Liquid History: excavating London’s great river

Prehistoric forests, the skull of a child, the slipway of a Victorian engineering masterpiece and part of a Tudor palace jetty: all have emerged from the mud and gravel on the foreshore of the Thames, thanks to an exciting new project to record the archaeology of London’s great river. Nathalie Cohen tells CA about the Thames Discovery Programme.


In September 1665, Samuel Pepys visited the excavation of a new dock in Blackwell. In his diary he records: ‘…were found perfect trees over-covered with earth. Nut trees, with the branches and the very nuts upon them… Their shells black with age, and their kernell, upon opening, decayed, but their shell perfectly hard as ever…’ It seems likely that the diggers had encountered the remains of a prehistoric submerged forest, similar to the deposits recorded at a number of locations along the foreshore.

Active collection of artefacts from the foreshore really began in the 19th century, as a result of Victorian infrastructure development such as the 1830s rebuilding of London Bridge, the sewer improvements of the 1860s and dredging of the Thames to maintain and improve navigation channels. Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from the Thames and the finest are displayed in the prehistoric galleries of the Museum of London, the British Museum and many of London’s local museums.

Thames Discovery Programme volunteers at work on the foreshore. Photo: Nathalie Cohen.

‘Liquid history,’ was how the 19th century MP John Burns described the River Thames. The Thames has always played a central role in the life of our capital city; its rich history encompasses all aspects of London’s life – economic, social, political and cultural. It has been a ritual location, a source of food and water, a commercial routeway, a crossing-point, an international port and a focus of political power and grand residence.

Bronze Age remans (foreground) on the foreshore at Erith. Photo: Nathalie Cohen.

The Thames tide rises and falls twice a day, with a difference of as much as 7m in water level. If you look from the riverbank at high tide, all you see is water; however, at low tide the river uncovers the Thames foreshore: London’s longest archaeological site, stretching from Richmond in the west to Bexley in the east. The river itself is excavating the site, revealing ancient remains with each ebb and flow. As features are exposed in this dynamic environment, they also begin to disintegrate, meaning that opportunities to record and understand these fragile sites can be limited.

Thousands of artefacts have been recovered from the river, but what do we know about what lies beneath the swift-flowing water: the archaeology of the riverbed and foreshore itself?

A Bronze Age trackway at Erith. Photos: Nathalie Cohen.
Root systems of a Bronze Age forest at Erith.

Foreshore Pioneers

Surprisingly, though, there has been relatively little systematic archaeological investigation of the Thames foreshore until recent times. The earliest excavations, under the directorship of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, were carried out by the London Museum in 1928 on the foreshore near the mouth of the River Brent. Parts of a structure were revealed, dated to the 2nd-3rd century AD and interpreted as a hut floor. In 1949, Ivor Noël Hume of the Guildhall Museum recorded the foreshore along the south bank between London Bridge and Cannon Street Railway Bridge and produced a plan of his discoveries.

Bronze Age bridge or jetty structure, found near Vauxhall. Photo: Mike Webber.

Investigations of the Brentford foreshore continued during the 1950s under Noël Hume’s direction and evidence was recovered of possible domestic structures, this time dating to the Iron Age, and further artefactual material suggesting occupation during the Romano-British period. Work continued at Isleworth into the 1970s and the Wandsworth Historical Society (WHS) began a campaign of systematic recording of areas along the borough’s foreshore.

In 1976, the newly created Museum of London was opened, and a process was established specifically to deal with artefacts retrieved from the foreshore, a link that has been further strengthened in recent years by the development of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Additionally, numerous commercial archaeology projects have revealed a wealth of data regarding Roman and later Medieval waterfront construction and provided vital information in understanding the development of the river and its role in the lives of Londoners over time.

A New Approach

Mid-Saxon fishtrap at Chelsea. Photo: Thames Archaeological Survey.

In the early 1990s, a more rigorous examination of the archaeology of the foreshore began. In 1993, a roundwood pile structure of oak, dated to the Bronze Age (1750-1285 BC) and believed to be part of a bridge or jetty structure, was found on the foreshore at Vauxhall by a team from the Institute of Archaeology UCL, led by Gustav Milne and Jon Cotton from the Museum of London. It was clear that there was enormous potential for surviving archaeological remains on the foreshore. It was also obvious that these remains were under considerable threat from natural erosion processes and other activities, including major redevelopments. Recording the archaeology became a priority, and in 1995 a pilot study was initiated, jointly run by the London Archaeological Research Facility and the Museum of London. The aims of the survey were ambitious: record the archaeology, monitor erosion, provide information to the Greater London Sites and Monuments Record, raise public consciousness of Thames archaeology and create links with other organisations with foreshore interests.

Abandoned vessels at Lots Ait, West London.

