Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The earliest timber structure in London

by Kathryn Hadley

A couple of weeks ago, the earliest timber structure ever discovered in London was unearthed by archaeologists from Archaeology South-East (part of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London). The structure, which consists of a timber platform or trackway, was found at a depth of 4.7 metres, beneath two metres of peat, during the excavation of a prehistoric peat bog adjacent to Belmarsh Prison in Plumstead, Greenwich. The site is adjacent to an ancient river channel and is currently being excavated in advance of the construction of a new prison building. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the structure dates back almost 6,000 years, predating Stonehenge by over 500 years. The structure oldest timber structure previously discovered in Greater London is the timber trackway in Silvertown, which has been dated to 3340-2910BC.

It is believed that wetlands adjacent to rivers were an important source of food for prehistoric people. The timber trackway was thus constructed to provide easier access to the boggy terrain. Other artefacts were also discovered during the excavations in Plumstead, including an Early Bronze Age alder log with unusually well-preserved marks made by a metal axe. The log was scanned at UCL’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geometric Engineering and is currently undergoing conservation treatment. It will thereafter go on display in Greenwich Heritage Centre in Woolwich. Studies of the trackway are due to continue for the next couple of years in the hope that they will provide further clues about the structure itself and the environment in which it was constructed.

Mark Stevenson, Archaeological Advisor at English Heritage, commented on the discovery:

‘The discovery of the earliest timber structure in London is incredibly
important. The timber structure is slightly earlier in date than the
earliest trackways excavated in the Somerset Levels, including the famous ‘Sweet
Track’ to Glastonbury, which provide some of the earliest physical evidence for
woodworking in England.’

To visit the website of the Greenwich Heritage Centre, go to http://www.greenwichheritage.org/
For further information on the prehistoric period, visit our ‘Prehistoric’ Focus Page.

Did climate change cause the extinction of the Neanderthals? Do modern human beings descend from the Neanderthals? To find out more, there is also a series of articles related to the prehistoric period in the archives of our News Blog.
- excavation of the timbers at the Plumstead site
- laser scan of the Early Bronze Age alder log


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