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Ancient Roman landscape unearthed near London

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • It was found at the site of a planned luxury hotel
  • It includes a road, evidence of a settlement, and burials
  • The find dates back 2,000 years

London, England (CNN) -- Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Roman landscape beneath a park in west London, with a Roman road, evidence of a settlement, and unusual burials among the finds.

They say the discovery -- at the site of a planned luxury hotel near the edge of the River Thames -- gives valuable and rare insight into the daily life of what was then an agricultural village.

Dating back nearly 2,000 years, the village would have supplied the ancient Roman city of Londinium and also given shelter to passing travelers.

"It helps us build a picture of the Roman landscape and shows how the busy metropolis of Londinium connected with the rest of Roman Britain," said Jo Lyon, a senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, which carried out the excavations.

It helps us build a picture of the Roman landscape and shows how the busy metropolis of Londinium connected with the rest of Roman Britain.
--Jo Lyon, Museum of London Archaeology

The site is in Syon Park, owned by the Duke of Northumberland and located across the river from Kew Gardens. Waldorf Astoria is building a luxury hotel on the grounds that is set to open early next year.

The Museum of London made the discovery while doing excavations in August 2008 ahead of the hotel's construction.

Everything was found under just half a meter (1.5 feet) of soil, and the finds were kept secret until the fieldwork was finished.

Some of the finds will be displayed at the hotel, Waldorf Astoria said.

The site revealed a section of one of Roman Britain's most important roads, linking Londinium with the Roman town of Silchester, which lies farther west.

"That's one of the key national roads, (a) very, very busy road, and we don't really find fragments of the actual roads themselves very often in London," Lyon said.

The dig also revealed evidence of a rural settlement and an ancient tributary of the Thames. Thousands of Roman artifacts were recovered from the site, including two shale armlets and fragments of a lava quern stone, used for grinding grains.

Archaeologists also found a fragment of an "exceptional" Late Bronze Age (1000-700 BC) gold bracelet that probably predated the site, as well as hundreds of coins.

"All of the coins came from the Roman road," she said. "That road was in use for 400 years across the Roman period, and people have just dropped coins over those hundreds of years."

One of them is a coin made of copper alloy that features a V, which Lyon said could refer to Vespasian, who was Roman emperor between 69 and 79 AD.

There were also the skeletons of those who may have been former occupants of the settlement. They were found unusually buried in ditches, lying on their sides without any grave goods, which the museum said was "particularly curious" and in need of more research.

Lyon said she initially thought they were Iron Age burials because the style was so "casual." It could be that the method was a local one adopted by the Romans who lived there, she said.

The dig also showed that the British landscape changed considerably under Roman influence, with the establishment of towns connected by roads, the museum said.

Londinium, the ancient name of London, was founded in 48 AD on an uninhabited site, and its strategic position on the Thames helped it rapidly become the most important and largest commercial town in the province.

The site on Syon Park would have been an attractive place for a settlement because it lay between the road and the Thames, the museum said. The land was easy to cultivate and the presence of the road would have given the community another source of income from travelers wanting refreshment and lodging.