This work led to the initiation of the Thames Archaeological Survey, a three-year programme of fieldwork (1996-1999), which surveyed the foreshore of the tidal Thames from Teddington to Greenwich. Over 2,000 features were recorded, ranging in date from the prehistoric to the modern period: the remains of prehistoric forests and artefacts; Early and Middle Saxon fishtraps; the vestiges of jetties and wharves (including those serving the Tudor royal palaces at Richmond and Greenwich); ferry points and causeways; numerous remains representing activities that included boat building and sugar refining; gridirons and barge-beds; and the fragmentary remains of several vessels of different periods.

Building on initiatives pioneered by the Thames Archaeological Survey, and the Thames Explorer Trust’s innovative education projects, the Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) was officially launched in October 2008 and will run until 2011. TDP archaeologists have begun a systematic re-survey of key sites along the tidal Thames. The results have been dramatic – on every site we have visited, we have found new features from all periods.

Neolithic beater from the foreshore at Chelsea. Photo: Museum of London

Death and ritual on the foreshore

It is well-known that the Thames is a source of prehistoric artefacts and human remains that may be associated with ritual activity. In 2001, the remains of a trepanned human skull, dating to the Bronze Age, were found on the foreshore at Chelsea. There are also occasional examples of early Medieval foreshore burials, such as those found during excavations by Museum of London Archaeology at Thames Court in the City of London. However, now we are finding evidence for much more recent use of the Thames as a place for burial and ritual activity.

The skull, found by a metal detectorist. When it was found in 2009, police were called in to investigate – before determining it was not evidence of a recent crime. Photo: Nick Stevens

In January 2010, the TDP worked with Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society to excavate the largely complete skeleton of a young person, around 12 years old, from the foreshore near Burrell’s Wharf (CA 240) on the Isle of Dogs. The skull was originally discovered in April 2009 by Nick Stevens of the Thames and Field Metal Detecting Society and was dated to AD 1735-1805. Recovery of the complete skeleton proved challenging as the burial was close to the low tide level, which meant that excavators had only an hour when the skeleton was exposed to uncover, lift and record the bones. Osteoarchaeological analysis of the skeleton found that the child may have suffered ill health in his or her early years, but there was no evidence of any other disease or injury to the skeleton, and the cause of death remained unclear. The bones of the skeleton were not weathered, which clearly suggests that this child was deliberately buried on the foreshore.

The complete skeleton after excavation. The bones do not show weathering, indicating that this was a deliberate burial. Photo: Nick Stevens

But who would have buried a child here? It is possible that this represents opportunistic burial of a drowning victim – maybe a pauper who was unidentifiable, and unclaimed by family, and was simply buried close to the spot he or she was discovered. However, examination of John Rocque’s famous 1742 map does highlight two interesting details: there is a chapel drawn on the map just to the east of the spot where the skeleton was found, which appears to have gone out of use by this period. The surviving structure would still have been the nearest place to take a body. There is also a gallows drawn on the map – could we have found the remains of an execution? Under the terms of the ‘Bloody Code’(1400-1850), which outlined crimes punishable by death, young children were commonly executed for minor crimes such as stealing. It is also possible the skeleton represents a murder victim, buried on the foreshore to hide the evidence of the crime. In any of these cases, it still makes for a very sad story. Burial on the foreshore during this period is rare, but not unknown. In 2001, English Heritage archaeologists removed a skeleton dating to the early post-Medieval period (AD 1450–1600) from the foreshore at Bermondsey and further research is planned to identify more of these cases.

Fighting against the tides

Lifting the skeleton proved very difficult, as excavators had to fight the incoming tide as well as the wash from passing boats. Once the work was finished, the tide quickly advanced to cover the area where the skeleton had been found.
Photos: Lorna Richardson
Photos: Lorna Richardson

The TDP logo

Even the logo of the Thames Discovery Programme comes from the riverside mud: in 1996, a Roman intaglio, made of carnelian, was found washed up on the Thames foreshore. Probably dating to the 3rd century, the intaglio depicts a rowing galley, with a figurehead of a goose or swan. The lattice along the side of the vessel depicts the parados or side gangway balustrade, with an angled rudder; the water is shown by the horizontal line halfway down the ship. It may have been the property of a fleet commander or captain in the Classis Britannica (suggesting some naval connection to Londinium), or may have belonged to a sea-faring merchant, who wore this precious object as a charm against bad weather or pirates.

Photo: Museum of London.

Industrial might and international travel

Another aspect of the Thames’ rich history is highlighted by the discovery, close to the foreshore burial, of the remains of structures associated with Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s engineering masterpiece, the SS Great Eastern.

The Great Eastern was the largest passenger ship in the world when it was launched in 1858. Purpose-built to ferry emigrants to America, the design of Brunel’s ‘Great Babe’ was innovative, requiring a dual-propulsion system to shift a structure that was six times larger than any ship afloat. There was only one town in the whole of England that had the resources and the expertise to attempt the construction of a vessel the size of the Great Eastern: London. And there was only one place that had the yards, the skilled workforce and the know-how to complete the plan: Millwall, the Thames-side site in the heart of one of the largest ship-building centres in the world.

