a day in the life of an archaeological field unit – Essex 2016

The Colchester Archaeological Trust is a busy archaeological field unit based at Colchester in Essex in the UK. We have been working in the construction industry for over 50 years and our operational area is primarily Colchester, Essex and Suffolk: we are a CIfA-registered professional field unit and both a registered charity and a limited company. Our building is the former NAAFI of the Artillery (Le Cateau) Barracks of the famous old Colchester garrison and it abuts the site of the only known Roman circus in Britain. We also maintain our own Roman circus visitor centre and tea room! Our remit as a charity includes informing and involving people and promoting the archaeology of Colchester and so, as part of that, we maintain a blog on our web-site and also publish all our fieldwork reports online, in tandem with the wide range of archaeological projects which we undertake for clients. We work as a team and we are lucky to have a great team of volunteers, and so I have written this post about all our Day of Archaeology here at the Trust.


The Trust’s HQ and Roman circus centre, with part
of the site of the circus marked out in front.

On the Day of Archaeology (Friday 29th July), we were all busy, either here in our HQ or out on site or a bit of both! Indoors, Trust director Philip Crummy was preparing the lecture which he was presenting on Saturday to the ARA (Association for Roman Archaeology) at the University of Essex, to be followed by a guided tour of Roman Colchester on Sunday morning, including the Roman circus site and centre. Senior archaeologist Howard Brooks spent the morning on site in Billericay: in the afternoon he was working on a group of finds from an excavation at Wormingford for the CAG (the amateur Colchester Archaeological Group). Trust volunteer Hannah (currently helping us before she starts at the Sixth Form College) was washing the Roman material from a very recent Trust site at a property in Lexden, Colchester.


Howard working on some of the small finds from
the CAG excavation on a rural site at Lodge Hills in
Wormingford (2007-2011). The metal finds from
the site are varied and include two jetons, a
cloth-weaver’s seal, decorative buttons, lead shot, and
several coins, ie an Elizabeth I sixpence, a Charles I
farthing, a William III sixpence, George II halfpenny,
a George III halfpenny of 1799, and a Roman barbarous
radiate coin, of Tetricius or Claudius, with the figure of
Laetitia on the reverse.


Trust volunteer Hannah with a fragment
of Roman tile from the site at Lexden in
Colchester, showing an animal paw-print.

Trust archaeologist Don Shimmin was working on the report for a long-running watching brief which he conducted at Abbey House in Colchester, which used to belong to the old garrison, and which stands within the precinct of the medieval St John’s abbey. Trust archaeologist and pottery specialist Steve Benfield spent the morning on site in Maldon, and in the afternoon he was studying the mostly late Roman pottery from our recent site at Great Chesterford. Trust archaeologist Laura Pooley was writing site reports and, later, selecting finds from our site Area J North within the old garrison at Colchester, for a small display which our client Taylor Wimpey will be mounting in their sales suite when they open it at their new development at Flagstaff House, which is also within the old garrison and just round the corner from our HQ. Trust volunteer Wendie was helping Kate in the tea room in the afternoon, after a morning of marking pottery and talking to circus centre visitors and also giving guided tours. Trust volunteers Shirley H. and Shirley W. were also helping here in the morning. Kate had made a special cake which her daughter Pip decorated with a Roman chariot, and this was on display on Friday – we are presenting a summer season of free events here on Saturdays, and that Saturday was a full day with our archaeological roadshow, a lecture on Martello Towers in Suffolk, and a guided tour of the circus site and centre!


Laura with the two Roman picture lamps
from the site at the old garrison. This was
the site of a large Roman cemetery and the
two lamps were excavated from two cremation
burials, one of which has been dated to
the mid/late 2nd-early 3rd century.


Steve doing some online research on the late Roman
pottery from our site at Great Chesterford, where we
uncovered a 2.3 metre-wide robber-trench which seems
to represent the Roman town wall.

