Archaeology and the Olympics
Summer 2012, and the world's greatest athletes
are gathering in London for the Olympics. In
advance of the Games, a square mile of semiderelict
land in East London's Lower Lea Valley
has been turned into a fully equipped Olympic
Park. This has transformed a run-down industrial
district into a leafy urban park containing modern amenities
including an athletes' village, basketball arena, and the Olympic
stadium. British law decrees that archaeological assessments
must be undertaken before such developments, so between
2007 and 2009, the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA)
archaeologists set to work, digging into London's past.
They excavated no fewer than 121 trenches, recovered more
than 10,000 artifacts, and revealed evidence of at least 6,000
years of human activity—from the area's first prehistoric hunters
and farmers to World War II defense structures. In addition,
they recorded all of the site's still-standing historic buildings.
Alongside this work, thousands of boreholes were sunk deep
into the earth, revealing an environmental and geoarchaeological
picture of the area over the past 12,000 years.
Completing the task was herculean. Though lying only three
miles northeast of the glitz and glamor of central London, just
five years ago this was still a neglected and largely unoccupied area. The archaeologists were faced with dilapidated buildings,
general construction waste, and a deep accumulation of
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century domestic garbage. Much
of this garbage had been imported from nearby areas by people
wishing to substantially raise the ground in order to settle on
what was then low-lying and marshy land. Added to this, an
1844 act ruled that dangerous and so-called "dirty noxious"
industries, such as printing works or chemical manufacturers,
had to be moved out of central London. Many relocated here,
an area already known for its industry. For the archaeologists,
this meant that the ground was often chemically contaminated,
waterlogged, or indeed both.
Handheld trowels and shovels would not suffice. Simply
to break through the layers of city detritus, heavy construction
equipment operators removed several hundred tons of
soil for each trench, often to a depth of around 15 feet, and
in one location, almost 30 feet. Only after the operators got
past this recent debris could the team begin to explore the
earlier archaeology. This was a mighty task. To avoid any risk
of collapse under the weight of the surrounding land, the
trenches had to be stepped down, with large trenches at the
top narrowing to relatively small areas at the base. "Where
trenches were particularly deep, we often had to further secure their sides using steel supports," explains Gary Brown,
fieldwork project manager of Pre-Construct Archaeology.
Once the sites were safe, the diggers were kitted up with
protective equipment, including disposable overalls, gloves,
rubber boots, protective glasses, and even face masks.
Digging in London, with its long and complex history, is
always difficult and time-consuming, and these excavations were certainly no exception. However, the
results have been worth it. "The archaeology
covered a huge swath of time and geography,"
says project director Nick Bateman of Museum
of London Archaeology. "We now have the
first long-term, large-scale picture of life in
this part of East London, an area first settled
in prehistory, and in more recent times, one
that became so significant to the development
of the modern city." Had it not been for the
Olympic Park's construction, this formerly
impoverished, waterlogged, outlying part of historic London
simply would not have been explored on this scale.
According to Simon Wright, head of venues and infrastructure
at the ODA, "Not only have we transformed the
Olympic Park into the largest urban park to be created in
the United Kingdom for more than 100 years, but we have
uncovered its past in the process."
Nadia Durrani is an archaeological editor and writer based in London.
The story of archaeology of the Olympic Park, Renewing the Past: Unearthing the History of the Olympic Park Site, will be available soon. For further details of the excavations, visit learninglegacy.london2012.com