The ship was so large it had to be launched sideways. Photographs taken at the time show there were two timber-decked slipways set either side of the central paddle-wheel. Part of the slipway was excavated on dry land in 1984 during the rebuilding of the old shipyard off West Ferry Road, and some of the timbers can still be seen there today. However, the remains of the slipways on the foreshore are less well-known, and are only visible at low tide. These will be recorded this summer, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the great ship’s first transatlantic crossing. It is very exciting to find and record the evidence of such an important moment in the history of Imperial Britain, and we are looking forward to sharing our discoveries at the site during the summer, as part of our fieldwork and public outreach programmes.

The remains of the slipway of the SS Great Eastern, visible only at low tide. Photos: Lorna Richardson
The Great Eastern at Heart’s Content, July 1866.

Political power and grand residence

Grand residences at Greenwich are recorded in Domesday, which describes an estate consisting of two manors, one of which belonged to King Harold prior to seizure by William the Conqueror. It eventually passed to the Duke of Gloucester, and upon his death in 1447, the manor reverted to the Crown. In 1466, Edward IV granted the estate to his consort Queen Elizabeth, and during the late 15th and early 16th centuries the Palace of Placentia was an important seat of Tudor life. It was the birthplace of a number of Tudor monarchs including Henry VIII, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Most of the palace fell into ruin during the Civil War and Commonwealth period (1642–1660), and it was finally demolished by Charles II in the 1660s to make way for a new palace.

The foreshore in front of the Royal Naval College in Greenwich was one of the first sites investigated by the Thames Archaeological Survey (London Archaeologist Vol. 8, no. 3), where they discovered the remains of the jetty that probably served the Tudor Palace of Placentia.

TDP Director Gustav Milne (right) and Field Officer Eliott Wragg recording in front of the Royal Naval College. Photo: Nathalie Cohen

The TDP revisited the site in 2009, discovering that a number of the timbers recorded during the 1990s had disappeared, and that several groups of new timbers had appeared. Some of the timbers seem to be associated with further deposits of Tudor ceramics eroding out of the foreshore, while others appear to relate to the 20th century use of the site. Other features of interest include pieces of worked stone with mason’s marks and inscriptions, some of which have been reused in the riverside walls, a collection of ship’s anchors and evidence for flood damage and consolidation of the waterfront.

Recording baseplate timbers at Greenwich. Photo: Nathalie Cohen

Further investigation of this site is planned for this summer, with our new University FROG team (UniFROG), made up of students from University College London and Birkbeck University. Our main focus this season will be to record the remains of the jetty structures, as we have found that they are very susceptible to floating away! As work progresses on the site, we are planning to undertake a more detailed examination of the riverside walls, in order to understand their construction. Particularly interesting are the reused stones found in the riverside wall in front of the Trinity Almshouses, to the east of the Royal Naval College; could they relate to the construction of part of the Almshouse boundary wall?

This is just a snapshot of what has been recovered from and recorded in the mud and gravel of the Thames foreshore by the Thames Discovery Programme. We have plenty more planned for this year, including fieldwork at key sites across London, public events at Rainham, the Isle of Dogs, the Tower of London and Greenwich, and events focused around our Riverpedia project (see box). Funding for the project comes to an end in October 2011, but we hope that this will not mean the end of the Thames Discovery Programme and the FROG: the response to the project has been so fantastic that we hope to carry the project forward into 2012 and beyond.

Reused stone in the riverside wall. Photos: Nathalie Cohen
Ex-situ masonry with mason’s mark.

Into the 21st century: the Thames Discovery Programme

The Thames Discovery Programme is supported by the National Lottery with a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The TDP runs an innovative, interactive website ( which is an ever-expanding resource, including information, training, events and images from the foreshore, blogs, and a series of films made especially for the project. Photos of the foreshore can be added to our Flickr pool and shared with the wider public.

Photos: Peter Kyte, Nathalie Cohen

Community Involvement: The FROG

The principal aim of the Thames Discovery Programme is to train members of the public to monitor and record the archaeology of the foreshore, both during the lifetime of the project and beyond. The public is encouraged to join FROG (Foreshore Recording and Observation Group). FROG training is an intensive process held over two days, beginning with a classroom-based day of lectures and workshops, and followed by Day 2, planning and recording on the foreshore. All the foreshore sessions are supervised by professional archaeologists from London’s contract units.
There are many ways in which volunteers can become involved with the project, both through public events and the TDP website. We run guided walks, Foreshore Open Days, evening seminars and lectures, and temporary exhibitions across London. There is also an annual conference – the Foreshore Forum – where the FROG members are encouraged to present the results of their own fieldwork and research.

Photos: Peter Kyte, Nathalie Cohen

We are also developing Riverpedia, with the support of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit, a community research project which encourages e-publication of articles across a variety of subjects through seminars, workshops and other events. Key research themes include studies of The Thames at War and The Thames at Work. A key part of our commitment to community archaeology is supporting the creation of a publicly accessible online archaeological record through images, blogs and articles submitted by FROG.

Photos: Peter Kyte, Nathalie Cohen.
Nathalie Cohen, Community Archaeologist/Team Leader, Thames Discovery Programme.
For further online info: