Monthly Archives: November 2010

Views about the Future of History

Recently, the eminent historian Simon Schama (Columbia University) offered his views on the state of history education in UK schools.  His views are well-worth reading even if you are not from the UK.

Simon Schama in The Guardian, November 9, 2010:

Whatever else gets cut in this time of nicks and scrapes, incisions and mutilations, the cord of our national memory had better not be among the casualties. For even during the toughest trials it’s our history that binds us together as a distinctive community in an otherwise generically globalised culture. Mother Teresa and Lady Gaga are multinationals; Oliver Cromwell and Margaret Thatcher are peculiarly ours. In a headphone world where we get to privatise our brains, it’s history that logs us on to Our Space.

This is not to say history is a placebo for our many arguments and ills; a stroll down memory lane to escape the headaches of the present. It’s exactly because history is, by definition, a bone of contention (the Greek word historia meant, and was used from the very beginning byHerodotus as, “inquiry”) that the arguments it generates resist national self-congratulation. So that inquiry is not the uncritical genealogy of the Wonderfulness of Us, but it is, indispensably, an understanding of the identity of us. The endurance of British history’s rich and rowdy discord is, in fact, the antidote to civic complacency, the condition of the irreverent freedom that’s our special boast. (Try the American version and you will know what I mean about our brand of salutary disrespect.) The founding masterpiece of European history, Thucydides’s Peloponnesian Wars, was written by a veteran for whom the discipline was sceptical or not worth the writing: an attack on Athenian hubris precisely to demonstrate what was, and what was not, worth fighting for in defence of the democratic polis.

So it is exactly at a time when we are being asked to make painful, even invidious, distinctions between the inessential and the indispensable in our public institutions: that we need history’s long look at our national makeup. This is not an insular proposal. The way Britain has conducted itself in the world beyond the shores of Albion, for good as well as ill, is integral to the self-examining story. How European are we; how Americanised in our habits and strategies? Why does Hong Kong pretty much run the world? There is no hope of answers to those kinds of questions without history’s help.

Who is it that needs history the most? Our children, of course: the generations who will either pass on the memory of our disputatious liberty or be not much bovvered about the doings of obscure ancestors, and go back to Facebook for an hour or four. Unless they can be won to history, their imagination will be held hostage in the cage of eternal Now: the flickering instant that’s gone as soon as it has arrived. They will thus remain, as Cicero warned, permanent children, for ever innocent of whence they have come and correspondingly unconcerned or, worse, fatalistic about where they might end up.

The seeding of amnesia is the undoing of citizenship. To the vulgar utilitarian demand, “Yes, all very nice, I’m sure, but what use is it?”, this much (and more) can be said: inter alia, the scrutiny of evidence and the capacity to decide which version of an event seems most credible; analytical knowledge of the nature of power; an understanding of the way in which some societies acquire wealth while others lose it and others again never attain it; a familiarity with the follies and pity of war; the distinctions between just and unjust conflicts; a clear-eyed vision of the trappings and the aura of charisma, the weird magic that turns sovereignty into majesty; the still more peculiar surrender to authority grounded in revelation, be that a sacred book or a constitution invoked as if it too were supernaturally ordained and hence unavailable to contested interpretation.

Tell a classroom of 12-year-olds the story of the British (for they took place across our nations) civil wars of the 17th century and all those matters will catch fire in their minds. Explain how it came to be that in the 18th century Britain, a newly but bloodily united kingdom, came somehow to lose most of America but acquire an Indian empire, to engross a fortune on the backs of slaves but then lead the world in the abolition of the trade in humans; explain all that, and a classroom of pupils whose grandparents may have been born in Mumbai or Kingston will grasp what it means to be British today, just as easily as a girl whose grandparents hail from Exeter or Aberdeen.

