archaeology and the new ‘Amphora Place’ in Colchester

Last week (10th October), Trust director Philip attended a reception held by Birkett Long Solicitors for the opening of their new office building at Sheepen in Colchester. This has been built on the site of the Sheepen Road public car-park in Sheepen Road, between the Middleborough roundabout and Colchester Institute. The Trust conducted two archaeological projects on the site, in 2014 (test-pitting) and in 2016 (an evaluation). The development on the site is called ‘Amphora Place’. Trust archaeologist Emma Holloway selected a group of fascinating small finds for Philip to informally display and discuss at the reception. We excavated all of these from the Sheepen area, but the selection also included some finds excavated on a site at Playgolf Colchester, just up the road from Amphora Place, in 2013.

Sheepen is an area which is very rich in archaeology, just outside the walled Roman town and bordered by the River Colne. The Trust has conducted a number of archaeological fieldwork projects at Sheepen and Middleborough over the past 30 years, including sites at the new road called Westway, Colchester Institute and St Helena School. Sheepen includes an Iron Age and Roman industrial and trading site which has produced evidence of Iron Age and Roman minting of coins. The Roman suburb at Middleborough once included a large, well-appointed house with a mosaic floor (the well-known ‘Middleborough mosaic’). St Helena School stands on the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the great god Jupiter. Our evaluation at the Sheepen Road car-park site in 2016 produced fragments of Roman pottery and ceramic building material such as brick and tile, as well as modern material (Colchester Archaeological Trust or CAT Report 922).

The development has been named ‘Amphora Place’ in honour of an amphora which was found in 1889 along Sheepen Road. Our display on Tuesday did include an amphora, but this is from a site at Playgolf Colchester. An amphora is a large Roman ceramic vessel for the storage and/or transportation of commodities such as wine, olive oil, olives, etc. This amphora was manufactured in southern Spain and we excavated it from a burial. It would have contained salted fish/a salted fish product, although it seems to have been emptied before it was placed in the burial! It is Late Iron Age-early Roman in date (AD 1st century). Other Iron Age burials which have produced amphoras or amphora fragments include one at our Stanway site and two at St Albans. Our display included an iron spearhead which we uncovered from a feature near the amphora burial. A few of the finds from Sheepen and Playgolf Colchester shown here (below) illustrate some of the remarkable history of Colchester in microcosm: the Iron Age spearhead dating to the time of the Roman invasion of Iron Age Britain, the Roman amphora which is evidence of trade between Britain and the Continent before and during the Roman occupation of Britain, and a Roman horse-harness fitting from Roman Colchester…

The images show the front of the new Birkett Long Solicitors building; the selection of small finds as informally displayed at the reception, but re-created back here at the Roman circus visitor centre and Trust HQ the following day; the amphora lying on its side in our processing room, on its way back to storage (missing its spike at one end and two handles and the neck at the other); and some close-up shots of the small finds, ie an Iron Age horse-harness fitting and a Roman horse-harness fitting (both from a site at Colchester Institute); and the fragment of Iron Age coin-mould.