6000 year old site discovered in the shadow of MI6

In difficult conditions, English Heritage and the Museum of London joined the team from Thames Discovery Programme (TDP) to discover London’s oldest structure on the foreshore of the Thames just metres from the MI6 building in Vauxhall. Details of one of the most significant ever foreshore finds have just been revealed in the latest issue of the London Archaeologist, published on the 5th January 2011.

During a foreshore survey in spring of 2010, archaeologists found six timber piles of up to 0.3 metres in diameter. Although no definite alignment or function can yet be determined, it is clear that the piles formed part of a prehistoric structure which stood beside the river over 6000 years ago, during the Mesolithic period, when river levels were lower and the landscape very different. Structures of Mesolithic date are very rare anywhere in Britain.

Kept secret until it could be fully recorded and investigated, the site is located at the confluence of the Rivers Effra and Thames. Near the timbers, late Mesolithic stone tools, including a fine tranchet adze (a woodworking tool), were also discovered, as well as slightly later Neolithic pottery of two distinct types. The area may have been a significant, named place continuing through centuries or even millennia. It is only 600 metres downstream from the Bronze Age timber-built bridge or jetty (c. 1500 BC) which hit the headlines in the 1990s.

Archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme made the discovery as they investigated the area as part of a continuing project to record archaeological and historical remains on the foreshore. With support, help and advice from English Heritage, alongside the Museum of London and the Geomatics team from Museum of London Archaeology, a detailed survey was carried out, radiocarbon dates obtained for the six piles, and specialist analysis of the artefacts and environmental evidence performed.

The timbers are located very near the lowest tide level of the Thames. More evidence may be recovered in future since, like most of the astonishing remains that have been discovered on the foreshore – from huge collections of ships timbers to human burials to Saxon fish traps – the site is affected by the scour created by the twice-daily tides and the growing river traffic. The remains are also threatened by planned riverside developments, including the much needed Combined Sewer Overflow which will pass metres from the timbers. A major research project is underway.

The fieldwork was supported by grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and
from the Southwark and Lambeth Archaeological Excavation Committee. Thanks must also go to English Heritage for their assistance on site and for arranging the radiocarbon dating.

FROG members might be able to see the Mesolithic piles from the high vantage point on Vauxhall Bridge looking towards M16 on Saturday 22nd of January at 10.25am-ish and Sun 23rd January at 11.15ish (i.e during the Low Spring Tides). Viewing from Vauxhall Bridge saves wearing wellingtons or being stopped by the Security Services! If the tide doesn’t drop low enough on those days to reveal the Mesolithic piles, it should nevertheless be low enough to expose the Bronze Age pile group first recorded in 1993, although these are on the other side of the Bridge, looking towards Battersea Power Station.