It is rare to find the remains of the above-ground parts of Roman buildings in Colchester. Generally only the foundations of buildings survive and, even then, these more often than not have been partly or wholly dug up in the past to rob out the building materials which they contain. Fortunately, things are different at 97 High Street because, not only are there parts of a collapsed Roman building there, but the original structure just happens to have been something extra special – an impressive arcade of monumental proportions.
The arcade was over 100 metres long and perhaps 8 metres or more in height. Its exact plan is yet to be recovered, but the arcade appears to have been made up of a square monumental gate flanked on each side by 12 or so arches to make about 24 in all. This impressive structure provided a grand entrance into the precinct of the Temple of Claudius. Both structures are unparalleled in Britain and are on a scale with buildings in Rome. A similar arcade is currently being investigated in Picardy in France, at the small town of Pont-Sainte-Maxence about 25 miles north of Paris. This arcade is of unprecedented scale in Gaul but it is significantly smaller than ours in Colchester.
Like the Temple of Claudius, the great arcade here in Colchester seems to have still been standing when the Normans arrived in Colchester about 950 years ago. The Norman baron, Eudo de Rie, built the castle on the base of the Temple of Claudius and dug an earthen ditch around it with an inner earthen bank to form a bailey. The Roman arcade was so substantial that it created a problem when it came to digging the ditch around the south side of the castle. The solution was to pull the arcade down, clear away most but not all the debris, dig the ditch along the south side of the arcade’s massive foundation, and pile the upcast from the ditch on the remains of the arcade to form the inner bank.
The arcade was discovered by archaeologist Rex Hull in 1953 following a major fire at a shop (Kent Blaxills) on the High Street. The redevelopment of another shop further east in 1964 allowed more of the arcade to be investigated, this time by Max Hebditch. Now, 50 years later, the Trust has been able to look in some detail at a little more of the arcade, again in advance of another commercial redevelopment. Our excavations are limited in scale and scope but they are producing some interesting results. These include a collapsed section of one of the piers which formed the arcade and fragments of plaster which show how the columns and piers were finished off.
The big difference with our current investigations is that the developer, the Flying Trade Group, is hoping to do some exciting things with the remains in the new building and leave some of them exposed under glass panels set in the floor. The site is very well-placed in relation to Colchester Castle Museum, where a four-million-pound re-display scheme has paid huge dividends and transformed the visitor experience.
So often, new developments in Colchester lead to interesting and significant archaeological discoveries which, almost invariably, are ‘invisible’ in the new-builds which follow. The Flying Trade Group plans are different. Their vision is a new what they describe as ‘cafe/museum’ which, if they pull it off, will be an unusual and very welcome Roman attraction in the modern town centre.
The reconstruction of the arcade by Peter Froste gives an idea of the location of the recently discovered collapsed masonry (red circle). (Our fragment doesn’t in fact show on the reconstruction since it would have been on the other side of the arcade and part of the arch just off the drawing to the left.)
One of the photographs gives an overhead view of the part of the collapsed pier with its attached half column. The other shows part of the shaft of the detached column.