Roman circus centre: past, present and future

On Wednesday (5th November) – Bonfire Night – a group of about fifteen visitors from the Society for Museum Archaeology came to Roman Circus House. The Society was holding its annual conference in Colchester on the 5th-6th November, at Colchester Castle Museum. The Trust was very pleased to welcome some of their members to the circus centre. Trust director Philip subjected them to a thorough tour: of the building, some of the site of the Roman circus, our reconstructed stumps of the circus starting-gates, and the exposed remains of the circus in front of the building.

The Roman circus was built here in the early 2nd century AD and demolished about 150 years later, towards the end of the 3rd century. The Abbey of St John was founded near the site of the circus in 1095, and the land here became part of the abbey farm. After the Dissolution of the abbey, the abbey buildings became a private residence. The farm is shown on later maps as ‘St John’s Farm’ and, in 1860, the farm and the abbey gardens were bought by the government for the use of the Army. The Artillery Barracks and the Flagstaff complex were built around and partly over the site of the circus from the 1870s. A Regimental Institute was built on the site of our building, and later demolished for the construction of a new Institute (now Roman Circus House)  in 1937. The Institute housed the NAAFI of the Artillery (Le Cateau) Barracks. The Army has now moved to a new garrison, and the old garrison has been redeveloped – except for the site of the circus, which is now protected from development. Philip explained the history of the NAAFI and the Roman circus, and then discussed what we’ve done so far in our circus centre and what we hope to do here ahead of the re-opening of the circus centre at the end of March 2015.

The visitors seemed to find the Roman circus interesting, despite the rain!

So far, in the circus centre, we have installed two screens and two projectors for digital displays, the replica racing-chariot with four silhouette horses, a gallery of paintings showing the development of Colchester throughout the Roman period, and the great circus super-model which is nearing completion. Outside, we have reconstructed the stumps of the starting-gates and excavated a further part of the site of the circus. Our building is still undergoing an extensive programme of renovation by our dedicated team of renovation volunteers, and they are currently renovating another room so that we can expand the visitor centre. We are in the process of creating more displays in the centre and, outside, we are planning something which we think will be rather special…

As this is the site of the only known Roman circus in Britain, the actual remains of the circus are very special. The circus is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, so we have to be granted permission by English Heritage to keep some of the remains permanently exposed. (This is currently in process.) To protect and display the remains, we are planning to create a structure in the front part of the garden which will also form a new entrance for visitors to the circus centre. The structure will include a timber walkway along the site of part of the seating-stand of the circus, with glass panels so that visitors can view the exposed circus remains on either side as they walk in. The timbers will form a flat representation of the wooden tiers on which spectators sat to watch the chariot races. Visitors will be able to walk the site of the circus all the way from Circular Road North to the circus centre.

Visit the web-site of the Society for Museum Archaeology at .

The three images represent a 3d-modelled projection of our planned new structure to protect and display the exposed circus remains and provide a grand entrance to the circus centre. (The images were created to our design by Roger Massey-Ryan.)