The Thames Discovery Programme

The River Thames - which flows through the middle of London - is awash with history that erosion is now steadily revealing...
04 December 2011

Interview with 

Elliott Wragg, Thames Discovery Programme


Elliot -  The Thames Discovery Programme is a successor to an organisation called the Thames Archaeological Survey who, 10 to 15 years ago, undertook a large scale survey of the intertidal zone in the River Thames looking for archaeological features and deposits.  We looked at their records and identified what we call 20 key sites and we’ve gone down and recorded and monitored them with over 300 members of the public, and identified areas which are at threat, where features may be eroding away and then we’ll come in and record anything that is liable to get washed away by the river.

Meera -   And so, we’re at one of the 20 identified sites now.  So we’re in Greenwich, just along the shores of the Thames here and behind us is the University of Greenwich, which has quite a long history in its own right.

Elliot -   Well yes, it’s a world heritage site.  I mean, these magnificent baroque buildings were originally built as a hospital for injured and ailing seamen, not for princes or kings!  Before the hospital, there was an earlier palace at the Palace of Placentia, built in 15th century, which was the birthplace of Henry VIII, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth; the Tudors liked it very much!  And what we’re starting to find out on the foreshore are a lot of features which relate to the earlier medieval structure.

Meera -   Well it’s quite busy down here on the shores.  So we’ve got a band rehearsal taking place behind us and then there are many of the Thames clippers going past and we’re really in the middle of London, but yet, you've got all of these archaeological finds, just here on the shores.

Elliot - It’s quite a odd! 10 or 15 years ago when the Thames Archaeological Survey came down,  they recorded structures which are now gone and a lot of the stuff we’re seeing today wasn’t there 10 or 15 years ago.  It was covered up and slowly – as the foreshore drops around it - it’s starting to poke up.  One of the things we can see here is a whole load of rectangular semi-halved timber piles driven into the foreshore, and this looks very much like a jetty structure, coming off the river wall, but this would pre-date the current building.  So this is probably a later, medieval jetty.

Meera -   So you’ve got this small lamp of timber – so what?  Going quite a fair distance, a good few metres in front of us there, just in parallel to each other.

Elliot -   Yeah, so they're in parallel lines which suggests they're a coherent structure.  As you say it’s about probably 5 metres along the foreshore.  So we’re looking at a reasonably substantial late medieval or Tudor jetty, which probably would’ve led to the palace.

Meera -   But just moving a couple of meters down towards the river now, there's a big long plank really of a few metres in length which I have to admit, I wouldn’t possibly notice, but now that I'm here with you and I'm staring at the ground, it’s quite obvious.

Elliot -   Yeah, it’s not quite a plank.  It’s what we call a base plate.  You can see there are these rectangular mortises cut into it with large rectangular tenons, driven through to hold it in place and you can just see two arms coming backwards up the foreshore to form a sort of horseshoe or U-shape.  And if we turn around, we can see it’s directly in line with what we think is our late medieval or Tudor jetty.  But this sort of construction uses a completely different technique.  This sort of technique we think dates to the 12th century so I would suggest this is a similar access point from the 12th century, through into the late medieval into the Tudor period.  We do know that Greenwich was a royal manor from the 10th century onwards, so it’s clearly a place where there's going to be a bit of investment and a bit of traffic coming up and down, and up from the river.

Meera -   But interestingly, moving even further towards the shore now, and basically on it, there are some solid structures - almost solid lumps - there which are also jetties from an earlier age.

Elliot -   Well not for certain.  We can walk down and have a look.  You'll also notice there's a huge socking anchor chain there which is a mooring point for ships and we know that's 20th century.  And we’ve known about these large rectangular timber piles for sometime but we assume that it had something to do with the anchor chain and were thus modern.  But now we’ve got these other structures which have eroded out, you can see they're directly in line with them.  So given the massive engineering of these things, the only other people who do that are Romans; and given that we’ve got medieval jetty, and further down we’ve got a 12th century jetty, and further down here, we’ve got these massive rectangular piles and I think what we might be looking at is a Roman jetty down here.  They make a lot more sense as a Roman structure than as a modern one.

Meera -   So essentially here, you've got a tale of this jetty over time.  So a jetty – you know, people needed them to get access down into the water - and people throughout time have just built from that original Roman structure.

Elliot -   Well, yeah.  I mean, you've got to remember up until the coming of the railways.  The river is your easiest and cheapest form of transport.  Here, we seem to have an access point through time.  We know there's a Roman religious complex upon the hill in Greenwich Park.  So that may have been where it kicked off and people have just kept using the access point.

Meera -   And is it quite difficult – I mean looking at these structures, I can't really tell too much of this story.  It’s quite hard piecing this all together to get the result you've come up with.

Elliot -   Well it takes awhile, looking at the techniques they're using to shape the wood, how they're using it; but also, we know sea levels have been broadly rising for 14 – 16,000 years.  So it’s quite interesting we’ve got what we think is our earliest structure right down at the bottom of the low tide zone and then we go up through the 12th century, into the late medieval period as the river levels rise throughout this period.

Meera -   And interestingly, we’re here at mid-day really and it’s all just really visible now.  So, you know when the tide comes in, you just can't see it.

Elliot -   Oh yeah, it’ll be all covered up.  It will be – where we’re standing, there will be about 2 metres of water above our heads.

Meera -   Good thing we came now then!

Elliot -   Just a little!

Meera -   So there's really quite a wide range of things, just on this one site.  So this, combined with the other 19 or so you have, you must be really getting a good insight into the history of London and its uses of the Thames.

Elliot -   Well we’re getting a massive range of different types of features and deposits from all sorts of different periods.  We’ve got 19th and 18th century ship breaking remains, large vessel timbers.  We’ve got a Bronze Age jetty.  We’ve even got what possibly may be a Mesolithic structure, which had a carbon date of 4,500 BC.  So, with all of these things coming together, we’re really starting to put together a really broad picture of how the river has been used by Londoners through thousands of years...


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