrialisation in the later first and second centuries, demonstrated by the excavation of many roadside buildings. Much of the booklet is devoted to the great wealth of artefactual evidence from the site. This is arranged by themes covering aspects of daily life, such as ‘Religion’ and ‘Trade and Industry’, noteworthy for its discussion of carpentry and leather working. The section on ‘Animal Bone’ describes how the various parts of the carcass were used and ‘Diet and Environment’ introduces botanical and faunal evidence. The chapter entitled ‘Literature and Writing’ illustrates a selection of the inscriptions from the site, chiefly graffiti on pottery. Although fragments of wooden writing-tablets were recovered, none bore significant text, but the elaborately decorated lid of an inkwell similar to others in the London collections serves as a reminder of other methods of writing.
    Despite the destruction of late Roman levels by modern activity, several late features survived, among which were four timber-lined wells. One contained the most remarkable discovery, a hoard of 20 metal vessels, in copper alloy, pewter and iron, superbly preserved in the anaerobic conditions. These have already received much attention, with a temporary display at the Museum of London and a preliminary report by J. Gerrard (Britannia 40 (2009), 163–83); this latter affords a welcome opportunity to see a selection of photographs in full colour. The hoard was deposited after A.D. 375, on numismatic evidence, but the vessels, which include some extremely rare and important examples, vary widely in date. They were accompanied by a broken and bent bracelet and the bones of a young deer, both hinting at ritual deposition, and while the reason for the burial of the hoard remains a matter of speculation, the excavators have been able to reconstruct the sequence of deposition with some precision. A double-page strip cartoon showing the burial is an interesting attempt at communicating a complex subject.
    The book is written in a popular style and is a good and accessible introduction to this major site. The photographs and illustrations are well chosen and display the remarkable structures and finds to full advantage, with good use of contemporary iconographic evidence and artefacts from elsewhere in the Empire. It is accompanied by a DVD of the excavations, commissioned by the Drapers’ Company, which effectively demonstrates the complexity of the site, giving excellent footage of the preserved timbers. The cover illustration, showing the reconstructed Roman street superimposed on the buildings of the modern city is a lively reminder of what lay beneath the ground. We look forward with anticipation to the full publication
    of this important site and its finds.

  2. Jenny Hall (Lucerna)

    RFG members may remember the temporary display at the Museum of London or attended the RFG meeting at the British Museum where James Gerrard from pre-Construct Archaeology described the amazing bronze vessel hoard that had been placed down a well in 4th-century Roman London. As a response to the public interest and at the behest of the developers with lucerna 40 the Drapers Company, Pre-Construct Archaeology (PCA) has now produced a popular interim booklet about the excavations on the site at Drapers Gardens.
    This site had a wide variety of unusual structures and the surviving organic materials made the site exceptional. The booklet details the history of the site, beginning with a corduroy trackway which was first laid out in about AD62, just after the Boudiccan revolt. This development of the area is earlier than was previously thought. Shortly after, a palisade fence was constructed cutting through the trackway, which survived in some places up to about 2m – hopefully, the post-excavation research will provide an explanation for this defensive measure. There then followed a period of intense building and industrialisation with the excavation of a near complete street, while the Walbrook stream itself was constantly being controlled, revetted and contained in wide manmade ditches that were crossed by plank bridges spaced alongside the road, allowing access to the roadside buildings and workshops.
    Such themes as ‘Diet & environment’ and ‘Literacy & writing’ demonstrate the wealth of the artefactual material found on the site. What follows is the story of the vessel hoard, its constituent parts, how it was deposited and then the later history of the site including that of the Drapers Hall and Gardens. The story of the hoard is also accompanied by a double-spread cartoon, a novel way of showing how it was possibly deposited, but I do wonder whether it really added anything to the text. Otherwise, the book is interspersed with a wide variety of coloured images of some of the artefacts and/or comparative material, illustrations and a good reconstruction of the site, which also appears on the cover superimposed on today’s street scene.
    The booklet is a good introduction to a very complex site and is a taster to some of the amazing objects found there. The booklet is accompanied by a DVD that consists of an interesting film of the excavations, first commissioned by the Drapers Company, which helps to explain the complex archaeology of the site. We can only wait with anticipation for the completion of the all the detailed postexcavation work and the full publication of the site.

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