Crossrail transit project unearths London’s macabre past

Crossrail/Crossrail - A skull is amongst the finds during the Crossrail transportation project.

In an open pit near the old Bedlam insane asylum, where the curious once ogled chained lunatics for the price of a shiny coin, the skeletons in London’s closet are climbing to the surface. And dead men do tell tales.

Take, for example, one poor soul recently unearthed from a long-lost graveyard in Bedlam’s back yard — a 16th-century gentleman who was, perhaps, not so gentle in his day. His chalky skull bares the telltale signs of crude brain surgery. An honest attempt to cure the madness within? Or a joyride of an operation to slake the exotic tastes of doctors at a hospital whose name became synonymous with mayhem? (Bedlam is an archaic variation of its current name, Bethlem Royal Hospital.)

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“Bones,” London archaeologist Jay Carver said. “They tell us much, but it takes time. We had plague. We had disease. We had Bedlam. We had centuries of overcrowded city. So, yes, we have lots of bones.”

Bones. They are part of the mystery being churned up in the tunnels of London’s new Crossrail network, Europe’s largest ongoing construction project, upon which urban archaeologists are piggy-backing for one of the largest excavations into this storied city’s oh-so-very-lurid past.

Europe, after all, is a neighborhood steeped in soil and history. And in this neck of the global woods, nothing brings the light of discovery quite like the building of a transit system.

In Rome, which makes London look like a rank newcomer, engineers building a subway line have hit major delays after tripping over the likes of a second-century auditorium just yards from the Forum. In Cologne, Germany, where a 21 / 2-mile railway is under construction, archaeologists found the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman harbor. In the groaning earth under Istanbul, a new rail tunnel going under the Bosporus ran smack dab into a Byzantine shipwreck. In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest metropolis, excavations for a new rail project did not so much hit a brick wall as an entire lost city, some 1,800 years old.

Today, in the dark recesses of London, much of the focus is on waking the dead.

More than 100 archaeologists have fanned out at 40 excavation sites over the length of the $24 billion Crossrail project, an ambitious line linking points east and west in what is already one of the world’s most dizzyingly vast transit systems. Until the 1970s, archaeologists here say, relatively little emphasis was put on history when building out transport tunnels. Many finds, typically discovered in the top five yards of soil, were seen as mild curiosities or undesired obstacles.

But urban archaeologists planned for half a dozen years for the Crossrail project. They created computer models that examined the new 73-mile network in the light of historical records and ancient maps to target the most tantalizing sites for digs. And thus far, going underground in a city with a decidedly checkered past has not been for the fainthearted.

A stone’s throw from London’s Smithfield meat market, for example, excavation crews in March made an unappetizing discovery — what is believed to be one of the city’s two great graveyards for victims of the 14th-century’s Black Death. The victims buried near Smithfield once lived in a cesspool of a city ridden with rats, fleas and open sewers before dying in the first wave of a plague that would depopulate Europe for centuries. Now, their remains are being analyzed by British scientists, who are attempting to map the DNA of the London plague and establish whether it matches the strands that brought a horrific, early end to millions on the continent.

The plague bodies, however, hail from a relative yesterday compared with other discoveries emerging from the reverse hourglass of dig sites. In this city that started life as a backwater outpost of the Roman Empire, a day’s work this week in the financial district yielded a stunning fragment of bright-orange pottery at least 1,500 years old. Archaeologists have also come a step closer to filling in the map of Roman Londinium, discovering the massive wooden stakes of an old Roman road. It ran along a stream where steel and glass now rise from the earth.

Farther east and deeper back in history, diggers found evidence of “Mesolithic Londoners” who established a 9,000-year-old “flint factory” for making blades. They hunted by the marshy Thames long before the big game in this town became the primal stalking of stocks and bonds, mergers and acquisitions.

Yet many of the finds, particularly the dead bodies, have seemed to only confirm the stereotype of Londoners as living in a capital of the macabre.

“I guess we really haven’t changed much,” said Alison Telfer, laughing. The archaeologist for the Museum of London was digging in the shadow of the Bethlem Royal Hospital, now run by the National Health Service. “We had a crazy past, and we’d do it all again.”

Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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