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Wapping Roman heritage unearthed at Tobacco Dock

Wapping Roman heritage unearthed at Tobacco Dock


Archaeologists have been quietly hand digging at Tobacco Dock since November last year.

But why are they digging and what have they found?


2002 discovery changed the view of Roman London

PCA-Image-Roman-BathThe team from Pre-Construct Archaeology (“PCA”) was last on site in 2002 when they discovered the second largest and well-preserved masonry Roman bath house in London.

You don’t find bath houses every day!“, said PCA’s Alistair Douglas commenting on the 2002 dig.

“The discovery at Tobacco Dock was completely unexpected and extremely exciting revealing a Roman settlement the size of a small town”.

Unearthing the settlement and luxurious bath house in Wapping were so significant that they changed archaeologists view of the Roman period in London, known as the Londinium.

Mystery surrounds latest archaeology work

Digging at the site opposite Tobacco Dock’s entrance on Pennington Street started four months ago.

Tobacco_Dock_Pennington_StPCA have a daily team of 10-15 archaeologists concealed behind tall blue barriers, quietly and carefully hand digging.

Just like Tobacco Dock’s Secret Cinema in February, PCA’s archaeologists are under strict instructions to “tell no one” what or why they are digging.

Nearby Wapping residents have spotted lorries being hurriedly loaded then leaving the site. It seems that some thing or things have been found and removed.

But was it a second bath house or something even more exciting?

Why are they digging again?

English Heritage policy and the planning authorities ask developers to submit supporting information at the pre application stage. This includes the results of detailed archaeological field evaluations where they’re relevant to the proposed development site.

Given Wapping’s Roman history we’d guess Tobacco Dock’s Kuwaiti owners Mesilla House have commissioned the dig as part of their building application for the Tobacco Dock Hotel. It certainly fits with the timing and timetable displayed at the public exhibition in November 2010.

Tobacco_Dock_Dig_2011Our request for permission to speak to PCA’s archaeologists was declined through Indigo Public Affairs. The niche lobbying firm specialising in major regeneration projects are advisors to Mesilla House on their proposed Tobacco Dock hotel.

The dig at Pennington Street should finish in April 2011 after which the archaeologists will be free to speak openly about both the excavation and their findings.

However PCA archaeologist Alistair Douglas has told us about the previous digs.

Wapping’s Roman settlement and bath house discovery

In 2002-3 the two strips of land either side of Wapping Lane were excavated and London’s second largest bath house was discovered.

Tobacco Dock Archaeology MapArchaeologists uncovered  an extensive 260 AD Roman settlement the size of a small town either side of Wapping Lane. A major Roman road running from east to west 200 meters north of Tobacco Dock between The Highway and Cable Street was also identified.

Roman activity across London increased in the third century, and the digs showed evidence of clay and timber buildings. Not directly observable as clay and timber doesn’t retain a solid structure, but the evidence found in the soil was clear.

On the more prestigious part of the Roman settlement, rich findings including a stove, pottery and golden jewellery were found.

Previous discovery completely unexpected

“As soon as we saw the masonry walls we knew it was going to be exciting”, said Alistair.

Alistair Douglas Archaeologist“At the start you just see one brick. Then you realise you’re onto something and we found a heated room. And another room, and another. It was completely unexpected to find such a big bath house serving a local population. We slowly realised there was a settlement the size of a small town which we just didn’t expect. It’s what archaeologists dig in hope of finding one day. It was very very exciting”.

The Roman occupation of London lasted from 43AD to the fifth century.

To discover more about the 2002 excavations at Tobacco Dock read the recently published PCA Monograph No 12 “A Roman settlement and bath house at Shadwell” by Alistair Douglas, James Gerrard and Berni Sudds.

As well as the digs, the book gives details about Wapping and Shadwell’s Roman environment, economy and diet as well as some rare evidence for the elusive black rat.

Buy the book for £20 from Amazon, Oxobow Books or download a postal order form.

When will the latest Tobacco Dock mystery be revealed?

PCA aren’t allowed to tell us but since the dig began back in November we’ve seen no visible signs of any external standing walls, the only masonry being some man made steps. To our non-expert eye the dig site resembles the clay and timber remains at the 2002 dig so we think it’s unlikely that there’s another bath house. Local Wapping historian Ray Newton from the History of Wapping Trust agrees with us.

Tobacco Dock Dig 2011We’re left wondering then what archaeologists have excavated this time and what it means for the Londinium and future Tobacco Dock development plans?

Development of Tobacco Dock

We’ll be able to speak to PCA archaeologists next month and find out, but looking at the archaeologist’s map there seems to be a part of the Tobacco Dock site still untouched.

Surely this must be excavated before the planning authorities can approve redevelopment plans in case there’s another bath house or other Londinium treasure buried beneath?

If this is the case, it’s unlikely there could be a Tobacco Dock Hotel, Wapping High School or any other redevelopment on the site in 2011.

Whatever the outcome, we think that Tobacco Dock is a bit of a Wapping treasure itself.

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  • Gillhoward10

    Very exciting to have this find on our doorstep. I can;t wait to find out more.

  • Up Your Street5

    very very exciting!

  • Jayne

    Agree and it’s amazing to know about the bath house, I had absolutely no idea!

  • http://www.paulbrockphotography.co.uk Brock

    nice detective work….