Was Caesar’s British invasion launched from the Isle of Thanet?

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Overlooking the University of Leicester excavations at Ebbsfleet in 2016, showing Pegwell Bay and the cliffs at Ramsgate. (Image: University of Leicester, courtesy of Dean Barkley)

New work at a large defended enclosure at Ebbsfleet, near Ramsgate, on the Isle of Thanet has identified what is claimed to be the first evidence for Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain. Caesar came to these shores twice: in 55 BC and again in 54 BC. Although his first campaign was short-lived, the second took the Roman army north of the Thames.

During work by University of Leicester archaeologists, Ebbsfleet’s defensive ditch was found to have similar characteristics to the Roman defences at Alésia in France – where the decisive battle of the Gallic War was fought in 52 BC. Furthermore, the presence of weapons like a Roman pilum, and pottery and radiocarbon results indicating a 1st-century BC date, suggest that this was a Roman base, probably used to protect the invaders’ ships in nearby Pegwell Bay.

By combining the archaeological evidence with Julius Caesar’s own accounts, the researchers have suggested that this site may have been built during Caesar’s second invasion in 54 BC. Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick from the University of Leicester explained: ‘Caesar describes how his fleet was carried too far north by the tide, but at sunrise he saw Britain far away on the left-hand side – the only high ground visible from far at sea would have been the Isle of Thanet.’

He added: ‘Caesar describes how the ships were left at anchor at an “even, open shore” – similar to Pegwell Bay, which today is the largest bay on the east Kent coast, and is open and flat. Caesar also says that the Britons had assembled to oppose the landing but, taken aback by the size of the fleet, they concealed themselves on higher ground, which also matches the higher ground of the Isle of Thanet around Ramsgate.’

These three clues about the topography of the 54 BC landing site – visibility from the sea, the existence of a large open bay, and the presence of higher ground nearby – are all consistent with Pegwell Bay.

The 2016 and 2017 University of Leicester excavations were carried out by volunteers organised by the Community Archaeologists of Kent County Council. The work was also supported by staff of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS). For more information on the project, visit www2.le.ac.uk/departments/archaeology/research/projects/footsteps-of-caesar.  

This article was published in CA 335.

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