Excavating the CA archive: Roman archaeology

5 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, starting 3 August. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI330, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

Continuing our series exploring how Current Archaeology has reported on different historical eras, this latest column features the Roman period. Sadly, just as last month’s offering was dedicated to the memory of Geoff Wainwright, this missive pays tribute to a giant of British archaeology who recently passed away: the Romanist Dai Morgan Evans. Like his fellow Welshman Geoff (and often in partnership with him), Dai devoted his life to archaeology, and was a tireless campaigner for and proponent of it.

In previous excavations of the CA archive, I have already sifted through the reporting of Hadrian’s Wall over the years (see CA 326), but here I will look at a wider range of Roman sites across the country. Roman archaeology has been a consistently popular topic among CA’s readers: the wealth of sites across Britain, their regular discovery by both ‘rescue’ and ‘research’ archaeologists, and their often substantial survival all make for exciting sites to dig and also to read about. Hence, CA 1 in March 1967 had the Gadebridge Roman Villa in Hemel Hempstead as the first ever ‘cover star’. This site was under exploration following its accidental discovery during road-building, and CA 18 (January 1970) provided an update on the investigation. Happily, the original excavator David Neal returned to the site in 2000 to undertake additional work.

The cover of the very first issue of CA featured a Roman site: Gadebridge Roman Villa in Hemel Hempstead.
The Romans arrive

The magazine’s first report on a ‘great Roman site’ came in CA 6 (January 1968), with an article on Fishbourne villa: one of the best-known British sites of this period, and a perennial favourite for visitors to Sussex, with a well-maintained museum run by the Sussex Archaeological Society. The site (whose grandiose entrance hall was depicted on the cover in a reconstruction by Nigel Sunter) had been discovered in 1960 during pipe-laying, and was one of many excavated by that tireless archaeological polymath Barry (since 2006, Sir Barry) Cunliffe. CA 187 (August 2003) and 217 (April 2008) returned to Fishbourne, and it is fascinating to track the changing perspectives on the site in the context of wider developments in Roman archaeology through these articles. Meanwhile, Cunliffe was back in action in CA 10 (September 1968), this time leading the exploration of Roman Bath, completing the work begun there by Sir Ian Richmond, who had died in 1964.

CA’s reporting on Roman archaeology went quiet for a while in the mid-1970s, but came back with a bang in CA 62 (June 1978), dedicating an entire volume to the subject. Featured sites included the then-ongoing work at Usk legionary fortress, as well as the Iron Age and Romano-British temple site at Hayling Island, alongside updates on sites as widely spread as Canterbury in the south and the Antonine Wall in the north.

It was a very different type of Roman site that appeared in CA 66 (April 1979), which saw an in-depth report from Gustav and Chrissie Milne on excavations along the line of the former waterfront by the Museum of London’s Department of Urban Archaeology (the organisation that in time evolved into MOLA, modern-day excavator of many sites both in London and further afield). They had uncovered a series of waterlogged and well-preserved timbers during the mid-1970s construction boom in the City of London. In Gustav Milne in particular, British archaeology has been lucky to find itself a dogged and dedicated champion for such sites: Gustav, as many readers know, is still happily at work along the river over 40 years later, most recently leading the Thames Discovery Programme and its national offshoot CITiZAN.

One of London’s major redevelopments, No.1 Poultry, produced a wealth of Roman (and medieval) remains. CA covered the
archaeological investigations on the site in issues 143 and 158. (Photo: MOLA)

Given the pace of development that the capital saw, as well as its wealth of archaeology, it is unsurprising that CA regularly reported on sites across London in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Of particular interest to readers – given the recent listing of the 1980s postmodern building on the site – is No.1 Poultry, opposite the Bank of England, which CA reported on in issues 143 (June 1995) and 158 (July 1998). Here, demolition of the famous neo-Gothic Mappin & Webb building of 1870 revealed a wealth of Roman and also medieval remains. Other London stories include CA 73 (August 1980) on the Roman city’s defences; CA 137 (February/March 1994) on the amphitheatre; CA 180 (July 2002) on an extraordinary water-lifting machine that was discovered near Gresham Street; CA 280 (July 2013) on excavations along the River Walbrook; and CA 296 (November 2014), which saw a return to the key site of the Temple of Mithras.

Frequent fliers

Some Roman sites have been the focus of repeated visits by CA down the years, none more so than Colchester, which may win the accolade of being the most-visited site of all by the magazine. While there had been brief notes in issues 26 and 43, the first significant mention comes in CA 72 (July 1980), after which CA popped by regularly for updates on the long-running fieldwork across the city, much of it led by Philip Crummy. The city appeared in CA 103 (July 1987), CA 120 (June 1990), CA 185 (April 2003, including an interview with Crummy himself), CA 201 (January/February 2006), and CA 208 (March/April 2007). Another ‘frequent flier’ in this mould is Silchester, home to a long-running excavation by the University of Reading that has been led primarily by Michael Fulford. CA paid four major visits there over the years: in CA 82 (May 1982), CA 161 (February 1999), CA 177 (January 2002), and CA 250 (January 2011).

The Cramond lioness, recovered from a river in 1997, was the cover star of CA 155.

In more recent times, though, the magazine has regularly travelled further afield in search of Roman archaeology. Beyond the regular updates from Hadrian’s Wall, there have been some excellent northern sites visited down the years, including Catterick, Yorkshire, in CA 166 (December 1999) and Corbridge, Northumberland, in CA 199 (September/ October 2005). Many readers will also remember the spectacular recovery of a large carved lioness from the river Cramond, on the western edge of Edinburgh, in 1997, which graced the front cover of CA 155 (December 1997). From Wales, meanwhile, we have had reports on Caerleon in CA 226 (January 2009) and CA 268 (July 2012), where fieldwork undertaken jointly by the University of Cardiff and University College London has revealed the extraordinary survival of the legionary fortress there.

Discover old issues
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 3 August July. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI330’.

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