But the history of how we came to execute our king, or dominate south Asia, is exactly the history that, in practice, gets short shrift from the present national curriculum. The same is true of vast tracts of British history – most of the medieval centuries, in which the relationship between church and state, a topic of compelling contemporary significance – seldom get class time. A comprehensive school teacher I talked to at one of the Prince of Wales’s Summer Institutes told me that he was eager to teach his pupils medieval history and the curriculum offered him space to do just that. He made plans to have his class look at pipe rolls in the county archive with their laconically eloquent accountings of villages decimated by the black death; visit churches and cathedrals to understand what a truly Christian England felt like and take all those experiences back into the classroom. But once he realised – or was made to realise – how much more work it would take both for his pupils and himself to satisfy the time-lords of assessment, “I collapsed back on Hitler and the Henries.”

My own anecdotal evidence suggests that right across the secondary school system our children are being short-changed of the patrimony of their story, which is to say the lineaments of the whole story, for there can be no true history that refuses to span the arc, no coherence without chronology. A pedagogy that denies that completeness to children fatally misunderstands the psychology of their receptiveness, patronises their capacity for wanting the epic of long time; the hunger for plenitude. Everything we know about their reading habits – from Harry Potter to The Amber Spyglass and Lord of the Rings suggests exactly the opposite. But they are fiction, you howl? Well, make history – so often more astounding than fiction – just as gripping; reinvent the art and science of storytelling in the classroom and you will hook your students just as tightly. It is, after all, the glory of our historical tradition – again, a legacy from antiquity – that storytelling is not the alternative to debate but its necessary condition.

I don’t underestimate the difficulty, especially with a looming rise in classroom numbers as the mini baby-boom of the 2000s comes to school, of reinstating a more complete history; especially one that will not neglect Europe and the non-western world. And it can’t be a good idea to treat school age as if it ran on parallel tracks to chronology, so that the eight-year-olds automatically get Boudicca. Better, perhaps, to start the reconnections between then and now in primary school with the history closest to the children: families, the local town and country, while not stinting their natural fascination with those who live their lives on the world stage. All of which makes added time for history in the curriculum the precondition of its rescue from disconnection.

Academies – where history is discouraged, or even ruled out, in favour of more exam-friendly utilitarian options – must be persuaded to teach it, and for more than a trivial hour a week. Drive-by history is no history at all. Ideally, no pupils should be able to abandon the subject at 14.

To the retort that teachers have enough on their hands in the state system getting their students to be literate and numerate, I would respond that in a pluralist Britain of many cultures, vocational skills are the necessary but insufficient conditions of modern civility. Kids need to know they belong to a history that’s bigger, broader, more inclusive than the subject they imagine to be the saga of remote grandees alien to their traditions and irrelevant to their present. A truly capacious British history will not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent. In the last resort, all serious history is about entering the lives of others, separated by place and time. It is the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance.

None of this is to underestimate the heroic job being done by history teachers in primary and secondary schools throughout the country, with brutally constrained resources of time and materials. Nor is it to turn a deaf ear to their own concerns. As two successive Historical Association surveys in 2009 and this year make dramatically clear (they are available online at history.org.uk along with an excellent podcast debate about history in schools chaired by Sir David Cannadine), my concerns are but an echo of theirs. “My subject is disappearing,” writes one anguished teacher in the 2009 report, in a spirit of lament rather than recrimination. What emerges most startlingly from testimonies of hundreds of teachers is that at a moment fraught with the possibility of social and cultural division, we are, in effect, creating two nations of young Britons: those, on the one hand, who grow up with a sense of our shared memory as a living, urgently present body of knowledge, something that informs their own lives and shapes their sense of community; and those on the other hand who have been encouraged to treat it as little more than ornamental polishing for the elite.

Independent and grammar schools by and large teach the subject for 90 minutes or more a week (albeit often in those chopped-up modules); and their teachers have usually had specialist historical training. But one in three comprehensives and academies teach the subject, if at all, with teachers who have no history themselves beyond GCSE; and with harshly truncated hours. There is absolutely no more guaranteed recipe for boredom than discontinuous subject matter taught as an exercise in “learning” by someone who is passionless about the past. How would you rather spend an hour: “learning about learning”, trapped in some sort of indeterminate swamp of histo-geographic-social studies, or listening to and talking about, the murder of Thomas Becket?

