London skyline rising but the history below ground is far more fascinating


JUDY WOODRUFF: One of the world's great cities is experiencing a building boom above ground and a digging boom below.

Jeffrey Brown reports from London. It's part of our ongoing Culture at Risk series.

JEFFREY BROWN: Along London's famous skyline, cranes and towers of all kinds, and hundreds more under construction or in the planning stages.

The recent Brexit vote may raise new questions about the future, but there's no question this city has been going through an unprecedented reshaping.

Financial Times architecture critic Edwin Heathcote.

EDWIN HEATHCOTE, Financial Times: In the center of the city, there's never been anything on this scale. And when I say never, I mean, really, there never has been anything on this scale. So, even after the Great Fire of London, things were only rebuilt to five or six stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say never, you mean — because there's a lot of history here.

EDWIN HEATHCOTE: A lot of history.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean never.

EDWIN HEATHCOTE: I mean never.


JEFFREY BROWN: In this global financial capital, property prices have skyrocketed, along with the demand to build, and there's no place to go but up.

While Heathcote sees individual buildings he likes, he worries about the larger picture.

EDWIN HEATHCOTE: Now we have a much more generic, much more globalized city, in which the architecture is much more like Chicago or Singapore.

And so it is changing in the texture and the architectural language and the materials and the scale.

JEFFREY BROWN: But even as this city's future grows skyward, another part of London's story, its past, is being explored in a very different direction, below ground.

HEATHER KNIGHT, Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology: If we were standing here on, say, a lovely summer's afternoon in the 1590s, we'd actually be standing on the stage of the Curtain Playhouse.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Curtain was one of the 16th century theaters where several Shakespeare plays, including "Romeo and Juliet," were first staged.

The archaeological work here suggests it was originally built within a preexisting tenement or apartment house, functioned as a playhouse through the golden age of Elizabethan theater in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then reverted to residential use, in other words, like so much of underground London, use and re-use, urban decay and renewal, through layers of history.

Archaeologist Heather Knight:

HEATHER KNIGHT: It's not just the archaeology of the building we're finding. We're also finding personal objects, things that belonged to people who used this space, so, things like hair combs and, actually, at my feet, we have got clay tobacco pipes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Literally a pipe?


JEFFREY BROWN: Can I pick it up?

HEATHER KNIGHT: Go on. I will let you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is this?

HEATHER KNIGHT: So, OK, well, this dates from around — that is from around 1740. And I think you're the first person to pick that up in a few hundred years.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's pretty cool.

HEATHER KNIGHT: One of the things we found that we're quite excited about is the bird whistle. It's like a little ceramic egg cup.

In any other context, just a toy, but here, associated with the playhouse, could it have been used in performance? Could it be special effects for, say, "Romeo and Juliet," where Juliet is talking about nightingales and larks.

JEFFREY BROWN: The work on the Curtain is being carried out for the developer of a large new complex called, yes, The Stage.

It will include a 37-story residential tower, two office buildings, retail stores and restaurants. Once finished, the excavation site will be part of the development, and open to the public.

Developer Robert Allan says the connection to the Bard makes this a rare melding of building and archaeology.

ROBERT ALLAN, Cain Hoy Enterprises: That is one of many considerations when you come to do development in London. But the benefit of the archaeology, actually, is it actually can be a positive as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this case, it's such a positive that you're naming the place The Stage.

ROBERT ALLAN: It is, yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it's sort of marketing Shakespeare, in a sense.

ROBERT ALLAN: Yes, for us, it's as good as it's ever going to get, I think, to be fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Protection of historical remains has been required in Britain at all construction sites since the early 1990s.

Many treasures have been revealed along the way, including the first handwritten document known from Britain at the excavations for Bloomberg's new European headquarters. The mix of development and archaeology isn't always smooth, but in London's largest construction project of all, it was unavoidable.

We went deep underground for a look at the enormous Crossrail project, a new 73-mile east-west railway system due to open in 2018. It's intended to ease London's overcrowded transit system and roads. It's costly and controversial, but it's also led to uncovering more than 10,000 artifacts that span millions of years.

JAY CARVER, Lead Archaeologist, Crossrail: They're making new discoveries every week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jay Carver serves as lead archaeologist for Crossrail.

JAY CARVER: The big challenge for archaeology is to integrate with the construction program. That's the biggest risk, discovering something of complexity that's going to take a long time, and if you weren't ready, prepared for that, there's going to be a big problem for a project like Crossrail.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's going to be a big problem in terms of, you can't be building until you deal with it?

JAY CARVER: That's right. So, we spend several years really researching in detail every location where the new railway's going to be constructed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here at what will be the new Liverpool Street station, the archaeology has been completed, but the findings were fascinating.

JAY CARVER: A Roman road crossing right across the station construction site, and alongside that Roman road, a burial ground, quite a macabre one. Several decapitated burials were found, and a large group of skulls seemingly just on their own.

The site was also a burial ground from the 16th to the 17th centuries. So we have got a new window, really, on all these lives of Londoners of that time, including, without a doubt, some multiple burials that are probably victims of the Great Plague.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that led to our last stop, the Museum of London Archaeology, a lab where many of the underground artifacts have been taken for cleaning, drying, proper storage, and study.

Here, we were shown a 1st century Roman iron stylus for writing in wax, a third century spearhead, and a fragment of 16th century armor.

DON WALKER, Human Osteologist, Museum of London Archaeology: And you can see quite severe pitting and actually bone destruction.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then there was this young woman, found in the dirt of the Liverpool Street station we'd visited.

Don Walker, a human osteologist, or bone specialist, said she'd probably died of syphilis. But she'd lived in the 1600s, a period that saw several major outbreaks of plague, including the Great Plague of 1665.

DON WALKER: We know from the parish records that people who died of the Plague were sent to this burial ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: DNA from the teeth of skeletons like this can be examined and diseases studied.

DON WALKER: Scientists particular want to know, what is the relationship between the Black Death in the 14th century and these later outbreaks in Europe?

What is the evolutionary history? Because we're not very good at handling or dealing with new outbreaks of different diseases or reemerging diseases. You can tell from SARS and AIDS. And so the more we can know about the evolution of such diseases in the past, the more we can prepare for the future, perhaps.

JEFFREY BROWN: Secrets underground that may help us today, even as the grand old city goes through the latest of its changes above.

From London, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

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