HomeGeneral InterestThe archaeology of HS2
Listen to this article

To discover the past, archaeologists often dig a trench across a historical site. However, HS2 is digging a trench from London to Birmingham!

Dr Rachel Wood.

Join Kirsten Whitehouse as she journeys through time. Encounter long-lost heroes, find treasure, discover murder victims and unravel mysteries along the way. Sounds a bit like something from days gone by, a happy return to childhood books and tv programmes, doesn’t it? And yet, this is the most modern journey of all.

Much has been written about the construction of HS2, both sides of the argument for and against have been voiced aplenty, and yet a major part of the project has gone largely unnoticed.

Welcome to your journey through the archaeology of High Speed Two, Europe’s biggest excavation programme and the largest ever undertaken in the UK. Ranging from the Prehistoric and Roman Britain to the Anglo-Saxon and Medieval periods, and the Industrial Revolution and World War 2, HS2’s archaeology has a potential for discoveries on an unprecedented level.

RailStaff was given the opportunity to chat with Mike Court, historic environment lead at High Speed Two, and project archaeologist Dr Rachel Wood about some of the finds they have already unearthed along the initial route, and the years of careful planning that have gone into this project.

Mike Court.

Phase 1 of the high-speed rail link will connect London with Birmingham, Phase 2a will go on to Crewe and Phase 2b will, at a later stage, link to Leeds and Manchester. In essence, the team around Mike and Rachel – a staggering number of over 1,000 archaeologists, specialists, scientists and conservators – is digging a 155-mile trench right up the country and is uncovering 10,000 years’ worth of history, which might never have seen the light of day were it not for this major railway project.

A little-known fact is that the government doesn’t usually allocate funds to archaeology works – most historic finds are made by pure chance, during private development. “This means, they are often an inconvenience, and removed in the quickest possible way,” Mike Court explained. “This is where we are so lucky, because the High Speed Two project specifically required us to carefully consider the possible archaeology along the route.”

Early start

HS2 was first proposed in 2009, to increase capacity on Britain’s railways. A route with alterations designed to minimise the visual, noise, and other environmental impacts of the line was opened to public consultation in December 2010 and construction was confirmed in early 2012. Royal Assent was finally given in February 2017, but to get this permission meant Mike and his colleagues had already spent around two years on archaeological and environmental research of the likely route.

Aerial view of the site of the roundhouse at Curzon Street.

Their work included putting together strict guidelines with regards to how to approach the massive task in hand and how to treat anything they unearthed in the process correctly. The HS2 Heritage Memorandum is one of the suite of documents forming Phase One of the High Speed Two Environmental Minimum Requirements (EMRs) – the overarching commitments by the Secretary of State to afford appropriate management and protection of people, communities and the natural, cultural and built environment. For Mike and Rachel’s work, the Heritage Memorandum specifically states that “The investigation and recording works will seek to advance our understanding of the past”.

The programme sets out the key stages of investigation and recording, for example detailed desk-based assessment, field evaluation, location-specific investigation and recording, and archaeological and built heritage post excavation (assessment, analysis, reporting and archiving). The team works closely with Historic England as well as local authorities throughout this entire process.

Once the paperwork is done though – where do you even start? Mike laughed: “With a lot of photos and historical research!” The ‘detailed desk-based assessment’, in this case, meant that the planned route was assessed based on previous knowledge of settlements or historic events and aerial footage was used to highlight possible areas of interest.

Getting the go-ahead for field-based work was an exciting day for Mike: “As an archaeologist, you are always thrilled by the opportunity to excavate something you don’t normally get the chance to. And a project on this scale… while we are not exactly rewriting history books, we are certainly filling in a lot of gaps in our knowledge with what we have already unearthed.”

Osteologist from MOLA Headland studies a skeleton excavated for HS2.

The man who named Australia

They set to work, strictly adhering to their own guidelines, for example when it comes to the excavation of human remains, which are treated with due dignity, care and respect.

One of the first physical projects took place at St James’ Gardens, London, the location which will eventually house HS2’s London terminal at Euston. Around 60,000 people were known to have been buried there in the 18th and 19th century. Bodies were exhumed and reburied with greatest dignity, in accordance with Christian practices.

The team was amazed to find, among the perfectly preserved coffins, the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders, the famous Royal Navy explorer who had circumnavigated and mapped the coastline of Australia (a name that he chose!) in the late 18th century. The exact location of his grave had been lost for well over 150 years and it was thought that he possibly lay underneath one of Euston station’s platforms, but now a well-preserved, ornate lead coffin plate (below left) made it possible to identify the remains.

After careful consultation with Captain Flinders’ descendants, Mark Thurston, HS2’s chief executive, has since confirmed that Captain Flinders will be reinterred at the Church of St Mary and the Holy Rood in Donington, Lincolnshire. Many of his family members have been laid to rest there and he himself had been baptised in the church in 1774.

An iron-age murder?

With over 60 active excavation sites along the route, it is not surprising that other remains have been discovered, many of them predating the London finds by centuries – and even millennia.

