Big infrastracture projects like railways have helped unearth some big historical finds. Here are five of the of the best:
Charlotte, Vermont (railway, 1849): a giant whale
From their earliest days, railways have led to amazing discoveries. Workers were digging tracks in Vermont, USA in 1849 when they uncovered several huge bones. At first, they thought they had found a large horse. They were surprised when local naturalist Zadock Thompson told them it was the fossilised skeleton of a giant whale – especially unusual as the railway was 200 miles from the sea!The whale had lived around 11,000 years ago, when the area had been underwater. The skeleton was carefully reassembled and became Vermont's official state fossil in 1993.
HS1 (opened 2007): a prehistoric longhouse, Roman temple and a 7th century watermill
The preparations for High Speed One, the railway that connects London and the Channel Tunnel, uncovered a Stone Age longhouse at White Horse Stone, the first ever found in Kent. The house was around 6,000 years old, and helped us learn more about everyday life in Neolithic Britain. Around Ebbsfleet Station, a Roman temple was revealed, and the rare wooden remains of a 7th-century watermill. Just over 100km of railway tracks led to discoveries about thousands of years of British history.
Athens (metro, opened 2004): thousands of ancient artefacts
The Metro project in Athens, built for the 2004 Olympics, was the biggest excavation project in Greek history. In a city that has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, there was a lot to find. More than 30,000 artefacts were unearthed over 70,000 square metres. There were so many that some of the discoveries are now on display in the stations near where they were found – including ancient pottery, looms, toys and jewellery.
Istanbul (Bosphorus tunnel, 2011-13): 37 Byzantine shipwrecks
An ambitious project to connect two continents, the rail tunnel between Istanbul's European and Asian sides runs underwater, beneath the Bosphorus. The teams who built it uncovered an incredible 37 shipwrecks, dating from the 4th to 11th century; according to one archaeologist, it’s the biggest collection of ancient ships ever found in the world. Istanbul – then called Constantinople – was the capital of an empire, and merchants arrived from across the world with food, wine and treasures. The shipwrecks told us important information about trade and travel across centuries of history.
Edinburgh (trams, opened 2014): secret war bunker
Preparation for the tram system in the Scottish capital uncovered a lost bunker from the Second World War. A secret room was found under Haymarket station, with signs showing it was used as a war room and a bomb shelter. The room had actually been built as part of the original 19th century railway station, but changed its use in the 1940s when air raids threatened the city. The tram designers decided to keep the room as it was, so people could study it – even though it meant they had to redesign the station they were building. The secret room will be waiting in case the area is ever excavated again – who knows what future generations will find?
The railways link people and places. It turns out they help to link us with the treasures and secrets of our past, too!