Pre-historic industry in Deptford
(The following are edited extracts from Dr. Christopher Philpot’s paper on Deptford Creek commissioned by the developer, and permission for use of it by GIHS given by the developer. The full text is available if wanted)
The Palaeolithic Period
The London region has one of the greatest concentrations of Palaeolithic find sites in Britain. Human groups have been present intermittently in the area since 430,000 years ago, leaving their flint tools along the former course of the Thames.
One flint implement in the Sturge Collection is known to have been found somewhere in Deptford. Two struck flint flakes which may have been Palaeolithic or Mesolithic were found during the demolition of the Green Man public house at Blackheath Hill
The Mesolithic Period
Finds from the succeeding Mesolithic period (8,500-4,000 BC) are similar. Mesolithic peoples probably lived along the edges of the gravel terraces and exploited the marshy alluvial zone below for hunting, fishing and gathering.
A number of Mesolithic finds have been recovered by dredging in the bed of the Thames adjacent to Greenwich, comprising stone tranchet axes and picks, and flint blades and flakes.
Further west on the Thames foreshore of the victualling Yard a grey flint axe was found with a blade in 1984.
At Lewisham five flint flakes, an antler pick and a reindeer or red deer horn were found at Elliots' Works in Thurston Road and a tranchet axe at Century Works in Connington Road near the River Ravensbourne on both sides.
The Neolithic Period
Artefacts of the Neolithic period (4,000-2,000 BC) have again mostly been found in the River Thames. They comprised both polished and flaked axes of flint and stone, and a flint sickle. One axe was found within the study area off Norway Wharf. Further west on the foreshore of Deptford Strand a ground stone axe was found in 1989. The greenstone of which it was made originated from the Mounts Bay area of Cornwall, illustrating the length of the trade routes for axes of this period
The Bronze Age
From the Bronze Age (c2, 000-700 BC) finds from the River Thames off Greenwich continue to be important and include a palstave, a socketed axe-head, a spearhead ferrule and a leaf-shaped sword, although the sword may have been a fake33. Inland other bronzeaxe-heads have been found in Lewisham at Elliots' Works in Thurston Road in and close to the Ravensbourne.
A wooden structure has been found at Bellot Street in Greenwich; it is not certain that this was a trackway, but its location is appropriate as a route from the terrace edge into the marshes of the Greenwich peninsula.
The highest point of the gravel terrace edge within the study area is near Berthon Street, but no evidence of this period was found. The promontory of St Nicholas may have provided a route to the delta marsh, as it did in the medieval period. The possible gravel island on the east side of the Creek mouth was probably too low for Bronze Age occupation.
The Iron Age
Few finds which can be ascribed to the Iron Age have been recovered in the Deptford area. At the excavation at the Dover Castle public house on Deptford Broadway a fragment of saddle quern and a flint blade were found in a small pit and a small scatter of coarse hand-made pottery was found across the site.
It is possible that the Roman occupation of the Broadway area had a late Iron Age predecessor. Where the sand and gravel terrace edge meets the riverside east of Woolwich a late Iron Age occupation site has been discovered. Dating from the early first century BC and bounded by two lines of perimeter ditches, it was probably an oppidum, a defended proto-urban settlement acting as the centre of a considerable territory. Occupation here continued into the late Roman period.
At Charlton usage of the late Iron Age defended enclosure at Hanging Shaw Wood also continued into the Roman period.
Prehistoric Finds of Unspecified Periods
Prehistoric flints have been noted as found on the land of F. Mitton, nurseryman of Greenwich, in 1949. Flint flakes and burnt flint of an indeterminate period were found residually in later contexts at the excavation at the Dover Castle public house. Residual worked flints and burnt flint which might be of Neolithic or Bronze Age date have been found in an evaluation in Lewisham. A retouched flint was found on the Thames foreshore upstream of Deptford Creek.
At Blackheath Hill was Blackheath Cavern, otherwise known as Jack Cade's Cavern, which may have been a prehistoric flint mine or possibly a natural feature. It collapsed in the 1880s and was last examined in 1946. However, it may well have been a medieval chalk quarry associated with the lime-burning industry
The Roman Period
The Roman conquest of the first century AD superimposed new patterns on the local landscape. The main Roman road from Dover to the new city of Londinium, later called Watling Street, ran on a straight course through Bexleyheath, Welling and Shooters Hill to a point to the east of Greenwich Park, apparently aligned on a river crossing at Westminster. From Greenwich its course is unclear. If the straight course had continued it would have crossed Greenwich Park diagonally down a steep hill to cross the Ravensbourne near the mouth of Deptford Creek. This is the course favoured by Montmorency, followed by Leftwich and Brown.
The water level at the Creek mouth was lower in the Roman period than at present. Portions of gravel road metalling were found in 1965 and 1971 in pipe trenches in Greenwich Park, which may have been parts of the Roman road. When Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, enclosed the Park in 1434, he was given royal licence to close a road 136 perches long from the royal highway to the River Thames, which may have been the remnant of the Roman road. However, the orientation of the road was not specified. A possible trace of this Roman and medieval road in the form of a low scarp running from east to west has recentl5 been recorded in the south-east part of the Park
Most writers have accepted that it is more probable that the course of Watling Street deviated to the south of Greenwich to avoid the marshy lands around the mouth of the Creek, crossing the Ravensbourne at Deptford Bridge and continuing along the line of Deptford Broadway, New Cross Road and Old Kent Road to Londinium. Road metalling has been found beneath the Old Kent Road in Southwark. It is unknown if the Ravensbourne was crossed by a bridge or a ford at either point in Deptford.
It was probably alongside the second of the above routes that a Roman settlement was established at Deptford Broadway. In 1866 massive Roman brick foundations and a tessellated pavement were found at a depth of 30 feet (9.14m) during the digging of sewer trenches at the junction of Deptford High Street and the Broadway. The stated depth is not credible, but the story has been reinforced by more recent discoveries in the excavation at the Dover Castle public house. Here were found field boundary ditches running both north-south and east-west, and four pits. Residual Roman window and vessel glass was also recovered.
A reassessment of the finds has revealed a substantial assemblage of Roman pottery of the second, third and fourth centuries. This included fine wares imported from north-east Gaul, coarse ware cooking pots from the Thames area and Highgate Wood, a nearly whole London area grey ware flagon of the mid second century, and the base of a Nene Valley colour-coated bottle of the late fourth century. It indicates dense occupation over a long period.
The nature and extent of this occupation are as yet unclear; presumably there was a roadside settlement based around the river crossing.
By analogy with the development of other settlement sites along the margins of the lower Thames, it is not unlikely that there was river port in the Deptford/Greenwich area. As the water level in the Thames was approximately 4m lower in the Roman period than at present, it was possible that the shore at the mouth of Deptford Creek could have been used as such a port. A Roman coin was found during excavations at the Power station in 1947, and more coins have been found along the Thames foreshore towards Deptford Strand.