National Geographic Pt.2: London Down Under

This post is going out a bit later than anticipated, but I still wanted to write a bit on the wonderful article London Down Under in the February 2016 issue of National Geographic by Roff Smith.

I would first like to say that this was a wonderful issue, and I overall enjoyed all of the writings. In particular, I also recommend The Changing Face of Saudi Women by Cynthia Gorney as well.

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London Down Under made the cover of the issue last month, with a striking illustration collage of different finds and images from the London archaeological record. The article itself was only nine pages including multiple full page photos and illustrative timelines and maps, but I felt that it had such a great wealth of content that is appealing to both professional and amateur archaeology enthusiasts alike. Some of the points that I came across as I was reading, I was pleased were included. These topics are some of the more crucial aspects of archaeological excavation, the environment, common questions, and British Archaeology as a whole.

Most people do not think about cities and how rich their archaeological record can be when they are occupied through multiple time periods. In the US, we can see limited examples of this in places such as New York or Seattle, but nothing like that of the ancient cities that can be seen in Europe. London, as the article points out in an illustrative timeline, has not only been occupied for such a long time, but it has been colonized and rebuilt upon the previous layer for a long time. Through the Bronze age, the Roman Period, Medieval Period, Tudor Dynasty, 17th Century, the Victorian Period, to today. In his article, Smith illustrates with multiple examples the breadth of occupation, and he also explains the different people who have lived and died in London. And believe me, a LOT of people have died in London! Imagine the ‘layers’ so to speak, that are rarely able to be peeled back due to the high occupation density of the city today.

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Thant brings me to the next point that I enjoyed, which was the mention of the association of archaeology and construction. I would love to see a statistic of how many sites are discovered all over the world due to a building project. Most people still think that archaeologists are out in the field scanning the landscape and exclaiming, “There! Over there! I see lost temple!” In reality, some contractor will shuffle into a museum with a broken pot and a bone fragment and ask, “Is this important?” Only in the wake of desire for something new are we reminded of the past, and of who once lived where we now live. It is both spine-chilling and comforting at the same time.

Smith also mentioned the favorable conditions of the moist soil in London in regards to artifact preservation. Another question I frequently get is, “Why do they always find things in rivers?” Simple- the damp conditions of a river, or the damp soils of where a river once was, is excellent for preservation. The common rule of thumb is that you either want conditions to be very dry, or very damp. Damp conditions, or ‘waterlogging’ keep out air, making anaerobic conditions. Therefore, bacteria cannot grow and thrive off of decay. The artifact is preserved. This is slightly different from ‘bog bodies’, one famous British one being the Lindow Man on display in the British Museum, where the acidity of the bog soaks into the organic material and preserves it. The UK really can be an amazing place for excavation. Areas similar to this in the North such as Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia have also yielded fantastic finds for both archaeology and paleontology due to their excellent preservation.

On the subject of water, the article also touches on the Thames, and the miraculous finds that have washed up onto the river shores during low tide. This I can say is true for most rivers, wherever they be. The local rivers where I went to school in Aberdeen Scotland would frequently turn up pottery fragments after a storm. Anyone who has walked along side a river in their lifetime has surely seen random leavings, be they license plates from cars or rounded glass.

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As a result of so many findings being easily located in our surrounding environment, metal detecting has become a popular hobby for many history enthusiasts. Smith mentions that metal detector enthusiasts frequent the shores of the Thames. In the UK, findings are required to be turned over to the crown to be evaluated by the Treasure Trove System as a designated repository, such as a nearby museum or university. Compensation is usually provided for the finder. However, laws regarding this are different in every country, in addition to laws regarding the use of metal detectors for personal use. For example, metal detectors are illegal in Ireland. If you are interested in taking up this hobby, please ensure that you are well within the legal bounds for use in your home. Before setting out, make sure that you will not be wandering onto any active exaction sites. Also, please do turn in anything that you do find, check to see if you have an uncommon item that is museum grade (bullets and singular coins are sometimes not wanted), or at least report your find.

 

The article London Down Under had so much to offer, I cannot possibly go over it all here! I am sure that every reader will enjoy different bits, be they they extrapolated archaeological principles, or the case studies regarding the latest finds. You can read more about this article on the National Geographic web site by clicking here. Enjoy!

 

Peace and long life.


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