This year the Tower of London is remembering the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War with a major installation by the ceramic artist Paul Cummins entitled ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’. Over the next few months we will be planting 888,246 ceramic poppies in the moat, one for every British and Colonial fatality during the conflict. By Armistice Day on 11th November 2014 the entire moat will be filled with poppies. It promises to be a very moving and poignant sight.
The scale of the piece will be overwhelming, as are the logistics of installing that number of poppies. Each individual poppy is secured to a metal stem that is pushed into the soil of the moat. We have a team of several thousand volunteers at the ready to help with the installation and we know that we really couldn’t do it without them.
As the Buildings Curator assigned to this project my role has been to make sure that the installation does not have an impact on the fabric of the buildings or the integrity of any buried archaeology. The Tower is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and a World Heritage Site and as such we take our responsibility to care for it very seriously indeed. Our moat is an important archaeological site in its own right and a key part of the planning for this project was to make sure that by putting more than 800,000 metal stems into it we weren’t going to damage what survives below the grass.
Luckily we already know a lot about the archaeology in the moat because a large-scale programme of excavations was carried out down there in the 1990s. It revealed masses of remains from all periods in the Tower’s history; from the medieval footings of an early gatehouse in the west moat to the mid-Victorian culvert that runs around the moat to the north.
The excavations also showed that almost all of the significant archaeology survives at a depth of more than 1.5m below the surface. This is far deeper than the 150mm or so that the metal stems of the poppies are going to penetrate. We also know that the top soil layers are made up of relatively modern backfill material. When the moat was drained of water in 1843 the engineers dumped large quantities of soil to level the ground surface. Subsequent programmes of re-turfing and further levelling of the moat throughout the 20th century have added even more modern layers. We’re confident that the spikes will only go in to these very top layers and will not impact anything of significance.
There is however one exception where we know that there is archaeology at a much shallower depth. In the north part of the moat there are the remains of the North Bastion, a huge gun platform built to strengthen the fortress’s defences in 1848. In 1940, at the height of the Blitz, the North Bastion suffered a direct hit that destroyed it and led to its demolition. We know from the excavations that the masonry remains of the North Bastion lie only about 300mm beneath the surface. Even at that depth it is very unlikely that the poppy stems will reach it and do any damage, but to be on the safe side I have spent a morning in the moat marking the position of the remains.
All of our volunteers will be briefed to be mindful of the importance of the moat’s archaeology but we will ask them to take extra care when installing the poppies over the North Bastion. In that way we can be confident that while the installation will leave a lasting mark in our memories it will not leave a physical mark on the Tower or its archaeology.
Alden Gregory, Curator of Historic Buildings