London’s Roman Riverside Wall Afforded Highest Level of Heritage Protection and Recognition
Three sections of London’s ‘other’ Roman city wall – a little-known but once vast riverside wall which still exists as buried remains in the City of London – have been added to the National Heritage List for England as scheduled monuments.
The designation has been confirmed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport following Historic England’s advice. Exceptionally well-preserved wooden wharf and quay structures from both the Roman and medieval period uncovered alongside the wall are included in the new protection.
In the 3rd century, a massive stone riverside wall was built to enclose Roman London. It connected to the city’s landward wall, better known as London Wall, which still survives in large sections above ground. Construction of the riverside wall severed the city’s connection to the quayside, indicating that at the time defence took priority over river trade.
It may also have been built to reinforce the status of the city. Together the landward and riverside walls formed a vast circuit. No other town in Roman Britain had defences enclosing such a large area, a feat reflecting the status of this provincial capital, Londinium.
Over the last 1,700 years, much of the wall has been destroyed as London has grown. However, thanks to recent archaeological investigation three new sections have been discovered, recorded and are now protected by law.
The remains of the Roman riverside wall have been left in-situ underground. They are now below modern buildings along Upper and Lower Thames Street, which once formed the north foreshore of the River Thames.
Even in a really dense city like London, built up over 2000 years, there are still mysteries to be revealed right beneath our feet. The riverside wall remains an intriguing element of Roman London which raises almost as many questions as it answers. The construction of the riverside wall effectively cut off the once bustling port, but why? It seems to suggest a major move towards defence at a time of uncertainty for the Roman provinces. By adding these sites to the National Heritage List we recognise their national significance, and can closely manage their conservation so that they remain part of London’s rich story.
Excavations by MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) between 2006–2016, building on archaeological work during the 1970s and ‘80s, uncovered substantial sections of the wall over three sites. These sites now enjoy the same level of protection and recognition as the only other known section of Roman riverside wall, at the Tower of London.
We’re extremely excited that the Roman riverside wall is getting the recognition and protection that it deserves. This is particularly fitting as it marks almost 50 years since MOLA’s predecessor, Department of Urban Archaeology, first identified the Roman riverside wall on one of the first professional excavations in London.
Redevelopment has enabled archaeological investigations
It is rare for new scheduled monuments to be designated in such an archaeology-rich and layered environment as the City. However, as buildings are redeveloped archaeologists are able access and explore new areas and piece this information together to understand the bigger picture. Over time the extent of the Roman riverside wall has become apparent.
There are only four sites currently known where the Roman riverside wall survives in-situ. All are now protected as scheduled monuments.
In some places the riverside wall incorporates reused monumental masonry, making it an important source of information for our understanding of architecture in Roman London. Archaeological investigation has also provided important insight into Roman and medieval civil engineering and construction techniques.
Three new scheduled monuments
Riverbank House, Upper Thames Street
Underneath Riverbank House on Upper Thames Street over 20 metres of stone riverside wall survives, in some places up to 1.4 metres high above the foundations. There was also a long succession of timber Roman quays, used for loading and unloading boats, which demonstrate an exceptional level of preservation and survival for organic remains.
The mid-2nd century quay is indicative of a major investment in the Roman dockside infrastructure during this period and is of considerable significance to our understanding of Roman London’s port.
The area covered by the Roman wharves also includes a medieval building surviving as buried remains.
Sugar Quay, Lower Thames Street
At Sugar Quay, 45 metres of the riverside wall was recorded. Roman quayside structures were also found on this site. The wall replaced a substantial ‘box quay’ dating to around 133AD made of thick oak beams stacked on top of each other, surviving to three layers high, and resting on oak piles.
Partial excavation recorded at least two even earlier quayside structures dating from the late 1st century. Remains of a later, medieval ‘bulwark style’ timber river wall from the late 12th century was also found.
Three Quays, Lower Thames Street
Excavation at Three Quays found a Roman quay extending up to 35 metres, including piles reusing exceptionally rare remains of a wooden cornice or pediment from a building - thought to be unique in Britain.
A mid-2nd century quay up to 2 metres high was also excavated and recorded, as well as remains of the riverside wall.
There was also a succession of medieval quayside structures, largely formed of timber revetments – wooden planks placed to support and retain the waterfront – as well as a 14th-century river wall, followed by two river walls built in 17th and 18th centuries.