If we care about this as a country; if we believe, as I do, that one of its cultural glories is that our future absorbs our past not as dead weight but inspiration, then there is much to consider, debate and do. And nothing worthwhile can be done without listening to and learning from those charged with the mission, working on its frontlines up and down the country in all kinds of schools. But in the end, the history community is – or ought to be – bigger than just its school lessons: it should involve and engage academics who might want to think as deeply about how the subject is taught to 13-year-olds as to undergraduates and PhD students; writers outside the academy who might want to produce new books – not just textbooks – but for the digital age, integrating the kinds of sources that can be put without straining too many resources, on every student’s laptop, or even smartphone; the many devoted curators and custodians of historic sites and museums. And, not least, the reform and rejuvenation of history as a living breathing subject ought to involve parents, who, after all, are themselves, one hopes, the first storytellers their children listened to.

Of course, the first obligation parents will feel towards their children, beyond their safety, is that they be equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to earn their living in a world in which that task gets harder by the day. But caring parents, whatever their means, and wherever they live, surely have another concern too, beyond the exigencies of pounds and pence: that their children come to understand that the value of the house they live in is not measured by square footage, the size of the car or the number of electronic machines whirring and flashing in room after room, but the wealth of its memories, the abundance of its shared stories; for it is from that history that we recognise our membership of a common family. Like all other families, it will row and rage and seldom sing from the same page. But somehow that common memory will make it pause before it tears itself apart and shreds the future to ribbons.

What every child should learn

Murder in the cathedral The whole showdown between religious and royal/secular ideas of law and sovereignty embodied in the persons of Thomas Becket and Henry II. This could hardly be more relevant in our contemporary world, where secular law and authority are asked to submit to religious law. And a thrilling story, given that Becket goes from being the king’s right-hand man to his indefatigable opponent. What kind of conversion was that? The story of Henry’s penitence and the establishment of a martyr legend is just as riveting.

The black death, and the peasants revolt in the reign of Richard II:How did society deal with the arrival of a terrifying pandemic? (Are we any more prepared?) How did the plague change society among rich and poor. Was there any connection between the trauma and a rebellion that took over the capital?

The execution of King Charles I: How did Britain get from a country that revered its monarch to one that cut off his head? How could a total British war – fought in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as England – happen over religion?! What happened when whole families divided in civil war? What was it like for Britain to be governed by a non-royal who turned quasi-dictator? Why did the official campaign to abolish Christmas fail? The really big question is why this most thrilling, terrifying epic moment in British history, seldom gets classroom time.

The Indian moment: How was it that a country throwing its weight around the world’s oceans got kicked out of most of America but in two generations came to rule an immense part of the subcontinent? Any class would want to know about the cunning-crazed Robert Clive; to look again at Siraj ud Daula and the tragic ruin that Warren Hastings became, not to mention stories of Brits who defied the race and culture barrier by wearing Indian dress, speaking Indian languages; illicitly marrying Indian princesses.

The Irish wars: William Gladstone, Charles Parnell and the Irish wars – the subject that never goes away! Two heroic and, in their own ways, tragic figures. Could it ever have worked out peacefully?

The opium wars and China: Victorian Britain using the royal navy to protect hard drug trafficking? True!

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Holocaust Survivor and Righteous Gentile

Story from Dix Hills Patch, November 26, 2010:

In 1943, Rachel Mitzmacher and Sara Marmurek were two Jewish girls among many who met in a Polish ghetto and then were taken to the Szkolna slave labor camp to work in an Austrian-owned ammunition factory.

