Visit the Roman Wall under Vine Street
In early May 2023 a new basement on the eastern edge of the City opened to the public. Having previously written about the developments, I was keen to visit the Vine Street Roman Wall for a closer look.
The free museum is inside Emperor House and you can enter the space either via the new cafe on Vine Street or via another entrance on India Street.
Descending into the space you get a real sense of the depth of Roman London’s street level and there’s an impressive chunk of the City wall.
It was built between 190-230AD, surrounding the Roman city of Londinium and (standing at 4-6m high) could be seen for miles. Although no one’s quite sure of the exact reasons it was built, it seems to be a combination of civic pride, defensive barrier and toll gate to levy taxes on goods brought in and out of the city.
From here you can see the solid wall as wellas the remains of a bastion in front. This was built slightly later, between 351-375AD.
You can get a sense of the bastion in the image below. Originally there would’ve been crenellated walls and a turret. However these were largely demolished by the 13th century.
These extra defences were in response to threats from Saxon raiders and while they might have helped for a few decades, the end of the Roman settlement of London is given as 410AD.
The exact date given is thanks to a letter to London from the Emperor Honorius basically saying no back up is coming from Rome and Britain should ‘look to its own defences’. Yikes.
But the fall of Londinium isn’t the end of the story, not by a long way.
Once the Roman city was refounded by Alfred the Great in the 9th Century the city gradually broke free from the walls, especially after the monastic organisations that surrounded the City were disbanded by Henry VIII.
The result is that this site has centuries of artefacts that reveal glimpses into London’s past.
The archeological finds are displayed in chronological order and much like the Mithraeum (which I highly recommend too!) It’s the objects with tangible human connections that always spark my interest.
Archeological Finds at Vine Street
Some of the earliest objects found were Roman tiles. Once part of a London roof, they bear the mark of a finger drawing a line across the soft clay. So while we’re not sure exactly why it’s there (one theory is its a reference to the quantity and or quality of the work) it’s an amazing connection to London workers almost 2,000 years ago.
In another example has been left by a four-legged local. This tile has paw prints from a cat, you can imagine the scene as the tile makers chase it off when it strolls across as the tiles lay drying in the sunshine!
Whizzing into the 17th century, another object found was a token from John Redding. It looks like a tiny coin but individual tokens like this were created by business owners and acted as a local currency based on trust.
It reads “HARTY CHOKE LANE” ie Artichoke Lane and “NEERE THE ARMITAGE” is a reference to the Hermitage, close to the Tower of London.
Finally the initials I, R and P. I seems to suggest (John) and the R (Redding) but the P is a bit of a mystery, the museum suggests it could be his wife. Perhaps the couple owned and managed a tavern together?
The final object that caught my was from the cesspit of two terraced houses that were built up alongside the Roman Wall. The houses were owned by Francis Joyce, a boxmaker who lived here in the 1760s and James Reynolds, a gunmaker who was here from 1761-1766.
In the cesspit of Joyce they found a skeleton of a rabbit, dated to 1760-1770. The intriguing thing is that there was no sign of butchery so we can assume this wasn’t eaten but rather was a beloved pet.
Perhaps not so beloved thoughts it was unceremoniously dropped into the cess pit rather than given a full burial!
The last thing to admire is the artwork by Olivia Whitworth, the East London-based artist who creates wonderfully detailed illustrations.
This piece is known as the ‘Wall of Antiquities’ and tells the story of an archaeological dig down through London’s layers of history. So from modern objects (can you spot Henry the Hoover?!) we go all the way down to Roman artefacts.
Visit City Wall at Vine Street
The museum is at Emperor House, 35 Vine Street and there’s a website with more information about visiting and opening times here.
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