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Dig for infrastructure, discover a plague pit: fascinating finds from engineering excavations

11 August 2023

A few interesting things that have been uncovered in the pursuit of a civil engineering project.

Dig for infrastructure, discover a plague pit: fascinating finds from engineering excavations
Some of these fascinating finds have ended up in the Natural History Museum in London. Image credit: Grant Ritchie

Finding treasures, or indeed, human remains, while excavating for say, a high-speed railway or one that cuts across London, happens a lot more often than one would think.

While building for the future, civil engineers and construction workers might find themselves in need of an archaeologist (and sometimes even a paleontologist!) to examine artefacts from our past.

Here are some of the most fascinating finds from digs across the UK.

Archaeological highlights from HS2

Signs of early settlers

At the start of 2022, while working on the HS2 route near south Northamptonshire, the team found an Iron Age village of more than 30 stone roundhouses. The team, made up of 80 archaeologists, believe the village had prospered during the Roman period, with new stone buildings and roads being built around the initial settlement.

Among the village, they also found evidence of workshops, kilns, wells and red-coloured soil which indicates that break-making and metal work were among the activities of these settlers.

There were also plenty of knick-knacks, from 300 Roman coins to glass vessels and highly decorative pottery. They even found some Roman jewellery and make-up.

Not too far from this settlement, in Buckinghamshire, archaeologists made another discovery from the Roman period in Britain.

Roman burial grounds

In 2021, the archaeological team, headed by Rachel Wood, found three stone Roman busts which depict the head and torso of an adult man and woman, as well as the head of a child. These date back to approximately 43 to 410 AD and were found during a seven-month dig of the Norman St. Mary’s church in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire.

The archaeologists believe they’ve come across a Roman mausoleum, since they were also able to find Roman cremation urns and 3,000 bodies that have been re-buried elsewhere.

Among the findings, they came across a 1,000-year-old green glass Roman jug that is only rivalled by a piece currently held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Captivating Crossrail artefacts

Another site that has provided archaeologists with a wealth of discoveries is the Crossrail excavation. It turns out that digging a 42km line across the capital provides an excellent opportunity to contact with London of the past.

Tens of thousands of artefacts have been dug up during construction.

Pastimes of the past

In Stepney Green, the team found a Tudor bowling ball while excavating on the site of a Tudor manor house. Jackie Keily, curator at the Museum of London, explained that while Stepney Green is now part of London, at the time it would have been a “weekend retreat in the countryside”.

From the Victorian period, when there were no indoor toilets, the team found a chamber pot that features an image of a shocked man and the inscription “Oh what I see I will not tell”.

Finally, they also found a pair of ice skates that would have belonged to a 12th century monk. How little leisure activities have changed over time!

Pre-historic finds

In addition to artefacts from past human civilisations, Crossrail excavations have unearthed evidence of pre-historic beings.

For instance, bison bone fragments and a piece of a reindeer’s antler were found in Royal Oak that have been dated back to 68,000 years ago.

Two of these pre-historic finds, this time from Canary Wharf, have even made it to the Natural History Museum in London: a piece of 55-million-year-old amber and two parts of a woolly mammoth jawbone.

Unearthing plague pits

But for Keily, the human remains identified as some of London’s Great Plague’s victims provide ‘the most significant element of Crossrail’s archaeological legacy’.

Found in 2017 at the site of the 17th century Bedlam cemetery, after DNA testing, they were able to identify the bacteria that caused this plague for the first time.

These weren’t the only human remains they found. In 2013, in the Charterhouse Square site in Farringdon, the team unearthed 13 skeletons, laid to rest in neat rows. These were confirmed to belong to a 1348 or 1349 ‘plague pit’ from the Black Death, where bodies would end up when they succumbed to the bubonic plague.

From the South, all the way to Scotland

The HS2 and Crossrail projects have unearthed a vast variety of archaeological finds. The contractors had expected this, so both projects are armed with large archaeological teams, ready to dig up and examine the artefacts they come across.

In fact, it's not uncommon to do an archaeological dig before starting large construction projects, especially if the area is known to unearth precious artifacts.

That's the case at the Liberty of Southwark development, where the construction team is working with the Museum of London Archaeology.

The collaboration has paid off, as the well-preserved remains of a Roman mausoleum have since been uncovered. The team also unearthed the largest Roman mosaic found in London a year before.

But fascinating finds also pop up unexpectedly.

During a routine excavation on a farm in Wellington, Somerset, archaeologists found a string of hidden structures from the medieval period. These structures were aligned as though they were a medieval manor for a wealthy household, including a church. They also found glazed ceramic roof and floor tiles – proving the family was wealthy.

And sometimes the finds are old but not as far-removed from us.

In Scotland’s Cairngorns, while construction was taking place to replace a bridge’s main structure, the workers found a time capsule from 1894. The capsule contained a folded newspaper from that year, a paper scroll and a bottle that is thought to contain whisky!

While finding these treasures can be exciting and have great significance for our history and understanding of the past, it will also likely delay your project.

So even if your project doesn’t span as wide as the HS2 and Crossrail, plan for these situations and have a historic preservation strategy in place!

Get involved

To discover more fascinating archaeological finds, check out '6 surprising finds dug up by construction crews around the world'.

  • Ana Bottle, digital content editor at ICE