Tuesday 10 September 2013

Colchester Roman Circus Site and Centre: Open to the Public

Roman Circus: see model in new
Visitors' Centre
Roman Circus House open to public.
An exciting work in progress

Colchester ArchaeologicalTrust’s Roman Circus site and centre has recently opened its doors to the public, offering guided tours of the site on Saturdays.  (The opening ceremony was on 24 August 2013.)  Roman Circus House was purchased by the Trust following the discovery, in 2004, of the only Roman Circus so far found in Britain.  As reported in the Archaeological Notes contained within the Transactions of the Essex Society for Archaeologyand History (Third Series, Vols. 36 to 39 inclusive), the Circus is sited on the former Garrison site about 500 metres south of the southern wall of Colchester Town Centre.   The huge chariot racing track was capable of accommodating 7,000 spectators.  It was 400 metres long and 80 metres wide. 

The Starting Gates were found first in the garden of the Sergeants’ Mess in Le Cateau Road.  Channel 4’s TV programme ‘Time Team’ subsequently located the starting gates, some of the wall, and the spina, the centre wall in the circus which acted as a barrier for chariots racing.  Like much of Colchester’s archaeology, much is under development since the Roman era.  Part though is under a football pitch!

Work in progress reinterpreting Starting Gates of Roman Circus

Roman Circus House, the former Victorian Army Education Centre, has been converted to a Visitors’ Centre and cafĂ©, now open every day except Sunday from 10.00am to 4.00pm.   The Centre tells the story of volunteers’ work to refurbish the building, and houses the chariot built for the Time Team programme.  A glass cabinet displays the very recent finds from the nearby Roman and Christian Burial Site in Butt Road: rescue archaeology carried out in autumn 2012 by CAT before the site was built over with housing.

An entrance to Stand of Roman Circus, excavated in
'front garden' of Visitors' Centre

Further excavations within the ‘front garden’ this summer have revealed one of what was many entrances to the tiered stands in which spectators watched the spectacle of eight chariots at a time negotiating the tight route.  During the dig coins were found dating from the mid second century indicating the possibility of attendees gambling on the outcome of each race.  There were no doubt stalls around the perimeter selling food and drink. 

Work has now begun to recreate the starting gates.  Concrete has been carefully poured and “modern” Roman brick built on each plinth before being glazed over. 

Colchester Archaeological Trust: Roman Circus House front

The site and centre is very much a fascinating work in progress and worth a regular visit to see this area grow as another exciting development in the interpretation of Colchester’s history.  Perhaps one day the Roman Circus will rival as a tourist attraction that of the Roman Palace in Fishbourne, Sussex?

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