National Geographic : 2016 Feb
108 national geographic • february 2016 old, old landmark even then. Sixteenth-century antiquarian William Camden believed it was a Roman milliarium, the ground-zero milepost from which all the distances in Roman Britain were measured. It gets a mention in the plays of William Shakespeare and the poems of William Blake. For centuries it sat in the middle of the street, a folkloric landmark, until 1742, when it was finally deemed a traffic hazard and shifted to the north side of the street, out of the way. There it has remained ever since, at first beside the en- trance to St. Swithins Church and later, after the church was destroyed during the blitz, set into a recess in the wall of the new building. “ What the London Stone is supposed to be is a bit of a mystery,” says Jane Sidell, inspector of ancient monuments for Historic England, the national body that champions preservation of landmarks. “But it plays a role in the history of archaeology in London.” When Sir Christopher Wren rebuilt St. Swithins Church, for instance, after the Great Fire in 1666, he made a point of erecting a cupola around the nearby Lon- don Stone in order to protect it. This is the first known example of somebody going out of their way to protect an archaeology site in situ. Wren took rather less care about the substantial Roman ruins he uncovered while digging the foundations for St. Paul’s Cathe- dral. Fortunately for posterity another man did, a local antiquarian named John Conyers, who followed Wren’s workmen around, taking notes, bagging artifacts, and making detailed drawings in what modern historians regard as one of the world’s first formal archaeological investigations. Conyers also recorded the excavation of a mammoth a few years later, near Kings Cross, and was the first to argue, successfully, that the flint hand ax found nearby was of human origin. “Previously these sorts of things were said to be ‘faerie thunderbolts,’ ” Sidell points out. But it wasn’t until the 1840s, when Victori- an engineers began tunneling under the city to build an extensive sewer system, that the newfound science of archaeology found its feet. A pharmacist, coin collector, and amateur antiquarian named Charles Roach Smith cast aside social convention, put on old clothes, and dropped down into the tunnels to follow the workmen. Like Conyers, he observed their dig- ging, took notes, made drawings, and salvaged whatever artifacts he could. “It was the begin- ning of construction site archaeology as we know it,” says Crossrail’s Jay Carver. Roach Smith became the nation’s foremost authority on Roman British antiquities, and his book Illustrations of Roman London was the definitive work on the subject for 50 years. His personal collection of artifacts later formed the nucleus of the Museum of London’s own Roman British collection. By a curious quirk of fate, the site of Roach Smith’s former home at 5 Liver- pool Street is occupied today by the office block where Crossrail’s archaeology team is based, a coincidence not lost on its chief archaeologist. “Roach Smith occupies a special place in our thinking,” he says. “Although he was working 150 years ago, his observations and notes have been useful in alerting us to the potential of var- ious sites around the city.” Not all of London’s archaeology is under- ground. Imposing segments of the original Peel back the pavement of a grand old city like London and you can find just about anything, from a first-century Roman fresco to a pair of medieval ice skates—even an elephant’s tooth.