a timeline of Colchester’s Roman circus

Today (29th December), some of the Trust’s staff were back at work here at Roman Circus House after the Christmas break… As most people are still on their break until after the New Year, and the Roman circus centre is closed until the 4th January, it was very quiet outside, so we took the opportunity to go out and get some photo.s of the circus site and the surviving buildings of the Artillery Barracks around the circus centre. This blog post presents a timeline of Colchester’s Roman circus, with reference to the item which we posted in this blog on the 26th November, titled ‘ “Timeline: the rise and fall of the Roman games” ’.

Colchester’s Roman circus was built in the early 2nd century AD and seems to have been in use for about 150 years, until towards the end of the 3rd century AD. This timeline illustrates the four lives of the Roman circus: as a functioning Roman circus, as ruins and then below-ground remains, as archaeological eidence and then an archaeological site/s, and now as a visitor site and centre.

AD 44 – Roman fortress built at Colchester
AD 49 – the fortress was decommissioned and its buildings converted for civilian use in the colonia (Roman town) here
from AD 49 – the Roman town built on and around the site of the fortress
AD 61 – the Roman town at Colchester destroyed by fire during native British (Boudican) revolt
from AD 61 – the Roman town at Colchester rebuilt
about AD 70-85 – defensive town wall built around the town at Colchester
early 2nd century AD – the Roman circus built at Colchester, outside the town wall
end of the 3rd century – circus went out of use and deteriorated. During the following centuries, the circus was demolished and people removed its materials for re-use in other buildings, even digging trenches to ‘rob’ the stone of its foundations below-ground.

about AD 1095 – St John’s abbey built within a walled precinct, some of the line of which respects the site of the circus, suggesting that some remains of the circus still survived on the site
1860 – the War Office acquired the land the Abbey Gardens and St John’s Farm to the south of Colchester
from 1862 – the building of permanent Army barracks on the land, starting with married quarters and then the Cavalry Barracks. Some military buildings and roads were built on the site of the circus, and some modern foundations and services damaged the foundations of the circus but, conversely, the remains of the circus were protected by being part of the garrison from 1862 until 2000
2000 – Colchester garrison was sold for redevelopment and the Trust was awarded the contract to undertake archaeological fieldwork across the whole area of the garrison on behalf of the new landowners.

2000 – the Trust observed three parts of one or two Roman foundations in the sides of a narrow trench which was dug for electric cables to provide new lighting around the football pitch in the north-western corner of the Abbey Field: these remains, we later realised, constituted our first sight of the circus…
2002, 2004 – the Trust uncovered more Roman structural remains in this part of the garrison, including at the Flagstaff House complex
2004 – September: the Trust excavated some areas near the former Cavalry Barracks, including the Roman remains which we uncovered in 2002, and this time we observed a pair of foundations like those near the Flagstaff House complex: although the two sets of remains were about 230 metres apart, they seemed to represent parts of the same structure… an enormous structure… We tentatively identified all these remains as being parts of the site of a Roman circus
2004 – November: the Trust went looking for evidence to confirm that this was the site of a circus, and found it in some slit trenches to the west of the most westerly remains: we also found part of the curved eastern end of the circus, and the site was confirmed as being that of a Roman circus. Some of the plan of the circus was plotted
2005 – January-August: geophysical investigations of the site of the circus
2005 – February: trial-trenches in the garden of the former Sergeants’ Mess revealed parts of the western end of the circus (the foundations of the starting-gates)
2005 – April-September: trial-trenches at Flagstaff House revealed the curving east end of the circus
2005, 2006 – investigations at Napier Road and Circular Road North revealed more evidence of the circus
2007 – further investigations of the site of the circus
2007 – September: full ground-plan of circus now recovered
2007 – November: the site of the circus given Scheduled Ancient Monument status.

2009 – December: the Trust launched a public appeal to save the site of the circus as a public open space
2010 – January: the Trust unveiled our Roman circus centre plan
2011 – April: Trust made a planning application for a Roman circus centre in the former Army Education Centre (AEC) building, right next to the site of the Roman circus
2012 – February: renovation work started on the AEC building by Trust volunteers
2012 – the Trust completed our purchase of the AEC building with the help of generous donations by members of the public, groups, Colchester Borough Council and Essex County Council. We renamed the building ‘Roman Circus House’
2012 – 1st June: the Trust completed our move into Roman Circus House
2012 – September: the Trust excavated the positions of the starting-gates in the garden of the former Sergeant’s Mess, next door to Roman Circus House
2012 – October: Bovis Homes groundworkers created an earth bank along part of one side of the site of the circus, between Roman Circus House and Circular Road North
2013 – June: the Trust began an excavation on the line of the site of the circus in front of Roman Circus House, for viewing by visitors and to expose this part of the circus foundations for permanent display
2013 – August: we held the first opening day at the Roman circus centre and unveiled the plaque which lists the names of the circus centre donors
2014 – we finished building the replica stumps of the circus starting-gates in the garden of the former Sergeants’ Mess
2015 – March: we completed the circus walkway for visitors in the garden of the Roman circus centre.

– and watch this space! We invite you to come and visit the Roman circus centre and site – there is more to come at the Roman circus, in 2016…

For more information about the Trust’s archaeological projects at Colchester’s old garrison and the archaeology of the Roman circus, please read CAT Report 412: this is available in our online archive at http://cat.essex.ac.uk/ .

The images show the earth bank as photographed today (with the Roman circus centre behind the trees to the left), and part of the 3d-modelled circus, part of which matches the earth bank (from the video which is displayed in the circus centre).