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Early medieval site discovered under National Gallery in London

#Early medieval site discovered under National Gallery in London

Early medieval London extended further west than previously thought, as archaeologists have uncovered remains of buildings underneath the National Gallery at the north end of Trafalgar Square.

Archaeology South-East, which part of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, have released a report from excavations of Jubilee Walk, which were undertaken as part of the National Gallery’s ‘NG200: Welcome’, a redevelopment project forming part of the Gallery’s Bicentenary celebrations.

The walled Roman city of Londinium was abandoned by its settlers in the 5th century CE. With the coming of the Saxons the settlement shifted west along the modern area of the Strand. By the 7th century it was known as Lundenwic and was primarily a trading centre with a waterfront. The National Gallery lies to the western end of this settlement; while excavations in the immediate area have found Saxon material previously, this is the first excavation to prove that the urban centre extended this far west.

Archaeologists unearthed a hearth, postholes, stakeholes, pits, ditches and levelling deposits, which initial interpretations suggest represent the reworking of fence lines and evolving property boundaries in this western suburb of Lundenwic. The hearth was radiocarbon dated and revealed a date range between 659-774 AD for the earliest occupation. Above this sequence of Saxon layers were post-medieval walls. The earliest wall was probably built in the 17th or 18th centuries. Archaeologists observed lots of phases of rebuilding of these walls with different building fabrics up until the 19th century.

“Excavating at the National Gallery was an incredible opportunity to investigate interesting archaeology and to be involved with some truly outstanding outreach,” says Stephen White, who led the Jubilee Walk excavations for Archaeology South-East. “The evidence we uncovered suggests the urban centre of Lundenwic extends further west than originally thought. This was made all the more exciting by having the chance to share that information, and how it relates to archaeology across London, with young people from this city.”

The National Gallery created Jubilee Walk – a walkway linking Trafalgar Square and Orange Street (for onward access to Leicester Square) – when it built the Sainsbury Wing in 1991. Before this, it was used for a variety of complex purposes, from King Richard II’s Royal Mews for hunting hawks to stables and even a possible row of houses. The area has been excavated in preparation for building an underground link connecting the Sainsbury Wing to the Wilkins Building, as well as making improvements to the adjacent public realm.

A team led by Selldorf Architects has been selected to work on a suite of capital projects to mark our Bicentenary.
Image: a visualisation of the view from Trafalgar Square approaching the Sainsbury Wing, with new transparent glass, reconfigured gates, and new seating. Image: Selldorf Architects

Sarah Younger, Director of the NG200 Welcome Project, commented “It’s an honour for the National Gallery to be part of a discovery like this, and it brings home to us how everything we are building and re-constructing as part of this project will be part of the fabric and history of London for centuries to come. We are grateful for the hard work and care of the archaeologists who have worked with us over the past months, and, together with our site managers Sir Robert McAlpine LTD, have been bringing groups of students and young people to engage them in archaeology through their work with us. It’s shown to us that the enriching history of the National Gallery does not start and stop at the collection that hangs inside our walls.”

Top Image: The excavations were undertaken as part of the National Gallery’s ‘NG200: Welcome’, a redevelopment project forming part of the Gallery’s Bicentenary celebrations. Image © Archaeology South-East/UCL

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