Evidence points to London being a ceremonial site from the fourth millennium BC
A remarkable new archaeological discovery suggests that London, as a centre for organised social and political activity, may be almost three times as old as previously thought.
Archaeological investigations just 15 metres outside the northern boundary of the historic City of London have unearthed evidence of what appears to have been some sort of prehistoric ceremonial site.
The implication of the discovery is that London may have begun not as a town or even as a village – but as a ceremonial place of popular assembly where local people would have come together for major social and religious feasts and rituals.
Up until now, the birth of London has usually been seen only in terms of its establishment as a town at the time of the Roman conquest in the mid-first century AD.
However, the new discovery now pushes the potential beginning of London’s story back to the 36th century BC.
The evidence for very early organised human communal activity in what would later become London is the discovery of a substantial amount of early Neolithic pottery – 436 fragments in total.
In terms of quantity, nothing like it has ever been found in central London before.
The fragments, found in Shoreditch, come from between 25 and 35 cooking and other pots.
What’s more, scientific analysis, carried out by the University of Bristol, shows that there were two basic types of pot usage – and has therefore been able to reveal the nature and scale of what was happening at the site.
Some pots were used for processing milk (probably in order to make cheese, butter and possibly alcoholic yoghurt-type beverages like central Asian and Steppeland Kumis or Kefir). A second type was used for making meat stew (probably beef).
However, evidence on the site suggests that the 436 pottery fragments, or sherds, that have survived were originally part of a substantial now long-vanished rubbish dump (possibly at least 12 metres across), which would perhaps have contained many thousands of sherds, representing large numbers of ceramic vessels.
Indeed, the rubbish dump was potentially so substantial that parts of it still seem to have survived into Roman times, 3600 years after the dump had been created.
Elsewhere in Britain, such Neolithic (New Stone Age) rubbish dumps would have included, in some instances, over 10,000 sherds of pottery (as well, as animal bone and other material) – and are frequently associated with ritual ceremonial sites where large scale feasting took place – and where symbolic samples of the feasting debris (including broken pottery) were often ritually deposited in pits or ditches. It is the bottoms of four such pits that the archaeologists have discovered – and it is from those pits that they have recovered most of the 436 fragments of pottery.
Because of urban construction work and other activity over the past 2000 years, the upper parts of the pits have not survived. The 436 sherds therefore probably only represent part of what was originally in them.
Although the discovery without doubt reveals part of the beginning of London’s story, it is as yet unclear as to whether organised social and political activity continued through subsequent prehistoric millennia.
However, from other locations in and around the historic city of London, there are tantalising clues that suggest that there may well have been some sort of continuity of human activity.
Over the past 20 years, a few pottery fragments from neolithic pits (dating from 500 years after the Shoreditch site) have been found on Ludgate Hill and near Tower Hill. A few more sherds were discovered on Cornhill. What’s more, at least half a dozen fine polished Neolithic flint and other stone axes (probably votive offerings to the spirits of the river) have been discovered on the Thames foreshore.
Back in the 1840s, near London Bridge, dredgers found a spectacular Late Bronze Age shield. A second one was dredged up at some other stage in the 19th century. Almost certainly (as happened at some other key locations along the Thames and in many other rivers), they had been placed in the river as a ritual offering – perhaps by a local clan or tribal leader.
Other Bronze Age material – pottery and Flint tool manufacturing debris – was found over the years on Cornhill.
Ritual deposition of weapons in the Thames in London seems to have continued into the Iron Age. Indeed, a seventh century BC dagger (still remarkably in its wooden sheath) was discovered earlier this century at the southern end of Tower Bridge (in Iron Age times an area of marshland – precisely the sort of environment often favoured for ritual deposition of weapons).
Certainly by the 4th century BC, several small settlements seem to have been established on now long-vanished islands in the Thames opposite what would later become the Roman city of London.
Apart from the Thames and its islands, the main focus for prehistoric activity in what is now central London seems to have been the valley of the River Walbrook and its adjacent hills. That river flowed from Hoxton (in the northern part of central London) southwards between two hills (Cornhill and Ludgate Hill) into the Thames.
Those two hills may well have been crucial in terms of the prehistoric part of London’s story – but unfortunately, urban development in Roman times and then again in medieval and modern times has almost certainly obliterated most (potentially all) traces of any pre-Roman buildings or earthworks.
Certainly, those two hills (and Tower Hill) would have been prime candidates for ritually and politically important prehistoric earthwork enclosures, but (perhaps because of subsequent urban development), none have ever been found.
The possibility that there were important prehistoric earthworks or other structures on those hills is increased by London’s unique geographical and topographical position.
Going up river, it was the Thames’ first easy crossing point – partly because of the existence, in prehistoric times, of an island in the middle of the river.
On the Thames’ northern bank, London’s hills are (apart from a tiny part of Chelsea) the only substantial high ground (over around 20 metres high) on a 35-mile stretch of the river between Canary Wharf and Hampton Court.
What’s more, the general distribution of major Neolithic ceremonial centres along the Thames suggests that London’s high ground would have been a strong candidate for a substantial earthwork enclosure.
To the east of central London, the nearest major known Neolithic ceremonial earthwork complex (a type of prehistoric monument known as a causewayed enclosure) is at Orsett in Essex (20 miles away).
To the west, the nearest ones are 25 miles away in the Windsor area. There should be one on high ground in between – and one of the few suitable locations would have been the hills of what is now central London. But the large-scale destruction of ancient land surfaces (caused by urban development) has ensured that, if such a prehistoric complex had ever existed in central London, nothing has ever been found.
All those geographical and topographical factors make the discovery of London’s greatest known collection of Neolithic pottery potentially even more important and significant.
The investigation into the Shoreditch site, which yielded the 436 fragments of Neolithic pottery has been carried out by Mola (formerly the Museum of London archaeological service) and has been funded by the real estate services company, Brookfield Properties.
Jon Cotton, a consultant prehistorian working for Mola, said: “This remarkable collection helps to fill a critical gap in London’s prehistory. Archaeological evidence for the period after farming arrived in Britain rarely survives in the capital.“
Archaeologists will now be looking for more evidence as to the real nature of the earliest phases of London’s story. Intriguingly, London’s very name may offer a tantalising additional clue to some form of pre-Roman existence. Although the first town there was established by the Romans, the name (of academically contested meaning) is pre-Roman – probably either Celtic or even pre-Celtic and thus potentially rooted deep in prehistory.