HS2 rail dig opens up treasure trove of Britain’s trading past

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

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

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

The find is the latest in a series of discoveries along the 140-mile route that is transforming the map of historic Britain. As the largest dig in Europe, the building of the railway has effectively allowed an archaeological trench to be carved along almost the entire route of the railway from London to Birmingham.

This has allowed acres of the countryside that is usually untouched by development to be examined for traces of human activity.

“That makes it an interesting exercise and different from most archaeology, which has tended to concentrate on areas where development takes place, like towns,” said Chris Welch, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, which advised HS2 on phase 1 of the railway.

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

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

At a cost of £44.6bn for the first phase of the line to Birmingham, HS2 is controversial and has attracted protests from environmentalists and some of those living along the route.

But Neil Redfern, director of the Council of Archaeology, said the historical findings are “an exciting and welcome byproduct” of the construction.

Along the HS2 line the archaeologists have found a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London, remnants of Elizabethan gardens and evidence of horses and reindeer believed to have populated the Colne Valley’s flood plains between 11,000 and 8,000BC.

Key discoveries include the perfectly preserved grave of Captain Matthew Flinders, the Royal Navy explorer credited with popularising the name Australia. Identified by the breast plate on top of his coffin, he was found along with 40,000 other skeletons buried between 1788 and 1853 at St James Garden’s behind Euston station. The finding put paid to an urban myth that he was buried under platform 15.

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

Most of the artefacts will be removed to make way for construction. But a few sites will be preserved, including the foundations of the first circular train turntable designed by the father of the railways George Stephenson in 1837, uncovered 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 driven and funded by property development, which accounts for three-quarters of the 7,000 archaeologists employed in the country.

Around 11 of these companies — including Connect Archaeology, Wessex Archaeology and Headland Archaeology — have teamed up to provide expertise for the project, forming a series of joint ventures to work on 60 key sites.

The first circular train turntable is uncovered at Curzon Street station in Birmingham
The first circular train turntable is uncovered at Curzon Street station in Birmingham © HS2

They have deployed an army of 1,000 archaeologists who are employing the latest remote sensing techniques as well as excavating, dating and interpreting artefacts.

“At this stage only half the work has been done in digging the artefacts out of the ground, but it is the analysis later that may test all the theories on how the landscape of Britain was used since humans inhabited the island,” said Welch.

Another prosperous Roman trading village under a remote field near Chipping Warden in Northamptonshire was also uncovered recently. The former outpost has the “potential to transform our understanding of the Roman landscape in England”, said James West, from the Museum of London Archaeology Headland Infrastructure, a consortium working for HS2.

A Roman wooden carved figure
A Roman wooden carved figure © HS2

Jewellery, highly decorative pottery and mineral galena — a substance that was crushed and mixed with oil to be used as make-up were found at the site. There were also 300 silver coins, an old Roman road and pottery from France, suggesting that the town was a wealthy trading hub, according to West.

“We’ve got the great big narrative of the Romans coming here but this shows the total explosion of trade and the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman Age,” said Redfern.

“You’d 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 it shows is that the level of human change we have seen in the past century has happened throughout history.”

Workers excavate a Roman site
Workers excavate a Roman site. About 1,000 archaeologists have been employed on the HS2 dig © HS2

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

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

The archaeological work on the first phase of HS2 is expected to be completed this year and attention is shifting to the second phase of the railway, north of Birmingham, where some excavations have already started.

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

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