Camulodunum during the years leading up to the Roman conquest in AD 43 must have had a substantial population. This is obvious from its size and the discoveries over the years of contemporary burials and large quantities of broken pots and other artefacts. But there is a problem. We never seem to find any of the houses they lived in. The current excavations at the Hyderabad barracks site are shedding some light on this problem with the discovery of the remains of not one but two roundhouses.
They are recognisable in the ground by a scatter of filled-in holes which once supported posts inside a shallow circular ditch which apparently served as a drip gully around the outside of the building. The pair from Hyderabad bring the total recognised in Colchester to four. What is so interesting about them is their date. They are Middle Iron Age which means they predate the Roman conquest by at least a century. This means that we still have yet to find any good evidence for houses in the later years leading up to the conquest – the period we associate with Camulodunum. The most obvious answer to this puzzle is that the inhabitants in Camulodunum lived in houses which differed to the earlier ones in ways which meant they left few or no traces for us to find.
This change might seem rather trivial. Why should the possibility of different types of houses be significant? It is because this could indicate an important cultural change, a change could be seen as a manifestation of a ‘British’ tribe (in our case the Trinovantes) which lived in round houses being heavily influenced or displaced by a tribe (here the Catuvellauni) originating from mainland Europe or at least heavily influenced by it which didn’t.
Clearly we need to be sure we are detecting a real pattern before we begin to explore explanations like this. Four Middle Iron Age roundhouses and nothing for the following century looks like one. But we need to keep digging.
The way in which tribes on mainland Europe affected widespread cultural change in southern Britain is a big and complicated subject and one which has been exercising archaeologists for a great many years. The discovery of the roundhouses at Hyderabad and elsewhere in Colchester is likely to enliven the debate further.
The excavations at Hyderabad are being carried out on behalf of Taylor Wimpey by CAT. Archaeological consultants are RPS.