London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History

Spurred by a building boom, archaeologists are plumbing the deep past of one of Europe’s oldest capitals.

In a brightly lit laboratory above the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), conservator Luisa Duarte is gently cleaning a large first-century fresco that had been brought into the museum a few days earlier from a construction site on Lime Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district. Workers digging out the foundation for a new 38-story office block had come upon the ruins of an early Roman building. The museum’s experts dated it to around A.D. 60, making this one of the earliest Roman frescoes yet found in London. At nearly ten feet long and more than six feet high, it’s also one of the biggest and most complete.

“Whoever commissioned this was seriously rich,” says Duarte, palette knife in hand, gently prying away clumps of moist earth still clinging to the fresco’s surface. “A wealthy merchant, perhaps, or a banker. Somebody with taste and money and style. This bit of red, for example, appears to be cinnabar, an expensive and rarely used pigment. We come across it occasionally but only on the very finest work.”

Archaeologists believe the fresco adorned a building that was demolished at the turn of the second century A.D. to make way for a grandiose new basilica and forum, the largest the Romans would ever build north of the Alps, larger than St. Paul’s Cathedral is today. Entire neighborhoods were leveled, the rubble used as landfill, and the next generation’s vision built on top. It was the first of many urban renewal projects over the next 1,900 years.

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