Tower of London

Digging for Weapons: Royal Armouries Tower Foreshore Finds

Royal Armouries Tower of London dig, 1986. © Royal Armouries 2014

Royal Armouries Tower of London dig, 1986. © Royal Armouries 2014

Royal Armouries is the national museum of arms and armour and is more closely associated with Henry VIII’s armour and vampire slaying kits than archaeology.

However, in 1986 Royal Armouries commissioned a dig on the Tower of London foreshore. This dig had two aims, firstly, to find evidence of Ordnance workshops that had been situated on the Tower wharf, and, secondly, to prove that the Tower of London foreshore was an important archaeological site.

Royal Armouries Tower of London foreshore dig, 1986. © Royal Armouries 2014

Royal Armouries Tower of London foreshore dig, 1986. © Royal Armouries 2014

After two weeks of negotiating mud and the tidal Thames, the exhausted archaeologists put down their tools to assess what they’d found. The dig was deemed successful, identifying a series of compacted sloping foreshores dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, and uncovering a large number of weapon parts – potential evidence of the Ordnance workshops.

A report was written, over 700 small finds bagged and that was that, until autumn 2013. This was when I started to think about a project to repackage and catalogue this collection. Now, I should insert a disclaimer here, that I am not actually an archaeologist, but a 19th century historian and museum professional. However, like many museum professionals, I have an archaeological collection in my care and wanted to ensure we were doing all the right things to look after this.

I was very fortunate to enlist the help of the Museum of London Archaeological Centre (proper archaeologists) to recruit volunteers and reassess this dig and its collection of finds. I was even more fortunate that some of the volunteers were also associated with Thames Discovery Programme (also proper archaeologists) and so I felt the collection was in safe hands.

Boxes and documentation from Mooseandhobbes.wordpress.com

Our days with the volunteers normally involved taking a box packed full of finds and repackaging and relabeling them; they would also be catalogued and photographed. After an initial six-week pilot project we rolled out a full 12-week programme that also enabled us to tackle a problem box and allowed one of our volunteers to delve into the dig’s paper archive. You can find a full account of our project on one of the volunteer’s blogs: http://mooseandhobbes.wordpress.com/tag/royal-armouries/

For me, this project has really highlighted the value of archaeology for the history and museum professions. Not only providing valuable historical evidence, but also demonstrating the importance of conservation.

Flintlock Frizzen. © Royal Armouries 2014

Flintlock Frizzen. © Royal Armouries 2014

The 1986 dig was deemed necessary following concern regarding treasure hunters and diggers on the Tower foreshore. Based on the evidence of the excavation, the report asked for permits to restrict the tools used on the foreshore to simply hand-trowels. It’s not entirely clear if the dig directly led to changes in regulation but it was probably part of a series of discussions and concerns that have led to stringent regulation that does not allow any digging on the Tower foreshore.

Furthermore, the photographs and report from the dig show the Tower foreshore at a much higher level, demonstrating the amount of erosion that has occurred on site over the past 30 years. Archaeology is not just a quest for evidence of the past, but records the contemporary conditions of a site.

Pike head find. © Royal Armouries 2014

Pike head find. © Royal Armouries 2014

Since the project has finished, I’ve been trying to tie up loose ends, the collection will be fully and properly acquired by the museum and the images added to our digital management system. We will also be at the Tower of London Archaeological weekend on the 19th and 20th July and would be delighted to chat to people about the history of the dig, the collection or the volunteer project.

Kathleen McIlvenna, Curatorial Assistant – Tower Collections

London

I’m in London for meetings, fall asleep on the train after staying up too late writing reports. One of the lads drops me off at the station on his way to site, he sings the entirety of London by The Smiths at me in the car, singing along to the fast live version from the Rank album. All the way down I have the lyrics “do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?” stuck in my head as I fall asleep and wake up again. Also stuck in my head are the words from the Bo Selecta Bored of the Rings sketch which is a site banter favourite, particularly for the last few weeks. At the station he hands me a report and assures me “I’ve sprayed upon every page!” “I’m going to London town centre in the middle and I shan’t be back!” I tell him and leave. It’s typical site banter, seizing on little artefacts of pop culture like the most obscure and occult small finds.

After the meetings I make it to the Tower of London for the last hour. It’s crawling with tourists and I must have ended up in about fifty holiday snaps as I head for the White Tower. Two teenage American girls regard the codpiece on Henry VIII’s suit of armour. “Oh my god! If this guy got hit in the junk NOTHING would have happened!” I look at the design, it is very ostentatious, like a party seven emerging from the groin but I imagine it reflects contemporary clothing fashions. Having worn groin guards for various sports over the years I wonder if the design had any hidden practical merits, as getting kicked in the knackers while wearing the modern cricket box design always makes me flinch. I imagine “my junk” would be safer lying in the armoured barrel of Henry VIII’s armoured codpiece, I wonder if there is a paper in this somewhere, if I decided to test the hypothesis by experimental archaeology I would have no problem finding volunteers to kick me in the knackers. Such is the life of the small company archaeologist.

In my hotel at Tower Bridge I try to relax by watching the film Plunkett and MacLeane, but I’ve still got my game face on, I notice the drain they run down near the end has an egg-shaped profile, something yet to be invented in the 18th century. The egg-shaped profile in London drains had a brief vogue in the 19th century as it was less likely to block but problems with repairing and cleaning saw the normal tunnel profile return. I end up in the Red Lion in Westminster, I love that most London pubs have stayed traditional but my arm sticks to the unwiped counter. It wouldn’t have happened in one of my pubs, it feels like not that long ago I was still a barman, an out-of-work-archaeologist, now there’s so much archaeology work on I haven’t got time to wipe my metaphoric counter.