The most important archaeological site in London?
Heritage Key have unleashed their second Bloggers’ Challenge. This time they’d like to know what the most important site in London is. Once again I’m not entering because of Rule 19, but it’s still an interesting question. This time around it won’t go live till after the event. I think I’ve gone for an obvious answer and I don’t want ruin it for anyone else who’s come up with the same idea. The only twist is that some of the most important site in London isn’t even on the same continent anymore.
It has to be London Bridge. All the other major sites of interest to tourists like the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace or the Oxford Circus branch of McDonalds, only exist because of where the bridge was built. Even somewhere like Greenwich Observatory, where the world is told what the time is, ultimately exists where it does because of the bridge.
Finding the original bridge over the Thames sounds quite difficult. There’s the usual archaeological problem that wood leaves little trace in the soil. Added to that are the problems that the soil is underwater and, in succeeding years, people have built massive bridges over the site. That’s an effective way of obliterating any earlier traces. One reason for thinking that the bridge was built at this site isn’t any remains of the bridge itself. It’s the things that people have thrown off it. Roman coins were found in the gravels under the bridge when later bridges were built. This could be wash of materials into the river from wherever they were lost, but the concentration under the bridge marks this out as a special site. The original location was chosen as a convenient site, but its revival was as a deliberately inconvenient site.
The bridge seems to have gone out of use in the 4th century AD. After this period crossing of the river would have been by ferry. This would not really have been odd. At this time rover transport was cheaper than road transport and so rivers would have been the highways of the ancient and medieval world. The river was navigable to sea-going vessels, moved by free windpower rather than expensive grain-fed animal power. That makes building a bridge across the river, blocking the movement of vessels, a very controlling act and that’s why the bridge was rebuilt in the 990s [PDF]. Building a bridge across the Thames acted as a barrier to Viking incursions upstream.
Once it was built you not only had a barrier to military vessels, it also became the end of the river for large merchant ships. The docks downstream of the bridge became the economic fulcrum of the city and its hinterland. London controlled the trader for everything travelling by river from as far away as Oxford. Wherever the lowest bridgeable point on the river was, that was where the city would be.
Other sites became important partly due to their location in London. The only exception is the bridge, which set the location for London. When McCulloch bought London bridge for his new city at Lake Havasu, and not Tower Bridge, he was buying the bridge that mattered.