Brian Philp looks back at the Roman Forum site in 1968-69


Our battle on the Roman Forum site in 1968-69 was recorded briefly just after under the heading Roman Whitehall.
The full report was published in Britannia 1977 (Vol.VII). The work revealed spectacular Boudiccan fire-deposits and buildings, a major masonry building which we called the proto-forum (but now admitted to be the first forum), the south and part of the east range of the second forum, several piers relating to a major entrance and limited medieval and later tanks. However, rather more interesting was the actual battle itself barely outlined before.

For the first time in the City Norman Cook of Guildhall Museum had arranged for an interval (now called a window) of just four weeks for an archaeological intervention between demolition and construction on a major site across the south range of the known forum. However, apart from a single museum assistant there was no team in the City that could carry out the work. As my Kent team had already completed major excavations at Reculver 1960-68, Faversham Abbey in 1965 and other sites he telephoned to seek our help. I agreed at once but had to sign a sinister liability contract.

We arrived on the agreed date only to find the demolition running several days late. I had to strike a quick deal (!) with the demo. team to share the site and also their plant. In the next nine days we made excellent progress using heavy machinery and revealing vital structures and deposits. Then came the first crunch. The developers arrived (early) and demanded we leave using some loop-hole in the contract. All support from Museum, CBA, Antiquaries evaporated ! Never beaten, we adopted the standard CIB ten-point action plan and refused to go. We spread interesting rumors that we had the power to stop the work. We drummed up press support. Engaged Barclays Bank (the site owners) and bought regular Friday drinks for the groundworks foreman and crane driver and other (secret) distractions. This worked well for another five weeks.

The next demand was we remove our vital on-site HQ which seemed to be in the way. We demanded a replacement and were given the nearby First City Bookshop (another CIB!) which we gladly took as it had running water, electricity, a working lift which reached the roof from where we could monitor the development site. All panning and finds-processing took place there. On site the good work continued. but sharing with four sets of contractors working a 24hr programme and under a penalty of £8,000 a week delay. Hence no welcome for archaeologists. In addition, they were cutting pile-holes 50m deep right next to where we were working and also hammering in interlocking steel sheet-piles closeby.

The next crunch came when our friendly groundworks foreman left and was replaced by a tea-total nasty who clearly hated archaeologists and had been told to get us off the site. Regular confrontations followed and we refused to leave. This led to a near fist fight, but he withdrew and I warned my assistant to be ready for his return with a gang of labourers. The morning ticked by with no appearance. By mid-afternoon I asked one of the engineers where the new foreman was ? He replied that he had got drunk at lunchtime, as something had upset him, and then been sacked. I said, oh dear, he was really quite a nice chap !!! So the good work continued for another four weeks.

The next crunch came when they wanted to demolish our First CIty Bookshop. Certainly not, until you find us a replacement. This time they sent two workmen onto the roof who smashed the water pipes which flooded down five floors and then poured out of each end of the live light-tube above my desk. Yes, perhaps it was time to move. So we moved into the contractor's main office where we stored our tools. As the drawing office looked warm (remember it was mid-winter) I took up a desk in the centre and spent hours inking in the site drawings and completing the notes. However, it turned out to be where the project manager had his roast lunch which arrived next to me and looked brilliant. However, before I could eat it the blighter turned up and this led to a few more words. Anyway we stayed on site for 150 days with excellent results. - Needles to say everything else on site was totally destroyed by the development of a major bank some 25 storeys high. It lasted less than 40 years and is now occupied by a ten-storey M&S at the corner of Gracechurch Street and Fenchurch Street. - Where was MOLAS and RESCUE in all this ? (Sorry, not yet formed !). Yes, the good old days !

Brian Philp



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