Out on site, Trust archaeologist Mark Baister was supervising an area excavation in the grounds of the University of Essex, on the site of a new block within the Innovation Centre at the campus, which is on the outskirts of Colchester: he was working with Trust excavators Sarah, Beth and Alec, assisted by student Callum who works with the Trust during the summer. Trust archaeologist Adam Whiteman was supervising an urban excavation in Brentwood town centre with Trust excavators Nigel and Jane. Trust archaeologist Chris Lister was out conducting a watching brief on construction works for the new residential development at Flagstaff House. In Maldon, Steve investigated the possible boundary ditch of the Anglo-Saxon burh, in a footings trench in a back garden. Mark and his team were excavating pits and ditches producing medieval pottery which suggest the site of a settlement in the vicinity. Brentwood is a large town on the historic main Colchester-London road: our site there is not far from the ruins of the medieval chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury. Our site includes a huge well and evidence of previous buildings which seem to represent a previously-unknown street, including the site of a probable coaching inn with a carriageway to a rear yard.

And some of our members of staff were on leave! – ie Trust archaeologists Ben Holloway, Emma Holloway and Robin Mathieson, and tea room manager Lauren – and other members of staff were not at work on the day, for example, archaeologist Pip Parmenter and office manager Jules.
With thanks to all the Trust members of staff and our great volunteers, to all our clients, and to our circus centre visitors and tea room customers!

All the Trust’s fieldwork reports are published online at . Visit our web-site at .


Trust volunteer Wendie in the tea room.


Some happy circus centre visitors on the Day of Archaeology.


The Roman chariot cake.

The images show the Trust’s HQ and Roman circus centre; Hannah with a fragment of Roman tile; Howard in a back room with the finds from Wormingford; Laura with two Roman picture lamps; Steve doing some online research; Wendie in the tea room; some circus centre visitors; and the cake…  (No photos of Philip or Kate were permitted… and I was in the building all day and wrote this post!)

The site photos below show our work on that Friday at Maldon, Brentwood and at the University of Essex.

Maldon-burh w-s

On our site at Maldon, the footings trench was excavated
through a large feature which was not bottomed at a depth
of 80 cm: we think that this represents part of the Anglo-
Saxon burh boundary ditch. The photo shows the dark upper
backfill of the ditch and a possible tip-line (by the measuring
rod). The other end of the trench may have exposed the western
edge of the ditch (not shown in photo.). The feature has produced
pottery fragments dating to about the 12th-14th centuries.

Brentwood w-s

Alec working on the medieval street on our site at Brentwood.

university w-s

The university site photo shows one of the features
which we investigated on the Friday.


Marbles at OCPP

Marbles from OCPP

And my late afternoon has found me staring at these marbles excavated from Old Colchester Park & Preserve trying to extract a detailed description from my brain. It’s Friday; my brain is already on the weekend.

CART – Reaching Out

Social media is becoming more and more a part of archaeology. The Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) writes about two blog posts a week and most of the staff members get an opportunity to write. Every other Friday, we send out a biweekly update via email, then post it to our C.A.R.T. Archaeology blog. Part of my job today was to post a jpeg of our email biweekly to the blog.

the CART Biweekly Update

the CART Biweekly Update

Public outreach is important to the Colchester Archaeological Research Team. We could not do what we do without public interest and support. We are extremely thankful for our volunteers, interns, and work study students.

We try to participate in or host events that will bring what we find into the community. Every couple of years, our friends group hosts an open house on the park. We are excited and proud of the work we do and we think the public will enjoy it as well.

Roots in the Test Unit – CART Field

In a test unit at Old Colchester Park & Preserve Jonathan digs out a root.

At Old Colchester Park & Preserve Jonathan digs out a root.

It is beautiful in Northern Virginia today. The weather is perfect. In the field at Old Colchester Park & Preserve, Jonathan Brisendine digs around a small root that invades his test unit. The area of the park that the CART field crew is currently working has mainly yielded scatters of lithics and prehistoric ceramics. Most of what has been found is flake scatters from making stone tools thousands of years ago. Even the tiny flakes provide information that will be analyzed to assess the type of activities that occurred in the distant past.

Right now, though, Jonathan concentrates on not allowing roots to disturb the archaeological test unit too much. It is common for archaeologists to figure ways to work around or with bioturbation such as roots or rodent burrows.

Quiet in the CART Lab

The Colchester Archaeological Research Team is happy to be back for another Day of Archaeology & looking forward to seeing how our colleagues days are going.

Due to weather & staff schedules, the past two days have been busy at our lab in Northern Virginia; however, today is extremely quiet. Outside, it is perfect weather. A few of our staff are on vacation and a few are in meetings. Mostly, the field crew is taking advantage of the sun & reasonable temperature at the Old Colchester Park & Preserve while the CART lab director is enjoying the rare solitude.

Putting away ceramics from the type collection in the archaeology lab in Fairfax County, VA

Putting away ceramics from the type collection in the Lab.

“What have the Romans ever done for us?”

A day in the life of the Colchester Archaeological Trust

The Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT) is a busy commercial field unit working in the construction industry, primarily in Essex and Suffolk, and based at Colchester in the UK. Our new building – Roman Circus House – is adjacent to the site of the only known Roman circus in Britain. With the help of a team of dedicated volunteers, we are in the process of renovating our building and creating a circus interpretation centre plus cafe on the ground floor. Our preparations are really gearing up, now, as we plan to open the centre and the site of the circus starting-gates next door to visitors in August…

Today we were really busy, inside and out!
Two of our archaeologists were out on site, and the rest of us who were at work today were gainfully employed indoors, except for regular sessions of supervising on the site in front of our building, where a team of volunteers are excavating part of the site of the circus. Several contractors and other volunteers were also hard at work in our building today. Although we are quite an unusual field unit and this is an unusual time for us, this snapshot of our day still shows how varied the working day can be in commercial archaeology, and how many people are involved at a local level, whether professionally or commercially, as volunteers or as interested ‘consumers’.

(It also turned out to be quite an exciting day for us, and not just because we were participating in the Day of Archaeology – we also made two important discoveries on two sites!)


CAT director Philip Crummy continued to hold everything together from his desk, despite the blistering heat today.

CAT senior archaeologist, Howard Brooks, was working on the assemblage of over 700 flints which was collected during two community fieldwalking sessions which he recently led at Wormingford in Essex. Tomorrow (Saturday) he is going to lead a hands-on flints session at the ‘hands-on history day’ in Wormingford. Both the fieldwalking and the ‘hands-on’ day, as well as other activities and events, are part of the Wormingford Landmarks Project, which CAT is contributing to. Howard says that it was great to help so many people get involved in their local archaeology.



Howard with, on his desk, a complete Neolithic flint axehead.

 CAT archaeologists Ben Holloway and Mark Baister were out on site at Brightlingsea near Colchester. They are in the closing days of an excavation lasting several weeks during which we have recorded some really interesting archaeology. We have found two clusters of features, relating to occupation/domestic use and to a field system, one being late Saxon-early medieval and the other being Anglo-Saxon. We have recovered fragments of Thetford ware pottery, and some interesting finds, including a bone hair-comb and a complete sickle. Amazingly, today Ben and Mark made an exciting breakthrough and discovered evidence for two Anglo-Saxon huts in which, typically, the floors were set in the ground.



Ben slowly melting on site.


Mark excavating a feature.

CAT archaeologist Chris Lister was working on building elevation drawings in AutoCAD, for a historic building recording project at the former Hyderabad and Meeanee Barracks in Colchester.


Chris working on his elevations.

 CAT archaeologist Adam Wightman was working on a report for a recent excavation at the historic Stockwell Arms pub in Colchester town centre, which has recently undergone total renovation and been re-opened as a restaurant.


Adam concentrating on the Stockwell Arms.

 CAT archaeologist Don Shimmin was hand-picking fragments of cremated human bone from material which was recovered during a watching brief. The material was from a Roman burial in the form of a pit which contained an amphora and was positioned within an enclosure, on a site at Lexden near Colchester and not far from the important Stanway funerary site which CAT excavated in 1987-2003. The Stanway funerary site included cremation burials placed within enclosures, with rich funerary artefacts, and was where members of the local ruling elite were buried just before, during and after the Roman conquest of Britain. Don also took a ‘phone call from contractors on another site, in Colchester town centre, where we are conducting a long-running watching brief, notifying him of the next phase of works on Monday.


Don delicately retrieving fragments of cremated human bone.

 CAT archaeology volunteer Hilary was marking Roman pottery from our excavation at the Butt Road car-park site in 2012, which was a remarkable Roman cemetery. Today Hilary was working on cremation urns and also on small pottery pottery vessels which, we think, had been placed in children’s graves. The Butt Road cemetery included some very unusual elements, such as a large number of children’s graves, and a group burial plot enclosed by a fence. CAT has a team of dedicated archaeology volunteers, who come in to help us every week. Their work includes washing and marking pottery, bone, etc, and excavating the contents of Roman cremation urns. Some of our volunteers have been helping CAT for decades.


Hilary happy in her work.

 CAT site volunteers Charlotte, Lizzie, Shirley, Nathan, Pip, Sam and Sam worked hard all day on our circus excavation site, in front of Roman Circus House, supervised by CAT archaeologists (primarily Don and Philip, though no-one here can resist making frequent checks on the site). Our great site is over a length of the north-eastern side of the circus (the seating stand or cavea) near the starting-gates and the end of the race-course. This phase of the excavation only began on Monday. Uncovered so far are part of the stone foundation of one of the buttresses of the outer wall; the top of the foundations of the inner and outer walls; and compacted soil which represents post-Roman robber-trenches. Today the volunteers uncovered part of the arena ground surface! This has fragments of stone and mortar on it which had fallen off the inner wall of the cavea after the circus went out of use.

As well as creating the interpretation centre, CAT – in partnership with the landowners – is enhancing the site of the circus for visitors. An earth bank has been created along part of the south-western side of the circus, near Roman Circus House, and we will soon be building stumps of ‘Roman’ wall above the foundations of the starting-gates in the garden next to Roman Circus House to partially recreate the stalls. Visitors in August will be able to view our circus excavation. If it is practicable, we hope to protect part of the circus foundations under glass so that visitors will be able to view them permanently.


Six of our volunteers on the circus site with CAT director Philip, and Roman Circus House in the background (left).

 Some of our CAT renovation volunteers – Neil, Gemma and Shirley – were hard at work in our building, Roman Circus House; endlessly painting and, today, working on the original brass window and door fittings. It is a very interesting building, constructed in 1937 for the NAAFI of the Artillery (Le Cateau) Barracks at the old garrison in Colchester. It was later used as the Army Education Centre and then left empty for several years, when the Army moved out to the new garrison. It is part of a small complex of surviving old garrison buildings and also stands right next to the site of the Roman circus. It is a great building but it was pretty derelict when CAT acquired it, partly with funds donated by enthusiastic members of the public, groups and local businesses. Our team of renovation volunteers has been working on our building for over a year and it is now looking fantastic, and almost ready for visitors.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANeil even happier in his work.

 A Colchester Archaeological Group (CAG) volunteer, Don, popped in to fix some shelves in the CAG library which is currently housed in a room at Roman Circus House. The CAG is our local amateur excavation group. Don said that the interpretation centre was looking great!


Don wielding a drill in the CAG library room.

 Volunteer David, who runs the Friends of the Trust (FCAT), called in to talk to CAT director Philip today. FCAT was set up almost 40 years ago and has about 400 members. (Members can go on regular outings and join guided tours of our archaeological sites, when possible; they receive a copy of our annual magazine; and CAT archaeologists give presentations on our recent work at the AGM every year.)

We also had contractors in the house! – ie two plumbers, installing the central heating in the interpretation centre; one electrician, wiring a bit more of the interpretation centre; one joiner, lowering the ceiling in the new cafe kitchen; one plasterer, also plastering the cafe kitchen; and a brief repeat visit from the flooring contractor!


Nick the electrician working at a high level.


(CAT editorial assistant jill Adams was talking to everyone, taking these photos and writing this report on our day…)

Please visit our web-site and follow our blog at


Colchester Park and Preserve

Here at the Old Colchester Park and Preserve in Fairfax County, Virginia, the Colchester Archaeological Research Team (CART) is finishing up field work for this stage. The park is archaeologically rich with sites dating back approximatley 9,000 years through the twentieth century. One of our most significant sites is the colonial tobacco port town of Colchester. Here excavation within one of the town lots exposed a previously identified foundation. However, much to our surprise, we found another wall below the base of the foundation and suspect it is to an earlier structure.