Archaeology at the Bank of England

Dig into archaeological finds at the Bank of England
Published on 29 July 2022


Jennifer Adam, Curator

The glass and steel towers of the City of London may represent the most modern of architecture, but this area is also home to the most ancient remains in London. The Romans began to settle here around 47 CE, when a trading port grew around the first London Bridge. The new bridge joined roads north and south of London with shipping links to the Roman provinces of mainland Europe. By the end of the first century, about fifty thousand people lived in London.

The traces of their lives, and those who have lived here in almost two thousand years since, can still be found beneath our modern streets. Today’s street level is around seven metres higher than in Roman times – the result of buildings upon buildings, roads upon roads. Layered within that is an incredible range of lost, discarded and occasionally carefully buried archaeological treasure.

When the Bank of England was rebuilt in the 1920s, builders dug 15 metres down to build the gold vaults and foundations for the new building. This revealed a wealth of archaeological finds. Pottery from every era of London’s history was discovered, from Roman cooking pots and mortaria used to prepare food, to medieval water jugs and beer bottles from the 1700s. There were also things you might have expected to rot away over time, such as organic materials like wooden writing tablets and leather shoes. These had been protected over the centuries by the London’s wet, clay soil, which protects artefacts from oxygen in the air that would otherwise cause them to rot and decay.

The leather sole of a Roman sandal, with a bird engraved into the leather, preserved in London’s clay for nearly 2,000 years. Bank of England Museum: 266

Lots of metal items were also found. Our collections include a range from delicate items like bronze hair pins, cosmetics spoons and ear picks, and iron items that would have rusted away if they hadn’t been protected by the soil – including needles, keys, knives, a bucket handle, and a type of early horse shoe called a hipposandal. These everyday items become extraordinary through their survival over so many centuries.

A Roman hipposandal – a type of early horseshoe that was tied on to the horse’s hoof using the taller loop at the front, and the smaller loop at the back. Bank of England Museum: 189

Delicate bronze ear picks, from the Roman era. Bank of England Museum: 051-055

There were also some much larger objects that showed the kinds of Roman buildings that were once on the Bank of England site. Three mosaics have been found on the site – decorative floors that once adorned impressive Roman villas built on the bank of the now-lost River Walbrook. The first mosaic was discovered in the 1820s, when Sir John Soane was completing the north-west expansion of the Bank. It’s been in the Roman galleries at the British Museum ever since.

The mosaics reveal the Roman history of the site, but they also tell a story about the growth and expansion of the Bank itself. When another mosaic was discovered during the 1920s rebuilding, it was badly damaged by the huge oak pile foundations that had been driven down into the ground during the building of Sir John Soane’s Bank in the early 1800s, straight through the middle of the mosaic. No doubt Soane, who celebrated ancient Greek and Roman art and design in his work, would have been horrified! But the mosaic was repaired and can be seen in the Museum now.

A mosaic pavement from a Roman villa on the site of the Bank of England. Made between the first and fourth centuries CE.  The damaged area in the bottom right corner has been restored. Bank of England Museum: 1989/129

The mosaic in situ, when it was discovered in the 1920s. Bank of England Archive:15A13/1/3/2/112

As well as the Roman Material, there are also artefacts from the early modern period. The Bank moved to Threadneedle Street in the 1730s, and the building continued to grow over the next 100 years. As a result, items were trapped underground as the buildings expanded: a gold earring – lost and probably much-missed; discarded, disposable clay pipes; empty glass wine bottles and earthenware beer bottles known as Bellarmines, with their distinctive bearded faces.

Each item is a treasure, but all together they form a distinctive picture of a place where, across centuries, goods are coming from all over the known world. Some Roman ceramics came all the way from south-central France. The wine bottles likely travelled from Belgium or the Netherlands, and the clay pipes tell the story of tobacco traded from the Caribbean and Americas in the 1700s. It’s a tangible reminder of the Londoners who were here before us, with each item an insight into their lives. What traces will we leave behind in the City?

An ‘onion’ style glass wine bottle, thought to be Dutch, dating between 1710 and 1740. Bank of England Museum: 397