In a niche at low level behind a decorative grille facing the road at 111 Cannon Street, London, and built into its wall is (or at least ‘was’ until its recent, temporary, relocation to the Museum of London) London Stone.
London Stone is an artefact of oolitic limestone whose manufacture may date from Roman times (Clarke 2007). Yet, as its ancient provenance might otherwise suggest, it is scarcely an ‘archaeological’ artefact at all, since almost no work of that category has ever been done upon it, set adrift, as it has been, from its ancient physical contexts.(1) Those that have attempted to describe London Stone have tended to treat it as if it were an ‘event,’ rather than an artefact; a prolonged rocky narrative recorded in words and sometimes in drawings, etchings or photographs. The only visual reconstructive work of the general site – now largely under Cannon Street Railway Station – was done in the 1960s by archaeological illustrator Alan Sorrell (Sorrell 1969). At that time the extensive remains found there were thought to be of the palace of the Roman Governor of London. In Fig.1 Sorrell shows what it might have looked like.
Towards the top left of the illustration Sorrell has sketched in an entrance to this ‘Palace’ complex. A close up of that entrance in reveals it to be a generic Roman triumphal arch. Here, Sorrell makes an educated guess as to the appearance of those entrance structures since very little of the Roman buildings themselves have been found and plotted, and nothing at all of their entrance sequence. Or perhaps, as I shall go on to explain, only a very small piece of it; the fragment known as London Stone.
Fig.1 Alan Sorrell, Palace of the Roman Governor [left: view looking North towards Cannon Street just beyond the building in the middle ground, right: detail]. 1969. From: Sorrell, Alan. 1969. Roman London (B. T. Batsford: London).
At the top of this post is a photograph from 2013 (E. Suess) showing the display niche on Cannon Street that has housed London Stone since October 1962 (Clark 2007, 177). The area around Cannon Street Station was extensively bombed during the Second World War but in the decade before its redevelopment, City of London archaeologist Peter Marsden was able to record various features that were still to be found (Fig.2).
Fig.2 Peter Marsden, General plan of excavated areas at Cannon Street Station. From: Marsden, Peter. 1975. ‘The Excavation Of A Roman Palace Site In London, 1961-1972’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 26: 1-102.
A larger scale, more speculative drawing (Fig.3) however, shows a feature near, or at, the probable entrance to the complex and which Marsden has labelled, “site of London Stone.”
London Stone has proved to be something of an embarrassment to those disciplined professionals who might otherwise have claimed ownership over its cultural presence. It is difficult to account for archaeologically since techniques of cut and cover, employed in the building of the Inner Circle Line in 1884, directly underneath Cannon Street, would have swept away any and all of the Stone’s ancient contexts. Neither is the Stone comfortably an architectural artefact even though, since the early nineteenth-century, architects and their developer and contractor-clients have attempted to incorporate it into the buildings which have hosted it. Indeed the Stone and its immediate enclosure are listed by English Heritage as Grade II* (English Heritage 2015) a category usually reserved for historically significant buildings or recognisable fragments of buildings, rather than the Scheduled Ancient Monument designation, an alternative category intended for archaeological sites and objects (HMSO 1990 and HMSO 1979).
Fig.3 Peter Marsden, Detailed excavation plan at Cannon Street Station. From: Marsden, Peter. 1975. ‘The Excavation Of A Roman Palace Site In London, 1961-1972’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 26: 1-102.
Plans for its incorporation into new buildings proposed for the site have been fraught.
The Stone’s status for heritage professionals is even more confused; the verifiable history of London Stone is scanty and interwoven with mythologies both ancient and recently fabricated. Very few have been able to agree, for example, on the form or content of the textual information adjacent to the Stone. Should a new housing be designed for it? Perhaps it should be reconstructed to resemble one, or some, of its earlier recorded settings? Or perhaps nothing should be done – it is, after all, a rather unlovely lump of rock with little discernible evidence of its original form. Since I have argued elsewhere that design and reconstruction are closely inter-related forms of propositional making – that they manifest, in common, essential drives and ambitions – a reconstruction of London Stone would, then, also be a design. In this view even to do nothing, when commentators and heritage professionals alike publicly and loudly decry the modest and uncared-for state of the Stone and its setting (2), would also be propositional. This is not to argue that ‘doing nothing’ is a category of propositional making in its own right, rather that choosing not to design in the insistent face of the forces of regeneration and redevelopment, or not to reconstruct because that would close off a myriad of unchosen possibilities, are nevertheless options with the force of propositional consequence.
Next: London Stone Part 2: a preconstruction