In an anonymous-looking warehouse in Hackney you’ll find the Museum of London Archaeology Archives. And behind the brick and steel building in N1 I recently had the pleasure of enjoying a tour, led by two enthusiastic volunteers.
Here are all manner of finds, from masses of bones to shards of pottery and large items deemed to big to store, are safely stored in buff-coloured boxes, clearly labelled. When anything is found at a dig they are deemed either ‘registered’ - of significant interest or man-made - or ‘general’, for items like broken shards or fragments of bone. Whenever a developer wants to build a new structure they have to let the archaeologists survey and excavate the area - and pay for it. The City is enjoying a building boom at the moment and MOLA have never been busy but this has not always been the case: the archives for recession-hit 1990 looked very thin compared to other years. Sadly I wasn’t allowed to take any photos but I did see some fascinating objects.
First up was a brick, but no ordinary brick, because it was found in Pudding Lane. It was there, on 2 September 1666 that the Great Fire of London broke out. Several nearby buildings stored tar for repairing ships and this was extremely flammable. It was wonderful to touch this piece of charred clay, scorched black from 17th century flames. Bone has been a common tool for Man for millennia, and we saw artefacts from Roman and Saxon times, including a comb that was used for nits. There were glass bottles found from the Olympic site in Stratford, medieval tiles from Westminster and - my favourite - a medieval ‘Guy’ jug, made from earthenware and given a green glaze. It was in perfect condition.
We saw archaeological reports, drawings and photos from sites and even visitors’ books, complete with comments (“don’t build!”, “do!”). Our last stop took us to the Glass and Ceramic Store, which houses complete pieces, including the archive from the Whitefriars Glass, who made glassware for 160 years until the factory closed in 1980.
One of the archaeologists brought out some 18th century tiles from The Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street, which depicted some quite explicit scenes! It was fascinating to walk down the aisles and see 2000 years of ceramics and glass. One hopes some of them can be housed in the new Museum of London, scheduled to open in West Smithfield in 2023/4.