A History of London in 10 Archaeological Objects: Object 8October 31, 2012 Archaeology, LAARC, LAARC Object of the month
The LAARC’s celebratory object blog is now in its closing stages. When I blogged about our seventh object, the C16th Tudor Canon Ball, we were prepping for another of our award winning volunteer projects, which we’re now half-way through!
Our eighth object brings us another century closer to the modern era. Although our historical sources are now becoming more prolific this doesn’t mean London’s archaeology doesn’t have an important part to play in questioning and enhancing our historical record.
Three major events dominate London’s Stuart period and are highlighted in the Museum’s gallery War, Plague & Fire. So what object to represent one of these major events? Perhaps surprisingly, London didn’t actually witness any Civil War (1642 – 1649) fighting so we are lacking objects that could engage us with this conflict directly. I could have selected something macabre that related to the Great Plague of 1665, however, the Museum has just opened its Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition, and I didn’t want to jump on the Halloween bandwagon. So that leaves us with fire….
Fire is an extremely destructive element; however in regards to archaeology it is also a great preserver. A number of archaeological excavations have revealed Great Fire deposits such as PEN79, BPL95 and ESC97. These excavations are all located close to Pudding Lane where the Fire started on the 2nd September 1666 in Thomas Farriner’s Bakery.
The sites above have revealed some extremely unique individual and groups of objects, sealed by buildings brought down in the conflagration and only revealed again some 300 years later. A pair of waffle tongs, excavated from the site of Monument House, have to be my favorite example – another parallel hasn’t been unearthed in London.
What is of even greater archeological significance however is the fact that the Great Fire forms an event horizon in London’s archaeology – a known event of a known date (1666) which ties these contemporary objects together. This allows us to also refine the dating of similar objects from other excavations in London, Britain and even abroad. An example of the above include a number of Dutch wall tiles from site PEN79, which have had their dating refined to c.1630 – 1666.
So what archaeological object to represent the Great Fire of London and its importance to the archaeological and historical record? First of all it has to be burnt, but I’ve not selected a unique object (such as the waffle tongs) but something that at first seems quite mundane…a brick.
Stuart (C17th) Burnt Ceramic Brick
So why a brick? Firstly, because our ‘archaeological top 10’ must include a ceramic object (but without resorting to a piece of pottery). It is also a fine example of a brick. Our brick closely accords to building regulations of 1571, with its dimensions measuring 228 x 115 x 57mm.
Our brick is just one of a series that lined the cellar floor of a building excavated in 1979 on the eastern side of Pudding Lane (where the Great Fire ignited). What makes this burnt brick special is its coating of a substance identified as wood pitch.
When the cellar floor was excavated, it revealed the remains of about twenty wooden barrels (carbonised by intense burning), which would have stored this tar-like substance. Our lone brick is therefore part of an assemblage which is evidence for industry in the local area, as wood tar was used for waterproofing ships’ hulls (Pudding Lane being located close to the waterfront).
In addition, our brick is covered in a combustible that facilitated London’s most cataclysmic event. Could we suggest that if this cellar hadn’t been storing such a highly flammable substance perhaps the Great Fire wouldn’t have been so great?
Lastly, my brick has also been selected as it is an element of a built structure. Popular archaeology always emphasises objects (my blog is no exception) and it is objects that connect us more intimately with people. But archaeological structures are important in recreating the fabric of a city, a ‘person’ in itself. Stuart London was a city built of timber and our brick is therefore a rare surviving piece of this fabric which can connect us in an extremely tangible way to the past: to handle one of these bricks is to cover your hands in some 300 year old soot from one of London’s most infamous historical events.