‘Circus update’ from “the Colchester Archaeologist” magazine no 20 in 2007

The need for a major upgrading of the services for the new Garrison development meant that the the roads which overlie the site of the circus have had to be dug up and very large new pipes laid along them. The new services along the north-south roads (Flagstaff Road and Circular Road East) were laid in 2005 and the archaeological work which preceded that operation was described in last year’s edition of The Colchester Archaeologist. However, more recently, it was the turn of the east-west roads.

The results of the resulting archaeological investigations turned out to be most impressive and exciting. Removal of the road surface in Napier Road revealed underneath an exceptionally well-preserved section of the stand which provided new and useful information about what happened to the circus when it was no longer needed. And Circular Road North proved even more interesting because here for the first time was an opportunity to examine in detail one of the two turning posts around which the chariots would have raced. The excavation revealed the exact position of the turning post (an important step for the recovery of the circus plan) and also quite extraordinary information about the turning posts themselves. It also told us much about the nature of the central barrier and the kinds of monuments that must have been in it.

Although the large-scale redevelopment of the Garrison has provided several valuable opportunities to investigate the circus, the site of the starting gates lies in a garden which is to be left undeveloped. This is of course a good thing archaeologically because it means that the remains of the gates will not be disturbed. However, if we are to understand the circus properly, we need to find out about the gates since they were such an important part of the circus. We need to know exactly where they stood, how many there were, and what form they took. Permission was therefore sought from Taylor Woodrow to carry out a small excavation in the garden of the Sergeant’s Mess which they own and where nearly all of the remains of the starting gates lie. Twenty members of the Friends of CAT volunteered to help and worked over a three week period under the supervision of Laurie Driver and Emma Spurgeon to uncover the remains of two of the starting gates and part of the adjacent entrance into the arena.

Excavation of the stand

The remains of the stand which were uncovered in Napier Road – the seating area in the circus – turned out to be the best we have yet seen in terms of preservation. In plan, the stand proved to be just as we have found it elsewhere – a narrow inner foundation and a much more substantial outer foundation made stronger with the addition of buttresses along the outside. The purpose of the buttresses was to help counteract the outward pressure on the wall caused by the earth bank, seating, and spectators so that the wall would not topple outwards. The seating would probably have been in the form of wooden benches arranged in tiers laid directly on an earth bank contained by the inner and outer walls of the stand.

The width of the stand is of considerable interest since this is a key consideration when estimating the likely capacity of the building. Even so, it is a tricky business. If, as seems likely, spectators sat on every tier and shared their space
with the feet of the spectators behind them, then the circus could have held up to about 15,000 or so people. If the spectators only occupied every other tier, then the total would have been just over half that number.

An interesting aspect of the Napier Road excavation was the evidence it provided for the end of the circus. The outer wall appears to have been deliberately dismantled in the later Roman period so that the building materials could be salvaged for reuse elsewhere. This was indicated by a layer of crushed mortar and chips of stone left by the stone ‘robbers’ along the outside of the circus. There was no equivalent layer of demolition debris next to the inner wall. Instead large pieces of stone lay along the edge of the arena where they had fallen off the top of the inner wall. This shows that the inner wall had not been dismantled like the outer one but had been left to decay slowly. It’s hard to explain why the two walls were treated differently, but perhaps it was thought that the inner wall contained too little stone to justify the salvage work.

Excavation of the near turning post

The purpose of the central barrier in a circus was to separate the two tracks and provide a location for monuments and lap-counters of different kinds. The barriers were terminated at either end by a turning post. Confusingly, these did not take the f o rm of a single post as the name suggests, but instead each was composed of a group of three large cones set out on the corners of an equal- sided triangle.

When the remains of the near turning post were uncovered in Circular Road North, we were confronted by a puzzling concentration of rubble. This was reminiscent of the rubble in the Napier Road site which had tumbled off the inner wall of the stand on to the surface of the arena. Further investigation revealed that the rubble lay to the west of the remains of a narrow wall which had formed the semicircular end of the barrier. In other words, just as at Napier Road, the rubble represents parts of the circus which had collapsed on to the arena after the building was no longer used. The fact that the rubble derived from the barrier was proved by the remarkable discovery in the rubble of part of the base of one of the three cones which had stood a few metres to the east on the end of it. The cone had been made entirely of brick, much of it with a curved edge to form the circular outer face of the cone. An odd feature of the rubble was that it appeared to be far too low down to be lying on the arena surface. However, more investigation revealed the explanation. It lay on a part of the arena surface which had been heavily worn away. A favoured tactic during the races was to keep as close as possible to the end of the barrier when making 360 degree turns. The profile of the arena surface immediately next to the turning post illustrated this point beautifully by being worn away to a depth of perhaps about half a metre where the chariots had made their U-turns.

Another remarkable discovery was that of a narrow iron band lying upright in the arena close to the barrier. The iron band may seem a rather dull and inconsequential object. However, this is not the case, because it is clearly recognisable as part of a water-main. The thin iron bands were hammered into the walls of thick wooden pipes to make pressure-resistant mains. The presence of the collar shows that pressurised water was taken to the barrier and that thus the latter must have incorporated a range of advanced features such as water-filled basins, fountains, and lapcounters in the shape of spouting dolphins, which characterised the circus in its fully-developed form.

Excavation of the starting gates

The starting gates proved to be better preserved than expected. The remains of two complete stalls were uncovered plus one side of the central entrance. The latter would have been flanked on either side by an equal number of stalls which, in most circuses, was sixto give a total of twelve in all. Although the total number of gates in the Colchester circus is yet to be established beyond any doubt, the size of the stalls and the width of the west end of the circus (all now known) neatly fit a full complement of twelve. Solid walls of stone separated each of the stalls. The stalls themselves were just wide enough to make sure that once inside the horses in a four-horse chariot could not turn around but had to face the direction of the race.

The front of each of the gates would have been fitted with double doors. The magistrate who presided over the races and was responsible for starting each one sat in a special box above the entranceway. On his command, an assistant (also in the box) pulled a lever which operated a mechanism designed to ensure that all the doors opened simultaneously. Remains of the demolished box lay on a thin gravelled surface in the entranceway where the presence of fragments of roof tile and painted plaster showed it to have been a well-built and nicely decorated room.


The excavation of the gates was a research project and therefore not part of the main Garrison excavations. It was made possible by a grant from the Essex Heritage Trust with additional funding from the corporate friends of the Friends of the Colchester Archaeological Trust. (See inside cover for the names of the corporate friends.) Permission to excavate in the garden was kindly given by Taylor Woodrow. Most of the excavation was carried out by volunteers from the Friends of the Colchester Archaeological Trust. The excavation of the circus … is part of the garrison excavation undertaken for Taylor Woodrow …


Feature by Philip Crummy of the Trust: from the Colchester Archaeologist magazine, no 20, 2007. Past issues of the magazine are available from the Trust or can be read online at http://cat.essex.ac.uk – this feature can be read online with all its illustrations.