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Life in Suburbia

Life in Suburbia

At Liverpool Street we are investigating four areas outside of the city wall which was constructed around AD 200. The main Roman road to Lincoln and York left the city at Bishopsgate, just to the east.

Roman Law said that all burials had to be made outside of the city walls and either side of Ermine Street large Roman cemeteries were laid out. In the Roman period the main channel of the Walbrook tributary would have passed along Blomfield Street, just at the western end of Liverpool Street. A suburban Roman road linked Bishopsgate and Moorgate and our initial test excavations have found areas of hard-packed gravel and what appear to be the remains of timber buildings.

The finds we have from this area include household items, leather shoes, pottery, writing implements, a key, a coin and a ‘poppy head’ beaker. These vessels often accompanied burials, but found outside of a cemetery may have been a prized personal possession. The finds suggest people were living and working here in the Roman period to the east side of the Walbrook.

To the west side of the Walbrook soil samples suggest that cereal cultivation or crop processing was taking place in nearby fields. By the medieval period the area was known as Moorfields, a marshy area that may have resulted from poor drainage caused by construction of the successive city walls. We have found deep marsh deposits at Moorgate and Finsbury Circus. Two Saxon or medieval ice skates have been found and there are historical references of Londoners skating on the Moorfields marsh when it froze over in winter.

William FitzStephen wrote one of the first accounts of London in AD 1173; he described how Londoners went skating on polished bone skates on the Moorfields marsh when it froze: ‘When the great marsh which washes the northern walls of the city freezes, crowds of young men go out to play on the ice.

Some of them fit shinbones of cattle on their feet, tying them around their ankles. They take a stick with an iron spike in their hands and strike it regularly on the ice, and are carried along as fast as a flying bird or a bolt from a catapult’.

The Moorfields marsh did not extend as far east as Bishopsgate. In 1247 Alderman and Sheriff of London Simon Fitz-Mary founded St Mary of Bethlehem Priory on the site of what is now Liverpool Street station. From 1403 it became a hospital tending to the mentally ill: ‘men deprived of reason’. ‘Bethlem’ and then ‘Bedlam’ became common words in the 15th century meaning uproar and confusion. This stems from the harsh and chaotic conditions in which the patients were kept.

The hospital owned an area of gardens which was sold off in 1568 to provide a new cemetery for nearby parishes whose churchyards had became overcrowded. The cemetery was used until the mid-18th century for Bedlam’s patients and local residents. In 1675 Bedlam Hospital moved to new buildings in Moorfields, and was again relocated in 1815, to St George’s Fields, Southwark (the current site of the Imperial War Museum). Finally, in 1930, the hospital was moved to an outer suburb of south London, where it remains to this day.

The burial ground was lost below new streets and buildings by the early 19th century. It lay untouched until construction works for the Metropolitan Railway and Broadgate station in the late 19th century no doubt disturbed the northern and southern parts of the graveyard.

Our trial excavations, below Liverpool Street itself, have identified some 300 burials. We have found that the burial type varied through time. In the early phase there are mainly burials without coffins, the middle phase includes multiple burials in pits, and a final phase has wooden coffins, closely stacked.

The densely packed coffins and intercutting graves show how burial space in the city was at a premium, prior to the development of suburban metropolitan cemeteries in the 19th century.

We expect that up to 4,000 skeletons will be uncovered. Much can be learnt from studying the remains including the general body size, state of health and where people came from. We can also get an insight into how people lived, their diet, lifestyle, status and beliefs.

CLEANING

  • Bone is cleaned with different water pressures to prevent damage. Brushes, wooden picks and sponges are also used to ensure a thorough clean.
  • The conditions of burial greatly affect the appearance of the bone. A high acidic soil can damage the outer surface and tree roots can cause marks, damage which could be mistaken for pathology. Skill is needed to identify the condition of bones and avoid any further damage.

DRYING

  • Clean bones are placed in a heated room. Careful attention is given to maintain the correct temperature; too cool and the bones will remain wet which may result in mould. Too hot and the outer surface of the long bones can fleck and crack.
  • It is essential to thoroughly dry the bones, only when they are dry will the skeletal markers, discolouration, pathology and trauma be identifiable.

BOXING

  • Once the bones are dry the skeleton can be pieced together like a jigsaw. Any trauma like fractures, pathology or unique differences are noted. Pathologies can include infection and inflammation of the bone, rickets, scurvy and arthritis. If hair is located upon the skeleton, photographs and samples are taken.
  • Soil settlement and coffin deterioration is common in graveyards so graves often fall upon each other causing skeletons to mix. Any mixing of skeletons is identified and, if possible, corrected at this stage.
  • The remains are then ready to be studied to confirm the age, gender, diseases and other conditions.
  • Crossrail will carefully rebury the human remains in working cemeteries after consulting with the Ministry of Justice.

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