Excavations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich
Sine April 1999 the Oxford Archaeological Unit (OAU) has been carrying out a major programme of archaeological works and excavations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. This archaeological project, initially funded by English Partnerships London and now carried forward by the London Development Agency has been ongoing throughout the regeneration of this brownfield site.
Naturally the main archaeological interest of the site arises from its use as the nation's principal arsenal and armaments factory, dating from the site's purchase by the Crown in 1671 to its final demise in 1994. At its peak during the 1914-18 war the Arsenal covered over 100 acres and employed over 80,000 people. To date the excavations have centred primarily on the western end of the site notably on the sites of the Royal Laboratories (built 1696-7 for ammunition production) and 'The Great Pile', a complex of gun finishing workshops and storehouses of 1717- 20 attributed to Nichols Hawksmoor. Both sites reveal evidence of continuous adaptation to new pocess and technologies including the switch from horsepower to steam power, as well as hydraulic, gas and electric installations. The Royal Laboratory excavation revealed fragmentary remains from its early courtyard period and good evidence from its roofing in 1855 to form 'the largest covered machine shop in the world'. Excavations within the 'Great Pile' revealed machine bases, coal cellars, iron and bronze furnaces, casting bosses, boiler houses, an engine house, and flue systems. The remains were often of massive scale, the foundations for one steam engine consisting of 250 tonnes of stone blocks, whilst the casting pits excavated were over 4 metres deep. Finds recovered have included crucibles, gun mould fragments, foundry tools, stone lithographic blocks, cannon balls and iron Cannon, well as lead shot and bullets, covering almost the whole period during which the Royal Arsenal Woolwich was in production
More recent works, have centred principally on the sites of the 'West (or old) Forge (built from 1856) and the 'Central Power Station' built c.1890 on the site of the east quadrangle of the Napoleonic 'Grand Store'. During these works three massive steam hammer bases were encountered. Two of these were from the 10 Ton and 12 Ton hammers described by Vincent c.1875 (Vincent W.T. , Warlike Woolwich) p.31) whilst a third by Massey was somewhat later in date. Despite their colossal size and weight (up to 100 Tons each) the London Development Agency has funded their recovery and relocation for monumental display on site. Amongst a huge number of other recovered artefacts have been four 10 metre long rifled liners from 12" naval guns of the 1880s.
The investigations have also revealed a late Roman cemetery at the western end of the site. To date over 140 pagan graves have been excavated. Whilst no human remains survived coffin and body stains were hauntingly apparent and some 25% of the burials included artefacts, notably pottery vessels, shale and copper alloy buttons, and bracelets, glass beads and glass vessel. Some outlying graves were also found, several-oriented east-west indicating Christian burials. Other pre-arsenal features excavated have included foundations, ditches, pits and a medieval double flued, tile built pottery kiln
Many of the recovered artefacts will be displayed on site in due course, hopefully in the proposed Borough Heritage Centre. A major publication on the archaeology of the site is in course of preparation.
Rob Kinchin-Smith & Ben Ford, Oxford Archaeological Unit, 25th October 2000
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