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8,000 Years of London History Discovered Underground



The Crossrail project, an underground railway tunnel, is designed to reduce traffic in London. But the project has also provided Britain’s capital city with a view into its 8,000-year-old history.

Jackie Keily is the curator of “The Archaeology of Crossrail” exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands. She says, “The great thing about the Crossrail project is that it’s allowed us to basically sort of take a slice through London.”

The underground project to connect Heathrow airport to the financial district has unearthed over 10,000 artifacts. One of the highlights, Keily says, is a bronze medallion dating from the year 245 AD. During this time, southern Britain was ruled by the Romans.

A bronze medallion discovered during the construction of London's Crossrail route.
A bronze medallion discovered during the construction of London's Crossrail route.

"It's a medallion that would have been given by the emperor to a high-ranking official, probably in Rome. And it's quite fascinating that it's travelled right across the Empire to be here in London."

Another interesting find are Roman “hipposandals.” These are metal shoes for pack animals. They were used for animals, such as oxen or horses, as they moved goods around the rain-covered streets of early-day London.

Hundreds of human skulls were also found beneath what is now the financial district of London. Did they belong to the losers of gladiator battles at the nearby Roman amphitheater?

One very unusual artifact was a skeleton of a woman with her head removed and placed between her leg bones. It is displayed as it was found, buried beneath what is now Liverpool Street station.

The Crossrail also travels through several graveyards, many dating to major disease outbreaks, like the Black Death' plague of 1348. An estimated 1.5 million people died across Britain because of the plague.

Archaeologists excavate the 16th and 17th century Bedlam burial ground uncovered by work on the new Crossrail train line next to Liverpool Street station in London, March 6, 2015.
Archaeologists excavate the 16th and 17th century Bedlam burial ground uncovered by work on the new Crossrail train line next to Liverpool Street station in London, March 6, 2015.

There are also lighter aspects of London life on display. A bowling ball was found in the moat of a sixteenth-century house. Hundreds of leather shoes have also been unearthed. These are around 500 years old.

According to Keily, the shoes connect people, in a way, to people in the past.

"The earlier shoe at the very bottom has got this really long, elongated, pointed toe. Whereas the ones above are much more like the ones we imagine Henry the Eighth wearing, they've got these broad toes. So very fashionable shoes that Londoners were wearing.”

A skeleton lies in the ground on the archeological excavation site at the 16th and 17th century Bedlam burial ground, uncovered by work on the new Crossrail train line next to Liverpool Street station in London, March 6, 2015.
A skeleton lies in the ground on the archeological excavation site at the 16th and 17th century Bedlam burial ground, uncovered by work on the new Crossrail train line next to Liverpool Street station in London, March 6, 2015.

Despite the detailed archaeological work, construction of Crossrail remains on schedule. The first trains will take passengers through these tunnels in late 2018.

I’m Phil Dierking

This story was originally written by Henry Ridgwell for VOAnews.com. Phil Dierking adapted this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

What kinds of artifacts would be found under your city? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

amphitheater - n. a large building with seats rising in curved rows around an open space on which games and plays take place

archaeology - n. a science that deals with past human life and activities by studying the bones, tools, etc., of ancient people

artifact - n. a simple object, such as a tool or weapon, that was made by people in the past

cemetery - n. a place where dead people are buried

elongated - adj. to be made longer

gladiator - n. a man in ancient Rome who fought against another man or animal for public entertainment

graveyard - n. a place where people are buried

macabre - adj. involving death or violence in a way that is strange, frightening, or unpleasant

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