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The role of archaeology on HS2, and historical importance of its findings
Mike Court, Lead Archaeologist, HS2

The role of archaeology on HS2, and historical importance of its findings

By Mike Court, Lead Archaeologist, HS2

The creation of HS2 is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe – the first new intercity railway to be built north of London in over a century.

But before we build bridges, tunnels, tracks and stations, an unprecedented amount of archaeological work will take place along the line of route.

As part of HS2’s enabling works, over the next two years, more than 1,000 archaeologists, specialists, scientists and conservators from across the UK will be exploring and recording over 60 archaeological sites for the project. HS2’s archaeology programme is the largest ever undertaken in the UK and the largest in Europe.

The work we are doing now is a central part of HS2’s ground preparation works for Phase One of the project, from London to Birmingham. HS2, our contractors and supply chain are well underway with a programme of investigation ahead of main construction works next year.

A fascinating but sensitive aspect of HS2’s archaeological work is the careful excavation of the remains of ordinary people and ‘celebrities’ of their time in three burial grounds in London, Buckinghamshire and Birmingham.

In London, a team of over 200 archaeologists and related specialists have started the careful archaeological work of preparing the site for construction of the HS2 London terminus. Those buried in the now demolished chapel and burial ground include individuals from all walks of life; paupers and nobility, artists and musicians, soldiers and sailors; inventors and industrialists.

The work will be the largest archaeological excavation of human remains from 18th and 19th century Britain, giving archaeologists, scientists and historians an extraordinary opportunity to study the population of London at a time of huge social, political and economic transformation.

In Buckinghamshire, the derelict church and burial ground of St Mary the Virgin in Stoke Mandeville presents a unique opportunity to study the buried population dating from at least the 12th to the early 20th century. This will give us the opportunity to re-tell the 1,000-year story of the development of a village and its inhabitants as they survived some of Britain’s most important historical events.

At the other end of the Phase One line of route in Birmingham, the archaeological exploration of Park Street burial ground, on the site of the new HS2 Curzon Street station, is a unique opportunity to understand more about the people of Birmingham at a time when the city’s population grew 10-fold as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

While the burial grounds will give us a fascinating insight into life and death at various periods in British history, the unprecedented range of other archaeological sites along the line of route will also reveal to us how our ancestors lived and worked.

The HS2 line of route clips the edge of Edgcote battleground, an important battle in the Wars of the Roses that led to the capture and execution of Edward IV.

HS2’s work will be the most detailed investigation ever of the physical remains of the battlefield and archaeologists hope to recover evidence for engagements between the Royalist and rebel armies.

At Fleet Marston in Buckinghamshire, archaeologists will uncover the remains of a large part of a Romano-British town. We expect to find not just evidence of the settlement, the road network that surrounded it and an amazing array of artefacts, but possibly a Roman cemetery too. Archaeologists will also be able to compare the finds at Fleet Marston to those at nearby smaller Romano-British farming settlements at Stoke Mandeville and Doddershall to investigate different ways of living in the Roman countryside. This will show us how the population changed and adapted to the waves of incoming migrants at the end of Roman rule.

The sheer scale of possible discoveries, the geographical span and the vast range of our history to be unearthed makes HS2’s archaeology programme a unique opportunity to tell the story of Britain. From Prehistoric remnants and Roman settlements to deserted medieval villages, Wars of the Roses battlefields and Victorian innovation, HS2’s archaeology programme has it all.

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