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.

London Bridge

London Bridge, Lake Havasu AZ. Photo (cc) Larry Page

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.

Monet the Astronomer?


[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent and i-Science]

Monet's Houses of Parliament

Monet’s Houses of Parliament

Is Monet’s paint­ing of the Houses of Parliament above an accur­ate paint­ing of London? The story that it could well be broke in August but I’ve delayed com­ment­ing on it because I wanted to sit down with the ori­ginal paper.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

A Picasso, so it could be anything.

I tend to be scep­tical of claims that art can be read sci­en­tific­ally. For instance does this really look much like a woman with a gui­tar? The Monet paper had the added prob­lem of stat­ing that the time of paint­ing could be dated. Astronomy is usu­ally a ter­rible way to date things. It really only works if you already know the period of the thing you’re dat­ing, which is why the paper ‘Solar pos­i­tion within Monet’s Houses of Parliament’ by Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes makes a lot of sense. It’s an example of good inter­dis­cip­lin­ary thinking.

The reason it works so well is that Baker and Thornes are able to use his­tor­ical mater­ial to elim­in­ate a lot of spec­u­la­tion. Monet’s life is well stud­ied and many of his let­ters sur­vive, so they are able to place the period dur­ing which Monet was in London. To exam­ine the paint­ing more closely they also needed to cal­cu­late where Monet’s vant­age point was. This was made easier as they knew the build­ing he was in, Saint Thomas’s Hospital. Using archi­tec­tural draw­ings and Monet’s descrip­tion of the room they had a set of likely can­did­ates. They then tried to match this to the view from the paint­ing.
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