Part 2: Bridging London's Lost Centuries
Two very different finds, dug up close to each other alongside Trafalgar
Square, shine new light on the greatest puzzle of London archaeology
- the two "silent" centuries following Roman rule.
That the skeleton of "London's Last Roman" - or anything ancient
and unknown - can be discovered in 2006 in Trafalgar Square is
But when it comes to yielding secrets, the square's church, St
Martin-in-the-Fields, has a long record.
When the present church was being built in the eighteenth century a
body was found in a reused Roman stone coffin. And in the thirteen century the authorities had to step in after treasure hunters
ransacked the then church in search of "a gold hoard".
So in 2006 it was assumed that the man in a limestone coffin -
dug up in the space between Victorian burial vaults and the church's
boundary - was also a later burial in a reused Roman sarcophagus.
His head had been lost, probably in the nineteenth century.
Then the result of the radio carbon dating came back from the lab
in Florida to which a small bone had been sent. With 70% certainty,
it said, the Last Roman had died some time between AD 390 and 430.
To enthusiasts, the midpoint stood out - 410, the year that the
hard-pressed Roman empire abandoned all claims to Britain. It was
not a later burial at all.
Suddenly, says Francis Grew, senior curator at the Museum of
London, there was "huge interest" in the find.
"We can say with some confidence that this is the latest
scientifically dated burial from Roman London," he says.
Just metres away from where the coffin was discovered was
something else which, if dug up in the garden, would probably be
thrown away - a squashed, grey pot, hand-moulded, not made on a
wheel, and with a crude decoration of lines and punch-marks.
"I assembled all the finds, laid out on a table for the first
time," says Mr Grew, "and I got specialists from different fields
and said: 'Tell me what you think of all this'."
He expected the Anglo-Saxon experts to show interest in the
later Saxon jewellery found on the site.
Instead they went straight for the pot lying in fragments - grey
and nondescript but massively important.
A type of pottery used by the earliest Saxon immigrants from
northern Germany, it is dated to about AD 500 - the earliest
near-complete Saxon pot to have been discovered in Central London.
This made the St Martin's dig hugely significant, shining a new
light on the mystery of London's lost centuries.
Plenty happened in London in the 450 years following the end of
Roman rule in 410. It became the seat of an English bishopric. Bede
in the 730s called it "a mart of many nations".
So why could archaeologists find almost no evidence that London
was inhabited at that time?
It was not until the 1980s that they realised they had been
looking in the wrong place.