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Tales from the deep

RAIL ALL THE WAY - The south east's rich history stretches back millennia. On a major rail scheme, archaeology would inevitably be a big issue.

Construction of the highspeed line has thrown up some unexpected archaeological nds.

The project team knew skeletal remains would be found as it prepared to expand St Pancras station and build the new railway into it; the Midland Main Line and station itself were built on the Camley Street churchyard, belonging to the Church of St Pancras.

However, the number of remains was unexpected - some 7,000 tightly packed burials were revealed, says Rail Link Engineering archaeology manager Helen Glass.

'We did not have an accurate record of how many burials to expect, ' says Glass. 'In the event the burial ground was very deep indeed. People had been buried in layers, one on top of another, four or more deep.' Union Railways quality and environment director Ted Allett says there was evidence that skeletons had been moved aside to make way for new burials.

'The operation of exhuming the remains had been factored into our schedule, but it actually took months longer than expected.' There was something of a debate between the project's archaeologists and its programme managers. The skeletons had to be cleared in order to construct an extension at St Pancras to accommodate the 400m long Eurostar trains.

Yet the project's archaeologists, as well as organisations including English Heritage, wanted as much time as possible to learn from the graveyard about the demography of the St Pancras area at the height of the industrial revolution.

Archaeologists wanted to carry out an exhaustive in situ investigation, but with exhumation on the project's critical path a compromise was needed. Grave locations were surveyed and then the remains were moved en masse to an off-site location for further study before being re-interred at a mass burial site in Finchley, north London. The solution was approved by the church.

St Pancras was not the project's only signicant archaeological site.

'The bbseet Valley is incredibly rich in history, ' Glass says. 'We were expecting lots of big, interesting archaeology. But it exceeded our expectations.' 'At bbseet there was a Roman town - seven temples had already been identied. Our work revealed road networks, shops, a bakery, a smithy and three new temples. We discovered what the River Ebbseet was doing in Roman times.

'It's not as grand as Bath but we believe that Ebbseet, known as Springhead, was a pilgrim town. The Ebbseet wells up as a spring and was dammed in Roman times to create a pond.

Water was the focus of people's religious activities. We also found that prehistoric communities had venerated this area.' Glass says that there was evidence of changing trade and commerce gained from pottery, metalwork and the contents of amphora. 'Looking at different and changing decorative or technical styles, you can extrapolate where trade items and craftsmen came from, or where they were getting their ideas from - Italy, France, Germany.' An nglo-Saxon ater mill dating from 700AD was unexpectedly found, sunk within river alluvium. 'Its chute was tapered to ensure a focused jet of water to drive a horizontal wheel. There were very few examples of this design in the UK, and a first for Kent, ' enthuses Glass.

Probably the route's most exciting find was the skeleton of a giant elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus, dating from 400,000 years ago. 'It died in an age when we were just early hominids - not homo sapiens.

What's exciting about this is that we think the elephant died in the mud of a bog or lake. We're not sure whether it was hunted into this situation, but we found int tools around it, suggesting it had been butchered.' Glass says that analysis of the discoveries made during construction of section one is still ongoing, due for completion next year. Analysis of nds made on section two is likely to continue well into 2008.

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