TV personality digs on circus

Neil Oliver on the circus site with CAT archaeologists Adam Wightman (left) and Chris Lister (right)

TV presenter and archaeologist Neil Oliver recently visited us in Colchester to sharpen up his digging skills. But this was no courtesy call: he came to when working on a TV programme about Roman Britain. The lucky archaeologist was to dig on the site of the town’s Roman circus in a trench which was specially opened for him and the programme. The spot chosen for the investigation had never been explored before so that new and useful information might be gained about Britain’s only know chariot racing track.

The trench was to be dug through tarmac and it was to be targeted on part of the stand – the seating area which once accommodated up to about 15,000 spectators. Neil would cut around the edges of the trench with a electric disk saw so that it could have neat edges. The cut tarmac and its rubble base would be removed with a JCB to expose an underlying layer of soil. Our intrepid TV personality would then jump in the hole and help trowel through this material so as to expose what was underneath and share in the moment of discovery. It would make a gripping action sequence for the TV, full of anticipation and drama with a truly show-stopping climax. At least that was the theory.

Disk cutting is a dangerous business especially if you have never done it before. The vicious high speed saw conjures up images of that gruesome film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. At four metres, the trench would be tiny whereas the circus was about a quarter of a mile long. Would we put the trench in the right place? And if we did, would any of the circus remains still survive underneath? Worse, would poor terrified Neil cut off one of his feet on camera? It was a nail-biting gamble. OK so you want to know what happens? Well you’ll to wait and find out when the programme is broadcast later on this year.

A History of Ancient Britain is an eight-part series starting with the last retreat of the glaciers and finishing with the Roman period. The first four programmes are being broadcast over the next month. The remaining episodes including the one featuring the Roman circus are to be shown later in the year.