The owner of the factory also owned a rabbit farm. Polish teenager Wladyslaw Misiuna was a Catholic who worked at the rabbit farm and was appalled at the treatment of the Jewish girls at the factory. He would sneak them food and medicine when he could, and then was able to get five of them transferred from the factory to work on the farm with him, where he knew conditions would be more favorable for them.

In August 1944, the camp was liquidated and the girls were sent to Auschwitz, where the majority of new arrivals went straight to the gas chambers. But because the girls looked stronger and healthier than the others—because of Misiuna—they were admitted to the camp instead of going to the gas chambers.

This saved their lives and the five friends were liberated in May 1945. Rachel eventually went to Palestine with two of the five girls, and the other two went to Canada. In the late 1950s, Rachel, her husband and their children moved to the United States and made a home in Dix Hills, where her son Akiva Mitzmacher, 64, still lives today.

Mitzmacher said that his mother, Rachel, Sara (who he refers to as “Sucha”) and the other three girls saved by Misiuna kept in touch throughout the years until Rachel died in 1997.

Mitzmacher still keeps in touch with Sucha, who at age 88 is still “fluent and articulate,” said Mitzmacher.

And this Thanksgiving, for the first time, Sucha, who still lives in Canada, has been reunited with the boy who saved her. Misiuna, who is in his 80s as well, has remained in Poland all these years. It’s the first time they have seen each other in 65 years. Sucha has come to Dix Hills to spend Thanksgiving with Mitzmacher and his family in Dix Hills. Mitzmacher thinks that Sucha is the only one of the five girls who is still alive.

“I call Sucha every holiday and have visited her many times,” Mitzmacher said. “My family normally has about 35 people for Thanksgiving and this year we have 40. Just a few extra.” Mitzmacher has lived in Dix Hills since 1976. “We are Dix Hillians,” he said proudly.

Sucha and Misiuna were reunited after the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous in New York contacted Mitzmacher and asked him if he knew if any of the five women were still alive, and Mitzmacher put them in touch with Sucha. The organization started in the late 1980s and its goal is to provide assistance to Christian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, who they call “Righteous Gentiles.”

Mitzmacher said he met Misiuna in 1994 in Poland, when he went there on a trip with his sister. “My parents spoke about the Holocaust every day of their lives,” he said. “They were liberated but not freed. I knew the story of Misiuna and wanted to meet him.”

Rachel also got to meet Misiuna once before she died, back in 1991. Misiuna had come to the United States to visit Esther, another of the five girls he had rescued who at the time was living in Los Angeles. On his flight home, there was a problem with the plane, and it had to stop in New York landing at Kennedy International Airport, Mitzmacher said.

“Misiuna looked up my mother in the phone book while he was waiting at Kennedy and he was able to get in touch with her. My parents went to the airport to meet him during his 10-hour layover. I am glad they were able to meet before my parents died,” he said.

And now Misiuna has been reunited with the only survivor of the five girls, Sara “Sucha” Marmurek, and they are celebrating the Thanksgiving weekend together with Akiva Mitzmacher in Dix Hills.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Boy an Icon For Childhoods Lost in Holocaust

Story from NPR.com, November 27, 2010:

The look of terror and confusion blankets a young boy’s face as he raises his arms in surrender to a German soldier pointing a gun at him.

The image, captured in a photograph during World War II, has been seared into the minds and souls of millions since it was seen. But the identity of the little boy — his thin, fragile legs visible beneath a long coat — remains unknown.

And as historian Dan Porat tells Scott Simon, his name will likely never be known.

“The only thing we can say definitely about [the little boy] is that he is in all likelihood younger than 10 years old, because he doesn’t have a Star of David on his clothing,” says Porat, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Porat took a deep look at the photo for a new book, The Boy: A Holocaust Story. In it, he tries to uncover what happened to the boy, the soldier who pointed the gun, the man who took the photograph and the history of others involved in the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto.

The photo was included in what Porat calls a “victory album” submitted by SS Gen. Jurgen Stroop to the Nazi leadership in Berlin. Stroop was in charge of moving Jews from the ghetto to death camps. He promised to do it within three days; it ended up taking him more than four weeks.

