Britain's lost Roman circus: a Time Team Special


Colchester (Camulodunum), Essex, is believed to be the oldest-recorded Roman town in Britain and the oldest town in Britain

In the course of three years of painstaking work on a development site just outside the Roman walls of Colchester (Camulodunum as the Romans called it), archaeologists have uncovered a huge number of remains. Most of them date from the Roman period, including hundreds of Roman burials. Among the grave contents were well-preserved burial urns, coins inscribed with images of charioteers and deposits of horses' jawbones. Adjacent to some of the cemeteries and covering a large area were the remains of puzzling parallel walls, which once enclosed a huge structure.

Gradually the archaeologists, from the Colchester Archaeological Trust , pieced together the evidence.

They had uncovered the only Roman circus ever found in Britain and one of only a handful in northern Europe. Its discovery shows just how important the Romans thought this town was in the empire and how cosmopolitan the citizens of Colchester were nearly 2,000 years ago.

Colchester is the oldest garrison town in Britain, the site of the most famous event during the Roman invasion, where Claudius rode in on the back of an elephant. Today, the circus, where Roman legionaries used to enjoy their favourite sport of chariot racing, sits beside the barracks of a modern cavalry regiment.

The discovery at Colchester is hugely important the most important Roman find in Britain for half a century, according to archaeologists. In this documentary special, Time Team tells the story of the excavation, investigates the history of the Roman circus and explores the world of Roman chariot racing.

The circus site

The circus at Colchester was found on the site of a planned 200-acre 'urban village'. Before the development, consisting of 2,500 new homes, could proceed, however, the developers Taylor Woodrow had to fund a full archaeological investigation. The Colchester Archaeological Trust began excavating in 2002 and two years later had dug some eight miles of exploratory trenches.
The circus site is about a quarter of a mile south of the Roman town, and is about 70 metres wide and some 350 metres in length. Comparing it with some of the 50 other known circuses in Europe, Philip Crummy, the director of the Colchester Archaeological Trust, found that its dimensions almost exactly matched those of the circus at Segunto, in Spain, which measures 354 x 73 metres.

Glamour and danger

The Colchester circus would have seated at least 8,000 people and the chariot races that took place there would have been full of glamour and danger. We don't know when chariot racing began in Colchester but this vast structure could have been built in phases, paid for by a succession of rich patrons from the end of the 1st century AD.

Like football teams today, Roman chariot teams were identified by colour: the reds, whites, blues and greens. The supporters were as fanatical as any football fans today and wore the colours of their teams. Roman games, which included chariot racing, were staged to celebrate the feast days of the gods. It was sport, politics, religious ritual and national pride all rolled into one.

From Rome to Colchester

In Rome, chariot races took place in the Circus Maximus, the biggest and most important circus in the empire. It held over 250,000 spectators a quarter of the city's population. On an important feast day there could be more than 20 chariot races with two- and four-horse teams taking part. Chariot racing was very big business and the sport was at the core of Roman life. These would have been spectacular festivals with displays of animals, gladiators and acrobats between the races which is probably where the modern use of the word circus comes from.

John Humphrey, editor of the Journal of Roman Archaeology and the world's leading expert on Roman circuses, was brought to Colchester for this Time Team Special. He says: 'The Colchester circus is not as big as the Circus Maximus, it didn't have the same capacity for seating and it wasn't as heavily decorated. But it's a real monumental circus and it changes our perception of Roman Britain because it shows that the people here wanted to participate in that Mediterranean sport which they'd heard so much about.'



Circus wall

************************************************** ****


************************************************** ****

Raysan's reconstruction of the circus


Raysan's reconstruction


Raysan's reconstruction of the starting gate

************************************************** **

Victor's reconstruction

Last edited by Blackleaf; Feb 18th, 2007 at 01:57 PM..