My exploration of British pre-history will cover two blog posts. The first, an impressionistic recollection of my search for the oldest structure in London. The second, a more typical look at the aesthetic and development of ancient British artifacts.
One of the most magnificent parts of being in London is the interplay between the old and the new. The ancient and the modern stand in constant counterpoint to one another, the present refracted through the lens of the past. Look up, and you are walking past one of the remaining wood-framed Tudor buildings remaining after the Great Fire of 1666, light sparkling in the glass of its tiny, fairy-tale looking windows (its called Staple Inn and is above the Chancery Lane tube station). Look down, and a cobblestone alleyway turns into a modern, asphalt thoroughfare.
While there are endless resources in the many wonderful museums here, I wanted to see if I could discover this dichotomy in the city, on foot, for free. Would I be able to go back all the way to London’s pre-history, before even the ancient Romans arrived? What ancient thing could I possibly find still standing in this teeming metropolis?
I first discovered a map of where in London important prehistoric fossils were found (http://londonist.com/2013/05/prehistoric-london-mapped). This was one option. Wander the streets, imagining massive wooly mammoths or thundering ancient rhinos traversing the land where now crowds of people swarm around Trafalgar Square. While I did peruse the map, it wasn’t quite what I was searching for. I was looking for something still standing, and maybe egotistically, something man-made.
And then, buried in the depths of Google, I found a little blog post about the oldest structure in London…dated to 4500 BCE (around 6,500 years old). At very low tide, jutting out of the primordial mud of the Thames River right next to Vauxhall Bridge, there should be visible a group of wooden posts, once the size of telegraph poles, the largest now only 30 cm in diameter. Perfect. (http://www.vauxhallandkennington.org.uk/firstbridge.shtml)
Built almost one thousand years before Stonehenge, Simon Webb—in his book Unearthing London—claims that the poles may have served as an early ritual site, comparing them to totem poles in North America or a wooden Stonehenge. This is speculative, however, and further research showed that most scientists are unsure as to their purpose.
April 9th, 2017:
So, I hopped on to that most modern of transportation systems, the Tube, along with my adventure partner M.M., and headed towards the Vauxhall tube stop. Emerging from the Underground we rounded Vauxhall Cross (hello, James Bond) and clambered down to the rocky shore of the Thames. Low tide on the river would hit at 7:19 P.M., and with ten minutes to go, we stepped out into the shallows where the posts should emerge…and waited.
The sky a dusty orange blending into pale blue, separated by an atmospheric layer of translucent yellow. A police boat overtakes tourist cruisers chugging along the river. The Thames laps against a constellation of rocks, shells, and detritus. A gentle breeze bounces through my hair and billows M.M.’s slate-grey cardigan out over the water. Surrounded by modern high rises of the 20th and 21st centuries—Westminster just visible downstream—and immediately perpendicular to Vauxhall Bridge, I stood, straining to see into the water.
Did they eventually appear? Well, maybe. There was something that sure looked like the wooden posts in the photos online, but the Thames was not low enough to truly see them. M.M. took photos anyway, just in case those little knobs just breaking the surface were what I had come to find.
I don’t count this day as a failure though. Sure, you can go to museums and see all the artifacts nicely cleaned and presented with neat informational graphics and complimentary lighting. And I did go do that just a few days later (see my next post). But there was a feeling I got, standing with my boots in the Thames, which cannot be so easily recreated. Maybe it was the contrast in the surrounding scenery, maybe it was the good company, maybe it was jet lag…but the weight of history pressed down on me. I felt it deep in my chest, that awareness that everything around me had been preceded by thousands of years of human history—not to mention the millennia of non-human history before that. Where I stood, 6,500 years ago, prehistoric people gathered to build and possibly to worship. I threw rocks into the Thames; they threw flint axes into the Tamesa or Plowinida or whatever other possible prehistoric name it was known by. It was quite the auspicious beginning to my time here in London.
That’s it for now. Part 2 of my exploration of British prehistory will be coming soon.