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Archaeologists survey the area near Trafalgar Square, London.        Source: © Archaeology South-East

Saxon ‘London’ Was Bigger Than Previously Thought

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In a remarkable archaeological endeavor, the team from Archaeology South-East, a division of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, has made groundbreaking discoveries beneath the National Gallery at the heart of Trafalgar Square. The findings, unearthed during the Jubilee Walk excavations, suggest that the urban center of Saxon London, historically known as Lundenwic, stretched further west than historians previously recognized.

The excavation, part of the National Gallery's extensive “NG200: Welcome” redevelopment initiative celebrating its Bicentenary, has brought to light a series of ancient structures and artifacts. These include a hearth, postholes, stake holes, pits, ditches, and levelling deposits, shedding new light on the western expansion of Saxon London.

Survey of the area prior to National Gallery development revealed the findings. (© Archaeology South-East)

Survey of the area prior to National Gallery development revealed the findings. (© Archaeology South-East)

The archaeological activity was prompted by the need to construct a tunnel linking the Gallery's Sainsbury Wing with the Wilkins Building, alongside enhancements to the public realm adjacent to Jubilee Walk. This pathway, established during the 1991 Sainsbury Wing construction, has historical significance dating back to the era of King Richard II, serving various functions from Royal Mews to residential housing.

The historical timeline places the origins of these findings between 659 and 774 AD, marked notably by a hearth that has been radiocarbon dated to this period. The layers above this Saxon settlement reveal post-medieval walls, indicating continuous redevelopment of the area through the 17th to 19th centuries.

Evidence of postholes dating to the Saxon period. (© Archaeology South-East)

Evidence of postholes dating to the Saxon period. (© Archaeology South-East)

The Early Establishment of London

The location of London was first established as a Roman settlement named Londinium shortly after the Claudian invasion of Britain in 43 AD.

Londinium initially covered a small area of 1.4 km², similar in size to today's Hyde Park. The town was abandoned and razed following Boudica's rebellion around 60 or 61 AD, but was quickly rebuilt and expanded rapidly, becoming the largest city in Britannia by the end of the 1st century. By the 2nd century, its population had grown significantly, reaching between 30,000 and 60,000, and it boasted large public buildings like a forum and amphitheater, establishing itself as the provincial capital.

Between 190 and 225 AD, the Romans constructed a defensive barrier along the city's inland edge. This structure, known as the London Wall, endured for over 1,600 years and largely delineated the boundaries of what was once the ancient City of London.

By the early 5th century, the Roman Empire began to fall, and its legions were recalled to defend Rome itself. Londinium, as with many British towns, fell into decline, and by the end of the century, it was practically all in ruins, with even the church on Tower Hill razed to the ground.

And the Saxons came to town, but set themselves up not within the old Londinium, but to the west, and named the settlement Lundenwic. It is a part of this which has now been uncovered at what is the modern heart of the city, near Trafalgar Square. Being farmers, the Saxons mainly settled around Londinium, rather than in it, notes the History of London website, with many modern areas originating a Saxon hamlets, such as Greenwich, and Croydon, and perhaps even Kensington and Paddington have Saxon roots. These settlements eventually evolved into the Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Essex.

Lundunwic grew to be the main port and trading spot for the area, with ‘wic’ being Saxon for trading place.

Stephen White, the leader of the Jubilee Walk excavations, expressed his enthusiasm for the project:

“Excavating at the National Gallery was an incredible opportunity to investigate interesting archaeology and to be involved with some truly outstanding outreach.”

White highlighted the importance of the discovery, noting that it expands the known boundaries of Saxon London’s urban center and underscores the rich historical tapestry of the city.

Excavations also uncovered a hearth dated to 659 and 774 AD (© Archaeology South-East)

Excavations also uncovered a hearth dated to 659 and 774 AD Archaeology South-East)

Sarah Younger, Director of the NG200 Welcome Project, reflected on the significance of these findings for the National Gallery: “It’s an honor to be part of a discovery like this,” she said. She went on to emphasize the continuity between past and present, underscoring the Gallery's role in the ongoing narrative of London's history. These excavations not only enrich our understanding of London's ancient past but also connect the community with its deep historical roots.

Top image: Archaeologists survey the area near Trafalgar Square, London.        Source: © Archaeology South-East

By Gary Manners

References

‘The early Saxon settlers and the town of Lundenwic’. The History of London.  Available at: https://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/the-early-saxon-settlers-and-the-town-of-lundenwic/

‘Excavations under the National Gallery, London, are undertaken by ASE’. University College London. Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/archaeology-south-east/news/2024/feb/excavations-under-national-gallery-london-are-undertaken-ase

‘Excavations underneath National Gallery reveal Saxon London’s urban centre extended further west than previously known’ The National Galley. Available at: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/about-us/press-and-media/press-releases/excavations-underneath-national-gallery-reveal-saxon-london-s-urban-centre-extended-further-west-than-previously-known

 
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Gary

Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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