The building of the Elizabeth line, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, has revealed a wealth of archaeological treasures. Artefacts from earlier times have excited archaeologists and are considered well worth a major exhibition which will be staged at the Museum of London Docklands near Canary Wharf from the 10 February to 3 September 2017.

The museum is one of the few old buildings to survive in London’s Docklands. The erstwhile No.1 Warehouse for Sugar at West India Quay looks proud but out of place amongst the sea of glass, steel and concrete. Inside it affords a timely reminder of what the London Docklands were like some 60 years ago.

The scope of finds

Jackie Keily, the lead curator for the exhibition, tells of 10,000 individual artefacts being found, of which around 300 will be in the exhibition. All of these originate from the central core of the Crossrail route, covering Stratford in the east, Abbey Wood in the south and Westbourne Park in the west. Most have been found where the new tunnels are close to the surface.

Some 200 archaeologists worked at the various sites when tunnel boring work was at its peak. The findings tell the story of the men and women who lived and worked in the locality several thousand years ago.

A sample of findings

Relics include:

  • A neolithic flint scraper used for tool making found near North Woolwich station and dating from 8,000 years ago
  • A Tudor bowling ball probably used for games at Johns Court Manor and found near Stepney Green station
  • Seventeen Medieval iron horse shoes (known as hipposandals) found near Liverpool Street, then a gateway to the city and clearly where much horse changing activity took place
  • A selection of 16,000 jam and pickle jars from the Crosse and Blackwell bottling factory that existed near to Tottenham Court Road station in Victorian times
  • Medieval animal bones fashioned into skates for times when the river was frozen over.
Neolithic flint scraper. Photo: Crossrail/MOLA Tudor bowling ball.  Photo: Crossrail/MOLA Jam and pickle jars.  Photo: Crossrail/MOLA Animal bone skates.  Photo: Crossrail/MOLA

Not all the finds have been that pleasant. Many human remains were found in a mass grave at the Bedlam burial ground near Liverpool Street. DNA evidence shows that these people died of the plague. Animal remains also abound and most of the environmental findings were concentrated in Liverpool Street.

Preserving the past

With the massive boring machines used to excavate the tunnels, the question is: how does the work stop before the machines churn up all that goes before them? Jay Carver, the archivist for Crossrail, explained that this needed very careful planning and consistent team work.

Research from earlier archaeological digs had indicated the likelihood of finds in the various layers of soil. In these areas, specialist archaeologists were assigned to the boring teams and were given time to inspect the earth in the particular spot. Should the machine bring out something of interest, then work would be stopped for a short period to allow hand excavation to take place. Thus a process developed that all parties recognised as vital to the unearthing of history. No serious disruption to the work programme occurred.

Many other relics were unearthed and it begged the question as to when the past begins. The answer is ‘yesterday’ as many items emanating from the late 20th century will be of interest to future generations. More recent past finds have to be treated with a degree of pragmatism and genuine rubbish is consigned to the bin where it should have been put in the first place.

Keep an eye on the publicity for Tunnel: the Archaeology of Crossrail.

Written by Clive Kessell

Photo: Crossrail