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10,000 Years of British History to Be Unearthed in Excavations in Advance of Planned Rail Line

Initial finds include hunter-gatherer site on outskirts of London, Wars of the Roses battlefield, Industrial Revolution burial guard

A Victorian era time capsule marks one of the project's most unique early finds (Courtesy of HS2)
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The HS2 railway, a $72 billion undertaking expected to stretch 150 miles between London and the West Midlands, is projected to welcome its first passengers in late 2026. But before construction can begin, archaeologists must survey the anticipated route, cataloguing their discoveries and clearing the way for the high-speed line.

That’s why at the end of October, a veritable army of archaeologists descended on more than 60 dig sites scattered across the route. The extensive excavation, which is projected to be the largest ever conducted in the United Kingdom (and maybe even Europe), will continue through 2020, enabling researchers to unearth 10,000 years of British history.

Initial work has already yielded an array of archaeological treasures, Esther Addley writes for the Guardian: Amongst other finds, the team has identified a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site situated on the outskirts of London, a Romano-British town at Fleet Marston and a razed Anglo-Saxon church in Buckinghamshire.

The project itself has attracted much controversy, with critics citing high costs, environmental concerns and potential loss of heritage. Still, lead archaeologist Helen Wass tells the Financial Times’ James Pickford that the project is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for Brits to engage with local history. In addition to hosting regular open days at the various dig sites, researchers will compile a permanent archive detailing all of their finds. And, if artifacts overlooked during preparatory stages emerge (as Addley notes, the team has spent years creating a Lidar, or light and detection ranging, map of the entire route and conducting a series of ground-penetrating geophysical surveys), Wass says HS2 will be flexible in providing for additional dig time.

In England’s capital city, one of the major tasks ahead is moving 45,000 skeletons buried at St. James’ Gardens between 1788 and 1853. According to BBC News, the site, which is located next to London’s Euston rail station, was once used as an overspill burial ground for a nearby church. Famous individuals interred there include Captain Matthew Flinders, an English navigator who was the first to circumnavigate Australia, and Bill Richmond, a Staten Island native who moved to England in 1777 and became the world’s first black sports star. It has yet to be decided where Flinders, Richmond and the other residents of St. James’ Gardens will be reburied.

To the west of London, archaeologists have identified evidence of horses and reindeer believed to have populated the Colne Valley’s flood plains between 11,000 and 8,000 B.C., as well as early human settlements dating from that same period up until the medieval era. Farther north in Fleet Marston, Buckinghamshire, researchers have found remains of a Romano-British town complete with roadways, animal enclosures and fence lines.

According to the HS2 archaeology portal, additional sites of interest range from the Grim’s Ditch, a Bronze Age land boundary measuring some 11 miles, to St. Mary’s, a 1,000-year-old demolished church and burial ground in Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, and a World War II bombing decoy in Litchfield. (As Miss Cellania writes for Mental Floss, British bombing decoys consisted of Q sites, or areas of light designed to point bombs away from airfields, and starfish sites, which emulated urban lighting conditions in the countryside.)

Wass’ favorite find thus far is a Wars of the Roses battlefield in Northamptonshire. The field, which hosted the bloody Battle of Edgcote in 1469, saw Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick and the so-called “Kingmaker,” defeat William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, in a decisive meeting that would leave Warwick’s cousin and former ally, Edward IV, dangerously vulnerable.

Battlefields are “really ephemeral in the landscape, because people just met there for a day, moved across, had combat and went away,” Wass tells the Guardian.

“If we find arrowheads of the day, or weaponry of the day, or pieces of armory, that helps us really pin down what people were writing about,” she adds. “Because obviously history was generally written by the victors, so they might have a particular spin on the battle.”

Excavations are scheduled to last two years, according to a U.K. government press release. A documentary series detailing the archaeologists’ discoveries is set to air in 2019 or 2020.

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