HS2 rail dig unlocks treasure trove of Britain’s trading past

Britain’s HS2 rail line will speed up business travelers on trains built for the future. But a series of well-preserved archaeological finds along its route also offer historians a fast track to understanding the nation’s trading past.

The latest findings from the HS2 project, published today, are the remains of a Roman town in the parish of Fleet Marston, near Aylesbury in south-east England.

It includes a cemetery with 425 bodies, of which about 10% had been decapitated. One interpretation is that they could be criminals or outcasts, although beheading also appears to have been a “normal, albeit marginal, funeral rite in the late Roman period”, says HS2.

The find is the latest in a series of finds along the 140-mile route that is transforming the map of historic Britain. As the largest excavation in Europe, the construction of the railway effectively led to the excavation of an archaeological trench along almost the entire route of the railway from London to Birmingham.

This made it possible to examine acres of countryside that are generally untouched by development for signs of human activity.

“It makes for an interesting exercise and different from most archaeology, which has tended to focus on areas where development is taking place, such as towns,” said Chris Welch, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, who advised HS2 on phase 1 of the railway. .

A pottery vase unearthed on the HS2 road © Leon Neal/Getty Images

“It cuts through countryside that we wouldn’t usually see,” he added. “The parts where we didn’t find anything are as interesting as the parts where we found it, because it raises so many questions – why did they settle here and not there?”

Costing £44.6billion for the first phase of the line to Birmingham, HS2 is controversial and has sparked protests from environmentalists and some who live along the route.

But Neil Redfern, director of the Board of Archaeology, said the historic finds are “an exciting and welcome by-product” of the construction.

Along the HS2 line, archaeologists have found a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London, remains of Elizabethan gardens and evidence of horses and reindeer that are believed to have populated the floodplains of the Colne Valley between 11 000 and 8000 BC.

Key finds include the perfectly preserved tomb of Captain Matthew Flinders, the Royal Navy explorer credited with popularizing the name Australia. Identified by the breast plate above his coffin, he was found with 40,000 other skeletons buried between 1788 and 1853 in St James Garden behind Euston Station. The discovery put an end to an urban myth that he was buried under Platform 15.

Captain Matthew Flinders' grave is excavated in London

The grave of Captain Matthew Flinders is excavated in London © James O Jenkins/HS2

Most artifacts will be removed to make way for construction. But a few sites will be preserved, including the foundations of the first circular train hub designed by railway father George Stephenson in 1837, unearthed at Curzon Street station in Birmingham.

Archaeological excavations have been a key part of the planning process in Britain since the 1990s, creating a commercial industry led and funded by property development, which accounts for three-quarters of the 7,000 employed archaeologists in the country.

About 11 of these companies – including Connect Archaeology, Wessex Archeology and Headland Archeology – have teamed up to lend their expertise to the project, forming a series of joint ventures to work at 60 key sites.

First circular train hub discovered at Curzon Street station in Birmingham

The first circular train hub is discovered at Curzon Street station in Birmingham © HS2

They have deployed an army of 1,000 archaeologists who use the latest remote sensing techniques as well as excavation, dating and interpretation of artifacts.

“At this stage only half the work has been done to extract the artefacts from the ground, but it is the subsequent analysis that could test any theories about how the British landscape has been used since humans have inhabited the island,” Welch said.

Another thriving Roman trading village under a remote field near Chipping Warden in Northamptonshire has also recently been discovered. The ancient outpost has the “potential to transform our understanding of the Roman landscape in England”, said James West, of the Museum of London Archeology Headland Infrastructure, a consortium working for HS2.

A carved wooden Roman figure

A carved wooden Roman character © HS2

Jewelry, highly decorative pottery and mineral galena – a substance ground up and mixed with oil to be used as makeup have been found at the site. There were also 300 silver coins, an ancient Roman road and pottery from France, suggesting the town was a wealthy commercial hub, according to West.

“We have the grand narrative of the Romans coming here, but it shows the total explosion of trade and the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman Age,” Redfern said.

“You would have been in your round house but you would have started drinking Roman wine and then you would have started moving into square and rectangular houses. What this shows is that the level of human change that we have seen over the last century has happened throughout history.

Workers excavate a Roman site

Workers excavate a Roman site. About 1,000 archaeologists were employed on the HS2 excavations © HS2

The results can be used to help us understand everything from disease evolution and transmission, to the causes and effects of pandemics, to understanding climate change and its impact on people, said David Connolly, director of British Archaeological Jobs and Resources.

He hopes HS2 will revive interest in archeology at a time when faculties are closed at the universities of Hull, Worcester and Sheffield.

Archaeological work on the first phase of HS2 is due to be completed this year and attention is turning to the second phase of the railway, north of Birmingham, where some excavation has already started.

HS2, which declined to give a figure for the cost of archaeology, said more information on the work north of Birmingham will be available later in the year.

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