Archaeology and scheduled monuments

The archaeology of Southwark

Southwark has an immensely rich, varied and important archaeological heritage dating from circa 10,000 years ago to the settlement and industrial remains of the 20th century.

In prehistoric times, the lower Thames valley looked very different from today - the river was wider and shallower and the Southwark side consisted of low-lying marshes and braided river channels, interspersed with a number of large sand and gravel eyots (islands). Archaeological work in Southwark has revealed a wealth of prehistoric sites, with early settlement and land management on the higher and drier islands, and well-preserved waterlogged structures and deposits surviving in the channels and lower-lying inter-tidal areas.   

In the briefest of summaries, the prehistoric archaeology of Southwark ranges from evidence for worked flint tools of Mesolithic date (about 10,000 years ago), from areas such as the Old Kent Road, Tooley Street, and Lafone Street - to Late Iron Age (about 2,000 years ago) settlement evidence from sites such as Grange Road, Cherry Garden Pier, Borough High Street and along Tooley Street. There's evidence for Neolithic and Bronze Age occupation, ploughing and field systems from numerous sites including Phoenix Wharf, Wolseley Street and Hopton Street. A range of other important prehistoric sites, including deeply buried late Neolithic and Bronze Age wooden platforms and trackways, have also been discovered (for example, at the former Bricklayers Arms Railway Depot and Bramcote Grove, Bermondsey).  

The northern part of Southwark has a wealth of Roman archaeology. The Romans settled on the banks of the Thames just after AD 43. The Roman provincial capital (Londinium) spanned the river and in Southwark was focused on two large gravel islands, forming the southern bridgehead for the original Roman bridge, which still corresponds to the London Bridge area 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). Remains of large and prestigious stone buildings with mosaic floors, hypercaust heating systems and in one case, elaborately painted wall frescos have been found. Wooden jetties, warehouses and other remains of waterfront activities show that the Southwark riverside was a centre of trade, with close links to the rest of the Roman Empire.

Other Roman sites include: the Romano-celtic temple at Tabard Place; the Roman boat preserved under Guy’s Hospital; the Bath House on Borough High Street and many other key sites, including burial grounds, markets, wharfs and warehouses.

Following the departure of the Romans in 410 AD, archaeological evidence for the early-post Roman period is more difficult to detect, but the borough developed rapidly in the medieval period. Documents refer to a minster church at Bermondsey and Southwark, evidently retaining significance to be fortified by Alfred the Great. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, Southwark was prospering and growing as a settlement. The Cluniac priory and later abbey of St Saviour Bermondsey, known as Bermondsey Abbey, was founded in the 1080s. During the years following Domesday, many important lords and senior members of the church built town houses in Southwark, most notably Winchester Palace, built in the 12th century for the Bishops of Winchester. The remains of the hall, and the Rose Window Wall, can be seen on Clink Street.

The importance of the area during the post-medieval period is equally well attested, both archaeologically and historically. During the Tudor period (1485–1603), Southwark possessed numerous great houses or palaces, including Suffolk Place (Brandon house) on the western side of Borough High Street, opposite St George’s Church. This archaeological importance continued into the 16th and 17th centuries in what is now the Park Street and Bear Gardens area of Bankside. This is where important Elizabethan and Stuart playhouses were constructed, including the bear baiting arenas (operational between circa 1540 to 1662), and the Rose (1587), the Globe (1599) and the Hope theatres (1613). Other Tudor playhouses were also situated in Southwark - the Swan (1595) was in Bankside and the Newington Butts Theatre (1576), possibly the earliest playhouse in London, once stood in the area that's now the southern roundabout at the Elephant and Castle.

The historic road system, villages, parishes and parks further south also contain important archaeological information about the developing rural community of Southwark, with significant archaeological sites excavations taking place particularly along the Old Kent Road and in Dulwich, Camberwell and Peckham.

