The excavation of the HS2 railway opens a treasure trove of Britain’s commercial past

The British HS2 railway line will accelerate business passengers on trains designed for the future. But a series of well-preserved archeological finds along its route also provide historians with a quick path to understanding the nation’s trade past.

The latest discoveries from the HS2 project, published today, are the remains of a Roman city in Fleet Marston, a parish near Aylesbury, South East England.

It includes a cemetery with 425 bodies, of which about 10 percent have been beheaded. One interpretation is that they could be criminals or exiles, although beheadings also appear to have been “a normal, albeit marginal, funeral ritual in the late Roman period,” HS2 said.

The find is the latest in a series of discoveries along the 140-kilometer route, which transformed the map of historic Britain. As the largest excavation in Europe, the construction of the railway has in fact allowed the excavation of an archeological ditch along almost the entire route of the railway line from London to Birmingham.

This allowed acres from rural areas that are not normally affected by development to be surveyed for traces of human activity.

“This makes it an interesting exercise and different from most archaeologists, who tend to focus on areas where development is evolving, such as cities,” said Chris Welch, inspector of ancient monuments in Historic England, who advised HS2 on Phase 1 of the railway. line.

Open ceramic vase on the HS2 route

Open ceramic vase on the route HS2 © Leon Neal / Getty Images

“It passes through the countryside that we would not normally 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 £ 44.6 billion for the first phase of the line to Birmingham, HS2 has been controversial and has attracted protests from conservationists and some of those living along the route.

But Neil Redfern, director of the Archeology Council, said the historic finds were “an exciting and welcome by-product” of construction.

Along the HS2 line, archaeologists have found a prehistoric hunter-gatherer on the outskirts of London, remnants of Elizabethan gardens and evidence of horses and reindeer believed to have inhabited the floodplains of the Cologne Valley between 11,000 and 8,000 BC. no.

Major discoveries include the perfectly preserved tomb of Captain Matthew Flinders, a Royal Navy researcher who is credited with promoting the name Australia. Identified on the breastplate at the top of his coffin, he was found along with 40,000 other skeletons buried between 1788 and 1853 in St. James Garden behind Euston Station. The find is due to an urban myth that he was buried under platform 15.

Captain Matthew Flinders' grave has been excavated in London

Captain Matthew Flinders’ grave unearthed in London © James O Jenkins / HS2

Most of the artifacts will be removed to make way for construction. But several sites will be preserved, including the foundations of the first round train designed by the railroad father George Stevenson in 1837, unveiled at Curzon Street Station in Birmingham.

Archaeological excavations have been a key part of Britain’s planning process since the 1990s, creating a real estate-driven commercial development industry that accounts for three-quarters of the country’s 7,000 archaeologists.

About 11 of these companies – including Connect Archeology, Wessex Archeology and Headland Archeology – have teamed up to provide expertise for the project, forming a series of joint ventures to operate at 60 key sites.

The first round rotating train plate was unveiled at Curzon Street Station in Birmingham

The first round rotating train deck was unveiled at Curzon Street in Birmingham © HS2

They have deployed an army of 1,000 archaeologists using the latest remote sensing techniques, as well as excavating, dating and interpreting artifacts.

“At this stage, only half of the artefacts have been excavated, but the analysis could later test all theories about how Britain’s landscape has been used since humans inhabited the island,” Welch said.

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

Roman wooden carved figure

Roman wooden carved figure © HS2

Jewelry, highly decorative ceramics and mineral galena were found on the site – a substance that was crushed and mixed with oil to be used as makeup. There were also 300 silver coins, an old Roman road and pottery from France, suggesting the city was a rich trading center, according to West.

“We have a great big story about the Romans coming here, but it shows the total explosion of trade and the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman era,” Redfern said.

“You would be in your round house, but you would start drinking Roman wine, and then you would start moving into square and rectangular houses. What it shows is that the level of human change that we have seen in the last century has happened throughout history. “

Workers excavate a Roman site

Workers excavate a Roman site. About 1,000 archaeologists have been hired to excavate HS2 © HS2

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

He hopes HS2 will revive interest in archeology at a time when faculties at Hull, Worcester and Sheffield universities are closing.

Archaeological work on the first phase of HS2 is expected to be completed this year, and attention is focused on the second phase of the railway line north of Birmingham, where some excavations have already begun.

HS2, which declined to give a figure for the cost of archeology, said more information on work north of Birmingham would be provided later this year.

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