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Prehistoric tools at Newham Crossrail site among archaeological finds in exhibition

PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 February 2017 | UPDATED: 07:25 15 February 2017

Human plague victims will feature in Tunnel, The Archaeology of Crossrail. Picture: Museum of London Docklands.

Human plague victims will feature in Tunnel, The Archaeology of Crossrail. Picture: Museum of London Docklands.

Museum of London

Sifting through thousands of years of London life to secure Europe’s largest engineering project in history has to be a dream job for any archaeologist.

Some of the flint pieces used at the mesolithic 'tool-making factory'. Picture: Ken Mears Some of the flint pieces used at the mesolithic 'tool-making factory'. Picture: Ken Mears

So imagine the delight of the lucky few tasked with delving metres below the capital’s busiest streets in an East-to-West slice for the Crossrail project.

Now, 500 objects excavated from 20 station sites in preparation of the 73-mile long Elizabeth line have gone on display at the Museum of London Docklands.

Rare artefacts of prehistoric life in North Woolwich are among the highlights of Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail.

The mesolithic pieces of flint are among the oldest items to feature alongside skeletons of plague victims, a Tudor bowling ball and Victorian chamber pot.

Human skulls were among the grisly finds during the Crossrail excavations. Picture: Ken Mears Human skulls were among the grisly finds during the Crossrail excavations. Picture: Ken Mears

Curator Jackie Keily says the flints date back 9,000 years ago and were part of a ‘tool-making factory’ on the Thames Estuary islands.

“That was an incredible place find in a way, the site was very long and linear,” she said, adding that finding dig sites are at the best of times “unpredictable”.

Some of the 150 flint scatters revealed partially-made tools such an axe and the find is significant as it proves humans had returned to both England and the Thames Valley after a long hiatus during the Ice Age.

“It’s a fantastic site and a very evocative one,” said Jackie, who spent a year assembling the objects, many of which were in the ground just two years ago,

This huge iron chain was recovered from the North Woolwich site. Picture Ken Mears This huge iron chain was recovered from the North Woolwich site. Picture Ken Mears

Four of the digs took place in Newham at Pudding Mill Lane, the Connaught Tunnel, North Woolwich and Limmo Peninsula.

The latter provided significant remnants of The Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Company (1837-1912), where the process of making ships from iron rather than wood was spearheaded.

Huge timbers of the south slipway were exposed by archaeologists along with a huge iron chain – thought to secure the ships or help them slow down during the launching process.

While the photographs are impressive, what adds poignancy to this part of the display is rare footage of the launch of the HMS Albion at the Thames Iron Works in 1898, recorded as one of the worse ever peacetime tragedies on the Thames.

The news-style footage captures the before and after moments of the fatal launch when 38 adults and children who were watching sadly drowned in a backwash from the boat.

“When we found that footage it made it feel very personal,” Jackie said. “It brought it all alive.”

Elsewhere, Tunnel offers fascinating yet grisly finds. These include human remains found in a mass grave at the Old Bethlehem Ground near Liverpool Street, which have provided the first positive idenitification of DNA from the Great Plague of 1665.

Elsewhere, visitors can view a comical Victorian chamber pot found near Stepney Green, and Cross and Blackwell jars.

“Overall it is a story about London,” said Jackie. Crossrail has allowed us to reveal stories from East to West, from the early modern to prehistoric.”

Tunnel: The Archaeology of Crossrail is open now until September 3 2017 at the Museum of London Docklands in partnership with Crossrail Limited. Admission is free. Visit museumoflondon.org.uk

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