The Roman landscape
In Roman times the Thames valley looked very different from today. The river was wider and shallower. The main Roman city of Londinium (present day City of London) was built on the higher north side of the river. The Southwark side consisted of low-lying marshes and mudflats with a number of higher sand and gravel islands.
The Romans settled on the banks of the Thames just after AD43. They built a bridge across from Londinium to the largest of the gravel islands, which corresponds to the Borough area of Southwark today. Major roads were built to other Roman cities in the south of England, including Watling Street to Canterbury (present day Old Kent Road) and Stane Street to Chichester (Newington Causeway and Kennington Park Road).
A small settlement?
It was thought that Roman Southwark was a small settlement around the approach to London Bridge (present day Borough High Street). Excavations from the 1970s onwards and especially the recent Jubilee Line extension excavations have revealed remains of a large settlement that was probably viewed as an extension of Roman London.
Some of the buildings located in the north part of Southwark were large and prestigious stone buildings with mosaic floors, hypercaust heating systems and in one case, elaborately painted wall frescos such as the large fresco illustrated here, now on display in the Museum of London. Marble inscriptions and other finds indicate a connection with the government and the military.
Wooden jetties, warehouses and other remains of waterfront activities show that the Southwark riverside was a centre of trade. Remains of goods, such as fish sauce from Spain, show close links with the rest of the Roman empire.
An important find at Tabard Place in 2002 at the site of a Romano-celtic temple also shows the strong links between Southwark and the rest of the Roman Empire. It is a marble tablet with part of an inscription that mentions a deity known to originate in the Rheims area of France. The traders dedicating the tablet may have been involved in the importation of wine to England. The tablet is also significant as it is one of only two to mention London in the word Londoniensi.
Temples and sculptures
Cemeteries, mausoleum and temple remains also show that Roman Southwark was an important settlement. Under today's Southwark Cathedral a number of religious sculptures were found that had been deliberately broken and thrown into a well. This indicates that the site of the cathedral may well have been chosen to replace an earlier Roman temple.
Archaeological excavations have also uncovered remains that were affected by fire, probably occurring during the rebellion of Queen Boudica who sacked and burned Londinium in AD 60.
While most of the Roman archaeology is concentrated in the north part of Southwark, some finds and remains show that there were farms and other buildings south of the borough in Rotherhithe, Peckham and along the Old Kent Road. Roman archaeology from excavations in Southwark is held at the Cuming Museum and by the Museum of London's Archaeology Service.
For more information about archaeology in Southwark see the Southwark's Archaeological heritage page. For information about excavations and to contact Southwark's Archaeology Officer see the page Archaeology in Southwark.