26 October 2011


Simon Webb. Unearthing London; The Ancient World Beneath the Metropolis. History Press, 2011.

We tend to think of the prehistoric stone circles, henges, barrows and leys of the ritual landscape as being confined to the empty parts of the country - the 'Celtic Fringe', or the uplands of Pennines and Peak. But of course at one time all of Britain, including London, was the 'Celtic Fringe' of Europe.
This book explains how a turn in a busy street, a dip in the road, or a feature in a park topped by a band-stand might indicate a ritual alignment, a lost river valley or the remains of a burial mound.

Although London barely existed as a settlement before the founding of the Roman Londinium, the evidence of pre-Roman occupation crops up all over the region, from the Stanwell Cursus, a ritual landscape feature now buried beneath Heathrow Airport to the Celtic barrows in Greenwich Park, which were joined a couple of thousand years later by Saxon burial mounds at the same location.

This idea of continuity of use is the overriding theme of this book. Pre-Roman London seemed to have been primarily a religious centre, with the Thames and its tributaries bearing evidence of continued ritual use over millennia. The small islands between the tributary rivers, particularly where the Tyburn and the Effra flowed into the Thames, formed ritual centres where a great deal of evidence has been discovered of pre-Roman and perhaps even pre-Celtic religious practices. These islands and the surrounding marshland, collectively known as Thorney Island, are now of course at the religious and temporal centre of the nation, being the site of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.

Severed heads have been found in a number of locations along the river and at sites along the course of the Walbrook which flowed adjacent to the Roman city, presumably as sacrificial offerings as part of a Celtic cult. Two thousand years later curious echoes of the cult continued. According to legend the severed head of the Celtic king Bran, is buried under the White Mount, the site of the Tower of London which itself is famous for the execution, by the severing of the head, of enemies of the Crown. In fact the last execution by the axeman at the Tower took place as late as 1747. The heads were traditionally put on display at the southern end of London Bridge marking the entrance to the City.

One of the houses which then lined the Bridge was occupied by the Keeper of the Heads, whose job it was to oversee these grisly relics and dispose of them into the Thames when they got past their best, recalling the earlier Celtic offerings to the river. The heads of the executed were also displayed at Temple Bar, marking another entrance to the City, and were displayed there until at least 1772. They were a popular attraction, and when a 'new' head was put up, crowds arrived to view it, and local shopkeepers would hire out small telescopes so that visitors could have a closer look at the exhibit.

Not all the offerings were so grisly, and large quantities of jewellery and coins have been found in the river-beds and wells of London. (Peter Rogerson has noted what may have been a modern example of a ritual offering of treasure to a river). Of course, throwing coins into a well or fountain 'for luck' is a long-established custom, but even making grave offerings seem to have survived the centuries. When the remains of a stone Roman coffin were found in the precincts of Southwark Cathedral, a number of coins of the period were found with it. When it was opened to the public, visitors immediately started throwing coins into it again, after a gap of nearly two thousand years, to the extent that the Cathedral authorities had to put up a notice asking people not to do this as it was damaging the relic!

As revealed by this book, London is a palimpsest of cultures, religions and traditions. Just as the lost rivers of London still flow, hidden beneath our feet or visible for a few moments down a culvert in a street or in an anonymous pipe across a tube station platform, so the history and legends of London survive and are visible to those who know where to look. This book will help us do just that. - John Rimmer

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