“Stroop was mostly concerned about fulfilling and achieving and promoting his own career,” Porat says. “And this report, in part, was an attempt to rehabilitate his inability to fulfill this mission within three days. Stroop was also trying to convey his control of the forces, his control of the evacuation of the Jews in an orderly manner.”

The photo was one of 52 photos in the report, Porat says, and likely taken by Franz Konrad, an administrative officer in the SS. After the war, Konrad stood trial with Stroop and was convicted of killing seven Jews and sending 1,000 others to death camps. He was executed with Stroop in March 1952.

Porat says none of the Jews in the photo can be identified, but the soldier pointing the rifle was Josef Blosche, who was picked up years after the war by the East German secret service. While being interrogated, Blosche was presented the photo.

“On the back of that photo … he wrote in his handwriting, ‘I am the SS man with a rifle in his hands in a combat position and with a helmet on his head, aiming my rifle at the little boy.’ Signed Josef Blosche, Berlin,” Porat says.

Blosche was sentenced to death for war crimes and executed in 1969.

Porat says he knows of at least eight claims to the identity of the boy in the photo. Many people believe a physician in New York named Tsvi Nussbaum is the boy, but Porat says Nussbaum himself took that claim hesitantly.

“Unfortunately, I believe he is not the little boy,” Porat says, “although this photograph very much represents his traumatic experience … in the Holocaust.”

It’s fitting that we are not able to personalize the photo too much, Porat says.

“This photo has become an icon. This is a photo that represents so many survivors whose childhood was robbed away from them by the German Nazis. And this boy stands for that childhood that went missing.”

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Russia Acknowledges Katyn Massacre

Story from Rianovosti, November 27, 2010:

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski on Saturday hailed the decision by the lower house of Russia’s parliament approving a declaration recognizing the 1940 Katyn massacre of Polish officers as a crime committed by Stalin’s regime.

“I believe this is a positive signal that came from Moscow before the upcoming visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to Warsaw. We must accept this document with great satisfaction keeping in mind that this is an official document by the [Russian] parliament,” Komorowski was quoted by Polish media as saying.

Medvedev is scheduled to visit Poland by the end of the year.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk called the Russian State Duma’s decision a “good step” and said he expects further steps from Russia in the same direction.

According to official data, over 20,000 Polish officers were killed in 1940 by the NKVD – the Soviet secret police. The executions took place in various parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The largest massacre occurred in the Katyn forest near the Russian city of Smolensk.

The Communists, who opposed the declaration after it was drafted, say the Polish officers were executed “by German occupation authorities in the fall of 1941, rather than by the NKVD in 1940.” They also say they can provide documents to prove their viewpoint.

Communist lawmaker Vladimir Kashin said if the draft was adopted then the relatives of those shot in the massacre would attempt to gain financial compensation from Russia.

The issue has been a source of tension in Russian-Polish ties, but Russia’s recent admission that Soviet forces were responsible did much to improve relations.

President Lech Kaczynski and other Polish dignitaries were killed in a plane crash earlier this year whilst on their way to a memorial ceremony for the Polish officers slain in Russia.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

The Day Camelot Died: The Assassination of JFK Revisited

Forty-seven years ago today John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and to this day conspiracy rumors continue to swirl around his death.  Recently, CNN interviewed some of Kennedy’s Secret Service agents about the tragic day.  Here is their story:

CNN.com, November 22, 2010:

After mostly avoiding the spotlight for decades, many of the former U.S. Secret Service agents who were assigned to protect President John F. Kennedy are now offering their accounts of the day he was assassinated, 47 years ago Monday.

After the first shot hit the president, former agent Clint Hill says, “I saw him grab at his throat and lean to his left. So I jumped and ran.” Hill is the man seen running toward the limousine in the famous film of the shooting, captured by a bystander named Abraham Zapruder. Hill jumped onto the back of the presidential car, in a desperate attempt to protect the president.

