CA 389 Letters – July

Your views on the latest issues raised by CA.

The puzzle of Londinium

Andrew Selkirk (‘Last Word’, CA 387) rightly highlights the huge problem of how to interpret Roman London, for in spite of extensive excavations we still do not understand its status, nor how it originated. Although the discovery of military objects and ditches might reflect an initial fort, the finds indicate that the site was first occupied several years after the Roman invasion of AD 43. So an invasion fort seems unlikely. But the military objects in those earliest deposits have to be explained, for they indicate that soldiers were around. What else might they have been doing? Were they manning a supplies depot during the invasion of Britain, or do they reflect retired veterans who were living there, or were they soldiers working to create the town? The reference by Tacitus is frustrating, since it tells us that Londinium was not a colonia in AD 60, but he does not tell us what it was!

IMAGE: Jim Linwood via Wikimedia Commons/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Investigations have revealed a gravelled ‘square’ at the centre of the new town, roughly where the ‘Gherkin’ office building now exists. This was at the end of a street leading from a crossing of the River Thames, and has been interpreted as a marketplace, because later in the 1st century AD a forum was built on its site. A basilica (town hall) was also built as part of this civic complex, showing that the town was self-governing by then, and had an elected council.

In the early 2nd century, a vast new forum was built on the same spot, and adjacent to it was a huge new basilica that was longer than St Paul’s Cathedral is today. This enormous civic complex was five times bigger than the previous one, and was one of the biggest in northern Europe. Does this development reflect Londinium having had an upgrade in status during the reigns of Trajan [pictured left, in statue form, in front of a surviving section of London’s Roman Wall at Tower Hill] or Hadrian? If so, from what to what?

Other public works occurred, too, which deepen the puzzle. These include the Cripplegate fort that was built in the AD 120s, the purpose of which is not known. It was thought that this might have housed the governor’s personal guard, but this now seems unlikely, as it was built long after the provincial government appears to have settled in London. And, anyway, the fort appears to have had a short military occupation; so could it have been built to house Hadrian’s personal guard during his visit to Britain in AD 122, before being abandoned? Certainly, its defensive ditch was allowed to silt up, and became a rubbish-dumping area long before the end of the century.

We meet with fundamental puzzles at every turn, and the more that is found the greater our range of speculations can be. Both Richard Hingley and Dominic Perring have bravely tackled many of these and other issues in their books – Hingley, Londinium: a biography (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018; £25) and Perring, London in the Roman World (Oxford University Press, 2022; £40) – setting out some possible solutions. One can only hope that on one marvellous day in the future an inscription will be found that will unravel what has become a very curious place.

Peter Marsden

Sundial serendipity

IMAGE: Norman Hammond.

The simple scratch dials illustrated in your article about the British Sundial Society (‘Odd Socs’, CA 387) reminded me of perhaps the most ambitious sundial in Britain – at St Peter’s Church in Tawstock, Devon. Made and signed by ‘Jno. Berry’ in 1757, it marks the time across almost half the globe, from India to Jamaica, calibrated across latitudes from the Tropic of Cancer in the north to that of Capricorn in the south, and with zodiac symbols interpolated. In the east, ‘Noon at Fort St George’, the British base in Madras (now Chennai), is followed by Samarcand (now Uzbekistan), Babilon (Iraq, probably Baghdad), Jerusalem, and Rome. Across the gnomon (which emerges from the sun’s mouth) are Lisbon, Barbados, Boston, and finally ‘Port Royal’, the precursor of Kingston in Jamaica. Below the Tropic of Cancer are Cairo, Vienna, Paris, Madrid, and Tenerife. Around the margin, the hours are shown anticlockwise, while across the top is the motto ‘Watch and pray. Time steals away.’ Does any reader of CA know why Berry made such an elaborate dial, or of any even more complex?

Norman Hammond

Seeds of doubt

In the article asking if Stonehenge was a solar calendar (CA 386), I note the usual link made with this idea regarding stone circles and their being ‘useful systems for regulating agrarian-based human routines.’

As someone who has been involved in growing fruit, flowers, vegetables, and greenhouse crops, as an amateur, for 60 years, I can only assume that this idea took root when archaeologists were often fairly wealthy types, military men, clergy, or others with little practical knowledge of food production.

Seeds are sown and crops planted with regard to the prevailing local weather, no matter what the calendar says. Ground preparation and seed sowing in my native north-west England was at least two weeks behind that in the south. Heavy rain in, say, March would delay things even more. Nature does not follow a set-in-stone routine either. A drive from south to north in early spring provides the evidence: even in a small country like England, the differences in leaf and flower growth of deciduous trees and hedgerow plants is markedly different.

The chaos caused to growing cycles by an early warm spell followed by a colder spell are well known to anyone involved in growing plants. No stone circle can predict that. I doubt that the tups and boars paid any attention to the stones either, when rutting season came round.

They may well have been solar calendars, but I suspect they had nothing to do with how and when seeds were sown or crops harvested.

Helena McGinty
Alhaurín El Grande, Málaga, Spain

Edible archaeology

To celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, and the country’s great royal history, English Heritage recreated 41 English monarchs – from William the Conqueror in 1066, right up to our own Queen Elizabeth II – in gingerbread form. The idea was inspired by Elizabeth I who, tradition has it, impressed guests with gifts of gingerbread men in their likeness. English Heritage’s gingerbread monarchs were hand-iced by Biscuiteers to depict the kings and queens who have played a part in England’s story.

IMAGE: English Heritage.

Amy Hulyer
English Heritage

Your views online

Joe Flatman @joeflatman
My latest column in @CurrentArchaeo is a bittersweet slice of #Essex pie. I wrote it for all you #Archaeology/ #DepecheMode fans a couple of months back – but then #Fletch unexpectedly died. So here’s my small love-song to a county, band + person:

Reimagining waste landscapes (Jonathan Gardner) @wastelandscapes
Many thanks to Robin Hughes and @CurrentArchaeo for this nice review of my book in the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine (#388)!… A reminder that you can download and read the book open access here:

James Brown @JamesGABrown
Great excuse to spend my #HillfortsWednesday morning on #NationalTrust Cissbury Ring with @CurrentArchaeo appreciating the ramparts & flint mines in May sunshine whilst talking about our digital interpretation pilot in partnership with @sdnpa & @JSArchaeology.

Write to us at: CA Letters, Current Publishing, Office 120, 295 Chiswick High Road, London, W4 4HH, or by email to: 
For publication: 300 words max; letters may be edited.