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The story of Kentish ragstone used to build Roman London on TV tonight in episode one of London: 2000 Years Revealed on Channel 5

By William Janes

The story of how stone used to build Roman London was pulled out of the ground right here in Kent is set to hit television screens.

Around 36,000 tons of Kentish ragstone were quarried, some of it from what is believed to be one of the largest man made holes in Northern Europe, a valley which now stretches from Coxheath to the River Medway near Tovil.

The origins of the stone used to construct the wall, still visible in parts of the city including Tower Hill tube station, have remained somewhat of a mystery until fairly recently.

Engineer and series co-host Rob Bell talks with Dr Simon Elliott about his discoveries in the new docu-series
Engineer and series co-host Rob Bell talks with Dr Simon Elliott about his discoveries in the new docu-series

The mammoth building project, comprising 3.2km of land walls, was undertaken by emperor Septimius Severus in the late 190s AD to protect the thriving city and commercial hub that Londinium had become.

Thanks to the painstaking historical detective work of archaeologist Simon Elliott the material, a greenish-grey hard-wearing rock synonymous with the garden of England, has been traced back down river to areas around The County Town.

Dr Elliott's research and findings and the story of how one of the worlds largest and busiest cities rose from a swamp will be broadcast on Channel 5 tonight at 9pm in the first episode of a new documentary series, London: 2000 Years Revealed.

Archaeologists discovered a mass grave from The Great Plague beneath Liverpool Street. Picture: Crossrail Ltd (7570682)
Archaeologists discovered a mass grave from The Great Plague beneath Liverpool Street. Picture: Crossrail Ltd (7570682)

The programme delves into The Capital's past, inspired by astounding archaeological finds made during digging to construct tunnels for Crossrail, an ambitious 73-mile railway project connecting London with Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, and Essex.

Through its construction countless artefacts revealing secrets from London's history have been uncovered.

To highlight the true scale of the building project undertaken by the Romans, the East Farleigh based historian said: "The walls included more than one million squared and well dressed ragstone blocks needed for the facing, an overall ragstone volume of 35,000 cubic metres, requiring 420,000 man days to build and 1,750 voyages of medium sized merchant ships to transport the stone the 127km from the quarries to London."

The Roman wall of London as seen today. Picture: John Winfield
The Roman wall of London as seen today. Picture: John Winfield

Dr Elliott has also concluded the quarries, known as metalla, were based in modern day Allington, Boughton Monchelsea, Dean Street, Quarry Wood near West Farleigh, and Teston.

"It's fantastic to have been the person to discovered this," he said. "One of the things I love doing is talking to the wider public. I love disseminating information and talking about the Roman world, the ancient world, and the classical world."

The largest of these metalla by a wide margin was Dean Street which was a staggering 356,400 square metres in volume, making it possibly the largest in the entire Roman Empire.

Workers, often slaves and convicts, toiled in the metalla as depicted in Stanley Kubrick's Spatriacus
Workers, often slaves and convicts, toiled in the metalla as depicted in Stanley Kubrick's Spatriacus

According the Dr Elliott, only around one fifth of workers in the metalla were skilled - many who came from across the empire - the rest were unskilled labourers largely slaves, convicts, or prisoner of war.

"A lot of them would have been at the bottom of Roman society," he explained. "These were slaves and convicts. A punishment from crimes at the time was to be condemned to work in the metalla but what they often miss out is that it was to work there until death.

"Even for the most basic crimes like robbery people would have been sent to work there.

"If you went into that hole, you weren't coming out."

Sue Robinson lives at the site of what might be the largest Roman ragstone quarry in the world
Sue Robinson lives at the site of what might be the largest Roman ragstone quarry in the world

Sue Robinson, whose Dean Street home and garden sit in the quarry said the discovery was "amazing."

"I've been in touch with Natural England to have it classified as a site of special scientific interest," she said. "There was quite a lot of Roman activity in this part of Kent. It's fascinating."

However, living on the site of an ancient landmark of this kind has its drawbacks.

"It's been quite difficult digging in the garden because a couple of feet below the ground is the hard ragstone," she joked.

If you miss the first episode of London: 2000 Years Revealed you can still go back and watch it using Catch Up on My5 at channel5.com

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