ARCHEOLOGY

Ghosts from the past

MARY McIVER June 20 1988
ARCHEOLOGY

Ghosts from the past

MARY McIVER June 20 1988

Ghosts from the past

ARCHEOLOGY

Timothy Potter, a curator at the British Museum, said that he had never seen its equal. Declared London archeologist Harvey Sheldon: “It’s simply the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen.” The object of their excitement: the well-preserved remains of a timber warehouse, about 15 by 35 feet, built during the Roman occupation of Britain, probably in the second century AD. Added Potter, an international authority on British-Roman ruins: “It offers an exceptional chance of answering a lot of long-posed questions.” Sheldon, who led the Museum of London team of

archeologists who uncovered the structure on the south bank of the Thames in the London borough of Southwark, added that its discovery represents the first clear indication that the city was not merely a Roman fort but, in fact, was an international trading centre.

Still, until recently the structure seemed destined to be buried under a housing project initiated by the Southwark council. In fact, contractors were scheduled to begin preparing the site on May 16. But when The Times published an article on May 11 about the discovery of the warehouse remains, the council changed its plans. A spokesman said that the decision followed a budget review and added that the fact that it coincided with the Times article was merely “fortuitous.” But the last-ditch diversion of the bulldozers underscored a growing dilemma in Britain. Recently, the country’s archeologists seem to be on a hot streak, uncovering many an-

cient ruins that they say will provide valuable keys to the past. But their discoveries are conflicting with modern priorities—and are squeezing budgets available for excavation.

English Heritage, Britain’s major funding body for archeological excavation, had already advanced $159,000 for the warehouse project and has committed an additional $170,000 for postexcavation work. Sheldon had asked for another $91,000, which he said was needed to complete the work, but he was turned down. Said English Heritage spokesman Victor Belcher: “There comes a point

where we have to say that there are other demands on our resources.”

Preliminary findings indicate that the warehouse was constructed by skilled carpenters who used mortise-and-tenon joints—projecting bits of wood fitted into corresponding holes—to piece together the walls and floors. Eventually, said Laura Schaaf, a Museum of London spokesman, “we hope to raise the money to have the timbers properly preserved and reconstructed for display in some suitable place.” Meanwhile, team members plan to lift out the timbers, then place them into tanks of water to prevent their drying out. And Schaaf said that she and her colleagues hope Southwark’s change of plans will at least give them the time to complete that part of what they want to become a long-range project.

MARY McIVER

CAROL KENNEDY