Today (24th November), we identified a Roman counter among the bags of pottery fragments which Trust volunteer Wendy was marking in the ‘archaeology in action’ room in the Roman circus centre. These bags of pottery are from the site which we recently completed at the Flagstaff House complex of buildings, within the old garrison at Colchester and not far from the Roman circus centre. This is not the only Roman counter which we retrieved on the Flagstaff House site – so far we have identified four Roman counters and one possible Roman counter. The counters are already being stored in our small finds cabinet or, as with today’s example, some must still be lurking in the many crates of archaeological material from the Flagstaff House site which is now being processed by our volunteers here at the Trust’s HQ…
The Flagstaff House site was subdivided into three areas, ie Sites A and B (across the site of the Roman circus itself), and Site C, which was about 50 metres from the site of the circus but near the historic St John’s Abbey Gateway. The four or five Roman counters are all from Site C. Two of the counters were even excavated in the same large Roman pit (CF337), by Trust archaeologist Emma Holloway. Pit CF337 had been dug through a Roman hearth/kiln and had then, in turn, been largely dug out by a later Roman pit which was filled with oystershells (see image below). Pit CF337 seems to have been a domestic rubbish-pit associated with the site of a Roman house in the vicinity of the medieval St John’s Abbey Gateway.
The four or five counters are of different sizes and show different degrees of ‘finish’ and wear. One counter is made of bone and the other four are ceramic (made from pottery). Trust archaeologist Stephen Benfield says that Roman pottery counters are not uncommon finds in Colchester, while bone counters are less common. (The Trust excavated several bone counters on our Balkerne Lane site in 1973-6: see Colchester Archaeological Report 2.) Small bone counters were manufactured from animal bone and turned on a lathe: our example is slightly concave on one side and shows a tiny hole caused by the lathe. The other counters were made from the bases of pots, which were broken off and smoothed down to form discs, and you can see that the possible counter still looks like the broken-off base of a pot. We think that these were gaming-counters, and people in Roman Colchester would have used them to play various board-games, which were very popular!
The images show the four counters and the possible counter: the large pit CF337 shown in section with the later pit and the hearth/kiln; and Emma holding the medium-sized counter which she excavated in pit CF337, here in the Trust’s main office today. The counters are, from left to right, the bone counter from pit CF337; the large counter from CF330; the medium-sized counter from CF337; the worn counter from CF236; and the broken-off pot base which may represent a very rough or unfinished counter. The largest counter is about 5cm in diameter and it is the one which we identified today.