One such site is being headed up by Dr Rachel Wood. Having worked as an archaeological consultant for only nine months prior to getting involved in the HS2 project, Rachel was “really excited to get the call” and now oversees the Wellwick Farm site on the western edge of Wendover in Buckinghamshire. It was here that her team discovered the skeleton of an adult male who had been buried face down with his hands tied in front of his hips.

“We are awaiting further results from our osteologists,” Rachel told RailStaff, “but there are very few reasons why he would end up – literally – in a ditch, in this position!” The team suspects that the man had either been executed or was a murder victim of sorts.

From a number of pottery pieces they found in the layers above his grave, they have determined that he very likely lived during the Iron Age, making him in excess of 2,200 years old.

Once the osteological analysis is complete, what will happen with the remains, seeing as they predate Christian times? As before, they will, of course, always be treated with due dignity and respect. Like the many artefacts they find, including pottery, coins and jewellery from various time periods, it is likely that Iron Age Man will be kept in a museum, both for further research and to educate generations to come about the life and times before ‘Modern Day Britain’.

Hidden circle

Not all finds get to be preserved. Dr Wood’s highlight of the fieldwork project at Wellwick Farm, so far, has been the uncovering of the so-called Timber Circle. “It was obviously made from wood, you could just make out the darker colour of what would have been posts,” she explained. “Initially, we assumed we had uncovered an old track during our trial trenching…. Then, one by one, the circle started forming before our eyes, until we had discovered post holes making up the clock positions all the way from 12 to 9 o’clock – it was fantastic, I really couldn’t quite believe it!”

The giant circle measured 65 metres across and was soon joined by a smaller inner circle. The complete picture led specialists to believe that this was a pagan monument assigned to the winter solstice. “Sadly, a lot of archaeological work is destructive by nature,” Rachel lamented. Whilst an exciting and important historical discovery, the excavation site will be filled in again: “There simply isn’t anything there to preserve.”

The giant circle at Wellwick Farm, with a member of the HS2 archaeology team standing next to each post hole.

Discussions are ongoing though, as to how to remember these sorts of finds. “Perhaps a historic route plaque inside the trains,” pondered Mike, “or an exhibition in the station.”

One thing is certain, though, whatever the team discover and uncover in its painstaking work will be shared with local communities via information events and lectures, and in wider circles via research papers, journals, and updated web content. Museums will benefit from exciting new additions, which, it is hoped, will both entertain and educate young and old for many years to come.

Another type of circle

Many are in fact already keen to catch a glimpse when passing by what will become the intercity route’s most northern stop during Phase 1: Curzon Street station. Recent excavation work here uncovered the ruins of what is widely considered to be the world’s oldest roundhouse. It was designed by engineer Robert Stephenson in the 19th century, and became fully operational on 12 November 1837, making it almost two years older than the roundhouse in nearby Derby, which held the ‘world’s oldest’ title until now.

Curzon Street station was closed to passengers in the late 19th century, although it remained open for goods trains until 1966, when it was finally closed for good. With the go-ahead for the construction of the HS2 project came renewed interest in the history of the site and how to best preserve it: the designs for the new Curzon Street terminus, for example, will incorporate the existing historic Old Curzon Street building and link it to the new station’s eastern concourse at New Canal Street.

The roundhouse itself was situated adjacent to the old station, which was the first terminus serving the centre of Birmingham. Trial trenching revealed not only the remains of the original station’s roundhouse but also showed the circular base of the central turntable, the exterior wall and the radial inspection pits which would have surrounded the turntable. Work is ongoing to determine whether any of the remains can be preserved in-situ.

Nearing completion

Will this archaeological project ever end? When the Covid-19 crisis hit earlier this year, all sites had to be closed down in accordance with government guidelines, but Mike and Rachel are pleased that the fieldworks have now been allowed to restart, albeit with some adjustments in place, such as social distancing, shorter work time limits and adapted site offices.

With the exception of a few smaller areas, Mike still expects the field element of Phase 1 to be completed next year. Construction has already begun, of course – the reason for the first excavation sites having been at Curzon Street and St James’ Gardens is that building the stations takes much longer than the actual route itself. Construction follows archaeology in this once-in-a-lifetime project, but what happens if they find something so significant that it would really impact the originally planned route?

Mike reiterated: “For the past ten years, archaeologists have done preliminary desk-based research, field walking, used group penetrating radars, trial trenching and evaluation to understand what we have along the line of route. In the very unlikely event that we do find a site of historical/national importance, which we were not aware of, we have a process that would enable us to manage the site/discovery commensurate with cost and programme.”

Investigations at Coleshill, near Birmingham.

Artefacts already uncovered span the last 20,000 years of our history – be it medieval pottery in Stoke Mandeville, prehistoric (from the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods) tools and flint in the Colne Valley – Mike’s personal highlights as he likes to think about the megafauna and people who roamed those areas many millennia before us – a lead-lined Roman coffin or the world’s oldest railway roundhouse at Curzon Street: this really is a project like no other and is uncovering untold secrets right out of the ground beneath our feet!