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'Europe's largest archaeological dig' begins on HS2 route

Undated handout issued by HS2 of volunteers in London recording a gravestone before it is removed ahead of the construction of HS2. Archaeologists are investigating 10,000 years of British history along the line of the new High Speed rail route in what they say is Europe's largest dig. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday October 26, 2018. See PA story HERITAGE HS2. Photo credit should read: HS2/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

By Emily Beament, Press Association Heritage Correspondent

Archaeologists are investigating 10,000 years of British history along the line of the new High Speed rail route in what they say is Europe's largest dig.

Experts from the HS2 project have begun work on the programme to excavate sites along the 150-mile route from London to the West Midlands, the company said.

Neolithic tools, medieval pottery and Victorian time capsules have already been discovered.

In total, more than a thousand archaeologists are set to explore more than 60 separate sites, from prehistoric and Roman settlements to those from the Industrial Revolution and the Second World War.

Mark Thurston, HS2 chief executive, said: "Before we bore the tunnels, lay the tracks and build the stations, an unprecedented amount of archaeological research is now taking place between London and Birmingham.

"This is the largest archaeological exploration ever in Britain, employing a record number of skilled archaeologists and heritage specialists from across the UK and beyond."

Archaeological sites being investigated along the route include a prehistoric hunter-gatherer site on the outskirts of London, a Roman British town in Fleet Marston, Aylesbury, a 1,000-year-old demolished medieval church and burial ground in Buckinghamshire and a WW2 bombing decoy in Lichfield.

Tens of thousands of skeletons will be removed from a burial ground at St James' Gardens next to London Euston station.

In recent months, protests and a memorial service have been held at the site where 60,000 people were buried from 1790 to 1853.

Several notable people were buried at St James' Gardens, including:

- Lord George Gordon: A political and religious activist who instigated the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780, when a mob marched on Parliament. He was acquitted over his role but died in Newgate prison after being convicted of libelling the queen of France.

- Captain Matthew Flinders: At the age of 27 he became the first person to circumnavigate Australia. He is also credited with giving the country its name.

- Bill Richmond: Born in New York, he moved to England as a teenager and was an apprentice cabinet maker before becoming the first black boxer to be internationally recognised. He was nicknamed the Black Terror.

HS2 said all artefacts and human remains would be treated with dignity, care and respect, and a four-part documentary on the history of Britain that is exposed by the project will air on the BBC in 2019/2020.

Patrick Holland, BBC Two controller, said: "This is a major series following this unprecedented archaeological project.

"The HS2 digs promise to reveal secrets throughout a vast timeline of British history and I am delighted that BBC Two will be following the journey."

Tom McDonald, head of commissioning at the BBC's Natural History and Specialist Factual unit, added: "It's thrilling to be there from the very start of what is unquestionably one of the most significant archaeological endeavours in British history.

"It promises to make us re-interrogate what we think we know about British history and give us an extraordinary and privileged insight into the past."

Duncan Wilson, chief executive of government heritage body Historic England said: "With the building of HS2 comes a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve our understanding of how people have shaped England's landscapes over thousands of years, from the first prehistoric farmers through Roman and Saxon and Viking incomers to the more recent past."

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