The Crossrail project is the biggest construction project in Europe and is one of the largest single infrastructure investments ever undertaken in the UK. Since the construction of the new railway began in 2009, over 15,000 men and women have worked on the project and over 100 million working hours have been completed. It’s a huge undertaking that will dramatically improve travel within London.
But it’s not just Crossrail who have been working tirelessly since the start of the project. Archaeologists have been busy too, recording and preserving the city’s past as it’s uncovered by construction. The most complete selection of objects from these excavations are at the Museum of London Docklands, in their special exhibition:
TUNNEL: THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF CROSSRAIL.
Oxbow marketing executive BECCA WATSON paid a visit to explore the secrets of the city that, until now, has been hidden under our feet.
The thing about London is that it’s built on more London.
It’s pretty much impossible, these days, to stick a shovel in the ground in the city without hitting something that counts as archaeology. Of course, it’s also pretty much impossible to undertake large-scale or extended excavations, because on top of all the old London you want to get at is, you guessed it: London.
Building works and construction are therefore the main conduits for archaeological exploration in a city. Every time new foundations are being laid, or new infrastructure planned, you can pretty much bet that there’s going to be archaeologists involved. For a large-scale project like the construction of the new Elizabeth line, there were over a hundred archaeologists involved. Given that construction of over 100KM of track began in 2009 and has since uncovered more than 10,000 items from forty separate sites, spanning a staggering 55 million years of history and pre-history, you’d be forgiven for thinking the number actually seems a little low.
It’s been a lot of hard work, and it’s all culminated here: in the Museum of London Docklands, with the special Tunnel exhibition, where the public can take a walk down through London’s past, and explore some of these incredible finds.
It’s worth taking a moment before talking about the exhibition to talk about the museum itself. It’s not one I’d ever visited, and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience, which starts on the top floor and takes you on a journey through London’s docklands that makes wonderful use of visually presented information, sounds, reconstructions and objects to immerse you straight into the past.
And on a slightly unrelated note, though important information for any visitor, the cake in the cafe is delicious.
Tunnel will run until September, and it’s most certainly worth planning a trip before then.
The exhibition isn’t so much a journey back through time as it is a journey through the patchwork history of London; the exhibits are arranged geographically rather than chronologically, which gives it a refreshing and relevant vibe, and really gives an idea of the way that London fits together – improbably and imperfectly, cobbled together over its long past.
Displays are augmented by videos, informative context, and plenty of interactive bits and pieces to keep younger visitors – or indeed the more excitable among us – entertained throughout.
There’s too many fascinating objects to really pick a stand-out. From Mesolithic flints, to Bronze Age wooden stakes, from Roman coins to animal and human remains, there’s something here to interest everyone. You may recall our blog about Tudor shoes and the Charterhouse Square plague victims – both feature in the exhibition, so you can see for yourself the evidence with which archaeologists can reconstruct everyday life in our capital’s past.
The Tunnel exhibition is the result of a rare opportunity, and as such it’s a delight. To see so much of London’s varied history and archaeology in one place, and to understand how it emerges and what it can tell us feels something of a privilege.
Most importantly, the exhibition shows us that in a world where we’re constantly expanding upwards and outwards, the development of our future can also be the key to our past. In London, the two are too deeply intertwined to ever really be separate.
To find out more about the Tunnel exhibition and to plan your visit, check the Museum of London Docklands website. Already been? Scroll down and comment to let us know what your favourite thing about the exhibition was!
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Becca Watson is the marketing executive for Oxbow Books. She has a background in classical archaeology, with a specialisation in human osteology and funerary archaeology.