“Just before I got to the car, the third shot hit him in the head.” Hill says.”It was too late.”

First lady Jackie Kennedy had climbed onto the back hood of the car, but Hill moved her back into her seat, and attempted to shield the two of them from any further bullets, as the car sped to the hospital.

As the president’s head lay in her lap, Hill heard Mrs. Kennedy say, “Oh, Jack, what have they done to you?”

A newly detailed account of the assassination is laid out in the new book “The Kennedy Detail,” by former agent Jerry Blaine, written with journalist Lisa McCubbin, based on interviews with many of the agents who covered Kennedy. Former agent Hill, who has rarely granted interviews about the shooting, wrote a foreword.

Blaine and Hill say they are still burdened by the knowledge that they were unable to keep the president safe that day in Dallas, Texas.

“We couldn’t help, but we felt like we failed,” says Blaine. “It was a terrible feeling.”

Hill was commended for the bravery he showed under fire, but even so, he says he holed up for years in his basement with alcohol and cigarettes, feeling guilty that he did not reach the limousine in time to take a bullet for the president.

“I felt that there was something I should have been able to do,” he says. “Moved faster, reacted quicker, gotten there just moments quicker, could have made all the difference in the world.”

Hill suffered nightmares, but post-traumatic counseling was not yet a common practice. Only with the passing of many years did he gradually recover, telling himself he did the best he could. “You just have to accept it and live with it, the best you can,” he says.

Just days before the assassination, Blaine writes, Kennedy chafed at the close proximity of his protective detail. During a motorcade in Tampa, Florida, he asked them not to ride on his limousine.

“Have the Ivy League charlatans drop back to the follow-up car,” the president told one of the agents. “We’ve got an election coming up. The whole point is for me to be accessible to the people.”

But Hill and Blaine dismiss the notion that Kennedy’s instructions in Tampa jeopardized his security in Dallas. Photos of the motorcade show, regardless of what the president said, Hill was riding on the back of the car during an earlier part of the route.

By the time the motorcade reached the stretch of roadway where the assassination occurred, however, agents could no longer ride on the fenders, Blaine says.

“We were going into a freeway, and that’s where you take the speeds up to 60 and 70 miles an hour. So we would not have had any agents there anyway,” he said.

Some of the agents see the book as a chance to counter some of the conspiracy theorists who have never accepted that it was Lee Harvey Oswald who shot the president, and that he acted alone.

“There’s no question in my mind he was the assassin,” Hill says. “I was there. I know what happened.”

Blaine reveals for the first time that on the very same day that Kennedy was killed, newly sworn in President Lyndon Johnson was almost shot as well — accidentally. Just hours after Johnson was sworn in aboard Air Force One, Blaine was guarding his home, after going 40 hours without sleep.

“It was about 2:15 in the morning at The Elms, which was Johnson’s residence before he became president. I heard all of a sudden a person approaching,” Blaine says. He raised his gun and put his finger on the trigger — only to see Johnson round the corner.

“He turned white, he turned around and walked in, and that was the last that was ever said of it,” Blaine says.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Russia Plans to Redistribute its Population

Andrew Osborn for The Telegraph, November 16, 2010:

The Kremlin is considering pushing ahead with the biggest geographical redistribution of its population since Josef Stalin’s forced deportations of entire nationalities in the 1940s.

Under the plans, which were leaked to the daily Vedomosti newspaper, the majority of Russia’s 141 million-strong population would be concentrated in just twenty urban centres rather than sparsely spread out over one fifth of the earth’s surface as is now the case.

At the moment, ninety per cent of Russia’s towns are relatively small with a population of 100,000 people or less, many of them in remote locations. The leaked plan said such places had “no future” and were not worth developing.

Instead, it proposed relocating people to twenty giant agglomerations where Russia’s main natural resources such as oil and gas were located.

