Preview – Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail, Museum of London Docklands, Feb 2017

7 years in the making, 10,000 people employed over 40 constructions sites, over 100 million working hours and over 100km of tunnels. 40 Crossrail stations, 10 new stations, £14.8 billion cost, opening in 2018 and estimated to carry 200 million passengers. Phew!

I am at the Museum of London Docklands to hear about their up-and-coming exhibition – Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail, due in February 2017. It is Europe’s largest construction project and it is all about the numbers and I am not even finished. Add to that a whole load of archaeologists, 10,000 artefacts recovered and 8,000 years of history dug up. It is impressive, really impressive. The trouble is numbers are hard to get your head around, they can wash over you, they don’t often stay with you. 

Ginger jar – One of the thousands of vessels found near Tottenham Court Road station at the Crosse & Blackwell bottling factory, late 19th century.

The thing is when I am travelling around London on the Jubilee Line or the Circle line I am never thinking about the numbers, the kilometres of tunnels or the man hours worked or how many metres underground I am. I am thinking about being late, or early, or on time. I am thinking about the kids, what I am going to feed them for dinner or if I am really lucky I am day dreaming.

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Flint scraper – evidence for Mesolithic tool-making 8,000 years ago in North Woolwich.

I certainly don’t think about the archaeology that might be above me or below me, the Mesolithic flints, the Roman shoes or the Medieval pots. There are some amazing objects in the deep dark earth around London, left behind, buried, hidden, waiting. Crossrail has provided the most amazing opportunity to access these objects. In fact they are not just objects, they are people too. The bones and remains of Londoners who no doubt had many of the same worries and thoughts that we have as we zoom along crammed into tube carriages.

Roman iron horse shoes or hipposandals, found near to Liverpool Street Station.

The logistics of accessing this archaeology is mind-blowing. How have all those engineers worked hand in hand with a the large teams of archaeologists to carefully preserve and retrieve objects in the face of deadlines, tight timescales, and across 100 km of tunnels and 40 new stations? In February the Museum of London Docklands is going to carefully select 350 of those archaeological discoveries and bring them together, to not only tell the story of London lives, but the story of Crossrail too.

Not a Tudor turnip but a Tudor bowling ball, from the site of King John’s Court manor house in Stepney Green.

I don’t envy that job, how do you choose? How do you represent 8,000 years of history in 350 objects? There will be Mesolithic flints from North Woolwich that are 8,000 years old, a Tudor bowling ball from King John’s Court manor house in Stepney Green, Roman iron horse shoes from Liverpool Street Station and even a late 19th century ginger jar from the Crosse & Blackwell bottling factory near Tottenham Court Road Station, and that is just for starters.

Maggie cox
Human remains Bedlam burial ground Liverpool Street (Copyright Crossrail/MOLA Maggie Cox)

There will also be 3 skeletons, including one found in the mass grave at the Bedlam burial ground. This skeleton has been DNA tested and proven to have died of the plague. (No doubt you have read about this in the news, (everybody wants to be famous!)). These skeletons are not for a gory side-show but to show us how archaeologists and the latest scientific techniques can help us understand our past.

I couldn’t imagine ending up in a display case in a museum, but hey, if I had a story to tell, even hidden in my bones, it might be worth it.

So when you are zooming through the Circle Line on a tube train, deep underground, think about those 10,000 people working away at Crossrail. Think about the objects hidden from site, below and above you and plan your trip to the Museum of London Docklands for February 2017. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a snapshot of London’s history and the best bit is that it will be free to visit.


For my review of Tunnel please see my recent blog –

Tunnel: the archaeology of Crossrail opens at the Museum of London Docklands on the 10th February 2017 and runs to 3 September 2017 and will be free.

For more information on Crossrail please see the website –

For Crossrail in numbers –

DNA confirms cause of 1665 London’s Great Plague –

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