Roman Period Overview
London during the Roman period was a large bustling town. It was probably founded as a trading centre in around 50AD and grew to become the largest settlement in Britain. At its height in the second and third centuries, the population may have been around 50,000 and the city had an impressive range of public buildings including a huge basilica and governor’s palace. The Prescot Street site lies 500m to the East of the city wall of London in an area known as the Eastern Cemetery.
The earliest written evidence we have for the city is from the 1st Century Roman historian Tacitus who wrote:
London; a place not dignified with the name of a colony, but the chief residence of merchants, and the great mart of trade and commerce
Book XIV The Annals, Tacitus
The Surveyor’s Grid
The earliest evidence from the around the Prescot Street site is the division of land in this area during the first century AD. The evidence indicates that this initial layout followed the same grid as the town itself. Several ditches from c.70-80AD in the area of the cemetery are perhaps indications of plot divisions at this time. This surveyors grid was used as a means of apportioning land either along the lines of ownership or function. Early quarrying in the area of the cemetery may have been the original land use associated with these division.
The main layout feature within the cemetery is a road running roughly East – West along this grid alignment. This road seems to have acted as a principle axis within the cemetery, possibly acting as a processional way. The evidence seems to indicate that the highest status graves lie closest to this road and generally closer to the city.
All of the burial plots and the majority of the graves are aligned to the grid which the road follows. This main cemetery alignment is clearly respected througout the Roman use of the area.
The earliest burials may have been further to the West than the main cemetery area. The town itself was probably founded and layed out on quite a large area grid to allow for expansion. Thus the earliest activity in the cemetery area is in fact quarrying rather than burials. It is thought that a group of burials further West along this route in the Fenchurch Street area might represent the earliest Eastern Cemetery.
The First Burials
London is underwent a large scale ‘redevelopment’ during the Flavian period (69 – 96AD), perhaps in response to destruction of the city by Boudicca. At this point, the focus of the city seems to have moved East and burials begin occurring within the cemetery area. It is important to remember that the city was not ‘walled’ until the late second century AD (around 180AD) although some other form of municipal defences may have existed.
Decline and Abandonment
The cemetery shows no sign of decline or abandonment until late in the 4th century AD and into the 5th century AD. This may reflect problems with the dating of the burials, but it may also genuinely reflect the fact that London showed plenty of signs of life right through the 4th century AD. Interestingly, the Eastern city is one of the areas identified as a possible focus of later Roman activity in London. The cemetery seems to fall out of use by the 5th century AD, reflecting the depopulation of the walled city itself at around this time. As far as we know, the end of burial activity was followed by a fairly rapid ‘grassing over’ of the land. The cemetery seems to come to a short sharp end in the 5th century AD without much evidence for contraction or decline.