The land before time

Between the dinosaurs and the Romans in London there was a fair bit of time to kill. Often we hear that little went on in the area as archaeologists have found little evidence for prehistoric human settlement in the city. Some argue that this is because the Romans came and cleared the land; others say this is because archaeologists don’t look for prehistoric remains as they don’t think they exist, creating a never-ending cycle. But it is likely there was no major settlement in the central London area, and only smaller farming communities set up shop here. Before c.400,000 BC, the Thames was a lot wider than it is today and the climate was a lot colder. It is believed that it wasn’t until c.300,000 BC that the area was much more inhabitable and that humans started to have a presence. Many finds are known from various excavations dating from the Paleolithic through to the Iron Age, and finds from a range of prehistoric periods are also regularly found in Roman contexts in the City.

Of course our site is no different. When wading through the vast quantities of material, some of our specialists came across a couple of early items and have applied their expert knowledge to come up with their interpretation.The two objects in question came from early Roman contexts on the banks of the River Walbrook but they were made in earlier periods. The first is a Late Iron Age coin from East Anglia, dating to the first half of the 1st century AD, which has been perforated between the horse’s legs. Iron Age coinage did not disappear immediately after the Roman conquest in AD 43 and are sometimes found still circulating in the second half of the century but are extremely rare around Roman London.

Perforated coins of this date are quite unusual too and this alteration could indicate reuse as a piece of jewelry. The perforation deliberately leaves the horse intact suggesting it was treasured for its design rather than simply for the precious metal. Was this reuse of a ‘Celtic’ coin a symbolic expression of a local pre-conquest identity in the new Roman town or an immigrant looking for a bit of local colour with a pretty picture on it? If hung as pendant the horse would have been upside down, easily recognizable to its wearer but less clear to anyone else. Could this indicate that it had a very personal meaning to its owner or was it suspended on a different type of object such as on a bracelet? 

Iron Age coin

Iron Age coin

The second find is much earlier, a small polished stone Neolithic axe head, but again there are signs of secondary working. There are partially drilled holes and transverse grooves at the butt (*snigger*) on both faces, either decorative or perhaps to enable suspension. Small axes have been found with metal sheathes and suspension loops attached to the butt elsewhere in the Roman world and it could be that the reworking was designed to provide a gripping point for such a cast on loop. Other axes with reworked grooves or additional holes have also been found in Londinium

Given it is so much older, it is more likely that these Neolithic axes were rediscovered in the Roman period rather than spending the thousands of intervening years sitting on the surface. The writer Pliny might be able to shed some light; he describes a widespread interest in ceraunia, stones shaped like axe heads which were considered to be thunder bolts. Based on the principle that lightning doesn’t strike twice, it has been suggested that an axe head found amongst fallen ceiling plaster from a Roman site in Surrey may have been designed to protect the building from storms. Similar ideas could explain the Roman reuse of axes in London but there is a whole range of folklore associated with such objects which assign them a range of magical or protective powers and which may have very old roots. 

Axe head / lightening bolt incarnate

Axe head / lightening bolt incarnate

These objects provide important evidence of how the Roman / Romano-British population engaged with older objects and landscapes in Britain. We’re still investigating and it will be interesting to have a closer look at exactly where on site they were discovered and what was found with them in the post-excavation stage of the project. But these fantastic objects are undoubtedly interesting to us in Modern London as they were in the Roman period and in prehistory before that.

And you thought we only loved the Romans!


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