Roman ruins revealed under the Mercury Theatre

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Excavator Jim Keeble cleaning one of the red tessellated floors. (PHOTO: Colchester Archaeological Trust)

Recent excavations in Colchester, a town renowned for its rich Roman archaeology, have revealed more evidence from this period, spanning from the time of the AD 43 conquest of Britain into the 2nd century and beyond.

An investigation by Colchester Archaeological Trust began last November in advance of major extensions to the Mercury Theatre. They soon uncovered expanses of tessellated floors and the foundations of Roman houses, all dating to the 2nd century AD, together with remnants of underfloor heating systems and painted walls. Further insights into the lives of their inhabitants came from artefacts including a tiny bone die. Yet, while the houses were apparently occupied by fairly well-off people, they seem to have been abandoned and left to fall into ruin. This was indicated by a layer of soil and fragments of wall plaster covering the floors. The process of dereliction is likely to have taken many decades or even centuries, but the absence of any roof tile among the debris suggests that the main structure of the buildings remained largely intact for some time.

A 3D model of one of the excavation areas, showing the tessellated floors of one of the houses. The full, manipulable model can be found at (IMAGE: Dr Tim Dennis)

Excavations did not stop at this layer, however – piles are to be driven into the ground for the new buildings planned for this site, so in order to limit the damage and preserve the archaeology, the team thoroughly investigated the pile locations, recording in detail everything along the way. It was during this phase of the project that, about a metre below the floors, the walls of two Roman barrack blocks were discovered, part of the Roman fortress that had formed the core of the new town. The fortress was built by the Twentieth Legion in the mid-40s AD, shortly after the emperor Claudius invaded the capital of the Catuvellauni tribe.

The form and construction of the barrack walls were immediately distinctive, and further clues to their belonging to the town’s early Roman chronology came from the fact that they sit on the natural sand at the base of the stratigraphic sequence. The location of the walls was anticipated, based on previous excavations in the 1970s and 1980s, including those at Lion Walk and the nearby Culver Precinct site, which had led to the initial discovery of the base. This latest development helps to confirm the proposed layout, though, which was previously based on other fortresses built by the Roman army, as they were all laid out according to a standardised pattern.

Excavations finished in the middle of February, and the investigated areas have been covered with a thick layer of sand to help protect the buried remains once building works start.

This article appeared in CA 349.

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