Technology & Science

Excavations for London's new Crossrail line expected to dig up 3,000 skeletons

Excavation work for Europe's largest infrastructure project has begun to unearth around 3,000 skeletons from the 16th and 17th centuries at London's Liverpool Street rail station, with further artifacts expected from as long ago as Roman times.

Archeologists expect to find artifacts from as long ago as Roman times

Archeologists work at a construction site for London's Crossrail train line. Around 3,000 skeletons, as well as artifacts from Roman times, are being dug up to make way for a new rail station. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Excavation work for Europe's largest infrastructure project has begun to unearth around 3,000 skeletons from the 16th and 17th centuries at London's Liverpool Street rail station, with further artifacts expected from as long ago as Roman times.

Skeletons of a mother and child were found during the excavations. The new rail station is located on the site of London's first municipal burial ground. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters )

Crossrail, a $29-billion railway link connecting east and west London, will open in four years and is now half complete, with excavation work currently underway at many points in the city, including some of its busiest transport hubs like Liverpool Street station.

The Liverpool Street site is being dug down to the tunnel level of the city's subway network, which is around 40 metres below ground level, while the top six metres are purely archaeology — a sequence from the Roman to the early modern period.

Lead archaeologist for Crossrail Jay Carver said the samples that will be taken away will be the largest of the time for London.

"We're filling a bit of a gap in our knowledge of London's population and their lives and what they suffered from in terms of health and how long they lived and how they died. I think it's going to be the largest sample we've got telling us that story of an individual sample of London's population at that time," he said.

Carver added that the team was currently in the first week of excavation, into the first few hundred skeleton discoveries of what they expect to be around 3,000.

Coffins corroded

The team undertook a research project with local volunteers to scour all the burial registers from local churches.

The burial ground was originally a municipal cemetery outside of a church. There wasn't a single register of names of the dead, meaning the team had to go through all the registers for about 200 city churches, identifying the names of people who were recorded as being buried at "Bedlam." The team obtained around 5,000 names.

"Most of the graves here are quite anonymous. The coffins — where they were buried in coffins — are extremely corroded," Carver said.

"The coffin plates that many burials would have had, identifying the name and date of the person's death, are so badly corroded they're unreadable. So the really excellent discovery is going to be where we have a tomb or a coffin preserved to tell us a name, and we can then match that to the historic biographic detail," he added.

Artifacts already recovered show further evidence of the original settlement of Londinium, during Roman times.

Carver said that at the bottom of the sequence of the dig, around four metres below the current level, there was evidence of the Roman city.

"A Roman road crosses the site just behind me, actually. We're finding a lot of domestic pottery vessels, a lot of gaming counters. So there's a big kind of indication that we hope to find settlement evidence, Roman settlement evidence, and activity when we get to the end of the dig four metres down," he said.

The new railway across the U.K. capital will be the realization of a plan first cooked up in the 1880s to connect the docks in the east of the city to Paddington in central London. Crossrail will go further, also linking to Heathrow airport and several commuter towns to the west and east of London.

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