Southwark contains important archaeological remains of many industries, such as tanning in the area around Bermondsey; brewing, whaling, ship building and breaking in Rotherhithe; vast areas of, now buried, docks and a wide variety of other industries such as food processing and manufacturing. Southwark has rich associations with Dickens, the Pilgrim Fathers and other noted historical characters. Southwark Cathedral, Borough Market, the Hop Exchange, the George Inn, the Clink, Marshalsea and King’s Bench Prisons are just a selection of historic landmarks in the Borough area.

Southwark has a vast archaeological heritage and the council has policies to protect the borough's archaeology. We also have a dedicated archaeology officer to ensure these policies are adhered to.

Find out more

You can find out more about Southwark's archaeology and history at the Local History Library at the John Harvard Library on Borough High Street.

You can explore the Southwark council heritage collections, find details of upcoming events and uncover hidden stories about the borough at the Cuming Museum’s Southwark collections online.

The Museum of London has an unrivalled collection of artefacts and information about London's past. Much of this material has been recovered from Southwark. The museum also runs a series of archaeological events and educational opportunities. The London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre holds the archives from excavations in Southwark. The LAARC website contains details about their collections, online resources and opportunities for volunteers.

Young archaeologists' club

The Young Archaeologists' Club offers opportunities for young people (aged up to 17) who are interested in archaeology. The London Central branch is hosted by the Museum of London.

Talks, walks and visits

The Southwark and Lambeth Archaeology Society run many talks over the year. They are generally advertised on the London SE1 community website, along with many other walks and talks.

The Council for British Archaeology (CBA) hold frequent talks and visits for their members and a regular programme of meetings discussing the archaeology of London.

The Surrey Archaeological Society and the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society both hold frequent talks, events and visits, many of which may cover the archaeology of Southwark or London. LAMAS also hold three conferences a year focusing on archaeology, historic buildings and wider heritage. You can find details of these conferences.

Publications

Details of archaeological sites excavated and recorded within Southwark are frequently published in the London Archaeologist - copies are available by subscription. Copies can also be found in some libraries or the more recent publications can be purchased. Old editions can be found on the webpage.

Longer reports are published in Surrey Archaeological Collections, a journal published by the Surrey Archaeological Society.  Southwark's historic link with Surrey has survived in this form. The London and Middlesex Archaeological Society Transactions also sometimes publish material from Southwark.

Visiting scheduled ancient monuments

It's possible to visit six of the eight Scheduled Ancient Monuments in Southwark, where some remains or information can be seen.  The remains of the west wall and part of the south wall of the Great Hall of Winchester Palace commonly referred to as the Rose Window can be seen from Clink Street. The southwest tower of Bermondsey Abbey Church can be seen under a glass floor within the cafe at Bermondsey Square.

The site of the original Globe Theatre can be seen on the south side of Park Street, where the original area of the theatre is laid out in cobbles within Playhouse Court. Notice boards are also displayed on the visitor platform.

The Rose Theatre on Park Street at the junction of Rose Alley and Park Street has frequent open days where the archaeological remains of the theatre and an exhibition on its history and rediscovery can be seen. The theatre runs seasons of plays throughout the year. A number of Shakespeare’s plays premiered at the Rose and this is currently the only place where you can see his plays performed on the original theatre site. You can find more details

The Brunel Museum occupies the engine house used to power the pumps for the excavation of the first tunnel under the Thames, where Isambard Kingdom Brunel stated his career working with his father, Sir Marc Brunel. You can visit the museum website for opening hours and events.

Located near to the Brunel Museum are the remains of King Edward III's moated Manor House at Platform Wharf. The stone remains of the small moated medieval house are laid out in the park together with an information board presenting a reconstruction of the building. The Manor House can be found just to the South of Bermondsey Wall East at the junction with Cathay Street, near to King Stairs Gardens.

The remains of the Roman boat under Guy’s Hospital and the Hope playhouse and associated bear baiting arenas survive. Buried archaeological remains can be found, although not much can be seen at street level.

Museums in Southwark

You can find a list of all the museums in Southwark.

Page last updated: 11 January 2022

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