Saturday, June 07, 2008

Earliest Londoners Arrived Earlier, Had Wealth

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

June 6, 2008 -- London's Covent Garden district, formerly the Anglo Saxon city of Lundenwic, is at least 100 years older than previously thought, based on analysis of skeletons and objects found in the region's oldest Anglo Saxon cemetery, which was recently discovered.

Instead of being founded in 650 A.D., as was earlier believed, archaeologists now think Lundenwic dates to 550 A.D. or earlier, according to a report published today in British Archaeology.

Lundenwic also appears to have been relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan from its first days, based on the quality of artifacts found in the graves.

"These were not elite or royal individuals, but they would have been middle to high class, as their objects were quite nice," Melissa Melikian, who worked on the project, told Discovery News.

"In the grave of an adult woman, for example, we found a silver disc brooch set with cut garnets," added Melikian, general manager of Britain's AOC Archaeology Group southern region.

She and her colleagues found the cemetery during an excavation underneath the London Transport Museum, which extended its basement in order to put in a new shop and gallery. The archaeologists unearthed 10 cremation burials, most of which were placed in urns.

The scientists also discovered three adults buried together. Radiocarbon testing dates them to between 410 A.D. and 550 A.D., so the newly established 550 A.D. date for Lundenwic's emergence takes the more conservative number.

The bodies all belonged to Anglo Saxons -- a people believed to be descendants of three Germanic tribes who settled in south and east Great Britain during the 5th century A.D. Based on the recent and prior Lundenwic finds, historians think the Anglo Saxons established the city as an industrial trading center on the north bank of the Thames, between what is now Trafalgar Square and Aldwych.

According to Mike Pitts, an archaeologist and publisher of British Archaeology, the Roman town of Londinium was already based to the east of Lundenwic. Both cities were eventually "swallowed up in the vast metropolis" that is modern London.

Items found at the Lundenwic grave, including a fine pair of tweezers and a necklace once strung with 19 amber beads and a colorful, swirled glass bead, provide further evidence of the trade and craft activities that were taking place very early on at the site.

Lyn Blackmore, a pottery and sciences specialist at the Museum of London, who is one of the world's leading experts on early London history, told Discovery News that the tweezers likely belonged to a male, since "Anglo Saxon men tended to be buried with tweezers."

"We don't know why," she added. "Perhaps they were used to groom mustaches, or they could have even been included in the burials for unknown symbolic reasons."

The woman's skeleton in the collective burial, according to Melikian, reveals that this person died between the ages of 25-36, suffered from some arthritis and had healed broken ribs and dental cavities. Her cause of death remains unknown but, Lundenwic's inhabitants were often the targets of raids.

"The city experienced a sharp economic downturn and shrinkage at the end of the 8th century, due to Viking raiders coming down from the north," Blackmore said. "Lundenwic was a completely undefended, open site."

According to both Blackmore and Pitts, most of Lundenwic's residents after that devastating raid likely fled to Londinium, which still had its old Roman walls, "presumably still crumbling a bit," intact, to offer at least some protection.

The ancient city divisions are still evident in the character of England's capital city today. The old Roman town of Londinium became London's business center, otherwise known as the City of London, while Covent Garden is now dominated by shopping and entertainment facilities.

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