Unlike in Stalin’s day, when people were forced to move at gunpoint on the often spurious grounds that they were ‘enemies of the people’ or Nazi collaborators, relocating would be optional and encouraged on economic grounds alone.

Much of rural Russia is dying as young people move to towns and cities anyway and entire Soviet-era settlements which were built around just one or two factories are no longer economically viable.

“There is no need to fight against the current and we need to develop big cities and urban centres,” the plan said according to the newspaper.

Saddled by an obsession for central planning, the Soviets decreed that many towns and settlements be built in areas where the climate was too harsh and where the expense of providing basic utilities was unjustifiably expensive.

Analysts said the plan, which would roll back the Soviet idea of urbanising the entire country, is likely to be heavily touted by President Dmitry Medvedev as part of his agenda to modernise Russia.

“Changing the map of the country is a necessary but not simple task which needs to be done very carefully as any overreaction could lead to a fight for urban resources,” a government official was quoted as saying.

With speculation mounting about whether Mr Medvedev or Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, will run for the Russian presidency in 2012, the plan could be a useful electoral tool for Mr Medvedev according to analysts.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles

Ancient Roman Landscape Found Near London

Story from CNN.com, November 17, 2010:

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Roman landscape beneath a park in west London, with a Roman road, evidence of a settlement, and unusual burials among the finds.

They say the discovery — at the site of a planned luxury hotel near the edge of the River Thames — gives valuable and rare insight into the daily life of what was then an agricultural village.

Dating back nearly 2,000 years, the village would have supplied the ancient Roman city of Londinium and also given shelter to passing travelers.

“It helps us build a picture of the Roman landscape and shows how the busy metropolis of Londinium connected with the rest of Roman Britain,” said Jo Lyon, a senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology, which carried out the excavations.

The site is in Syon Park, owned by the Duke of Northumberland and located across the river from Kew Gardens. Waldorf Astoria is building a luxury hotel on the grounds that is set to open early next year.

The Museum of London made the discovery while doing excavations in August 2008 ahead of the hotel’s construction.

Everything was found under just half a meter (1.5 feet) of soil, and the finds were kept secret until the fieldwork was finished.

Some of the finds will be displayed at the hotel, Waldorf Astoria said.

The site revealed a section of one of Roman Britain’s most important roads, linking Londinium with the Roman town of Silchester, which lies farther west.

“That’s one of the key national roads, (a) very, very busy road, and we don’t really find fragments of the actual roads themselves very often in London,” Lyon said.

The dig also revealed evidence of a rural settlement and an ancient tributary of the Thames. Thousands of Roman artifacts were recovered from the site, including two shale armlets and fragments of a lava quern stone, used for grinding grains.

Archaeologists also found a fragment of an “exceptional” Late Bronze Age (1000-700 B.C.) gold bracelet that probably predated the site, as well as hundreds of coins.

“All of the coins came from the Roman road,” she said. “That road was in use for 400 years across the Roman period, and people have just dropped coins over those hundreds of years.”

One of them is a coin made of copper alloy that features a V, which Lyon said could refer to Vespasian, who was Roman emperor between 9 and 79 A.D..

There were also the skeletons of those who may have been former occupants of the settlement. They were found unusually buried in ditches, lying on their sides without any grave goods, which the museum said was “particularly curious” and in need of more research.

Lyon said she initially thought they were Iron Age burials because the style was so “casual.” It could be that the method was a local one adopted by the Romans who lived there, she said.

The dig also showed that the British landscape changed considerably under Roman influence, with the establishment of towns connected by roads, the museum said.

Londinium, the ancient name of London, was founded in 48 A.D. on an uninhabited site, and its strategic position on the Thames helped it rapidly become the most important and largest commercial town in the province.

The site on Syon Park would have been an attractive place for a settlement because it lay between the road and the Thames, the museum said. The land was easy to cultivate and the presence of the road would have given the community another source of income from travelers wanting refreshment and lodging.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles