“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…)

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