Monument record MCC476 - Late Roman church, Butt Road, Colchester


Roman church (CAT Building 139), an apsidal building situated in a late Roman Christian Cemetery, first recorded in 1845.


Grid reference Centred TL 99261 24849 (23m by 9m)
Map sheet TL92SE


Type and Period (1)

Full Description

Late Roman apsidal building situated next to a large Roman inhumation cemetery (MCC481) and interpreted as a church. Aligned E to W, with apse at east end, c.7.5m wide x 24.80m long; according to the report, the apse was added c.AD 380. Now consolidated and on display to the public.

See <7> for summary of the state of knowledge.

The building was first recorded in a sketch by William Wire in 1845.<1><2> The standing remains were again later plotted onto the Museum copy if the 1876 1:500 maps.<3> The first recorded excavation was undertaken by M.R. Hull in 1935, when the apse and a nearby pit were examined.<4> Another excavation was undertaken by Miss B.R.K. Dunnett (now Niblett) in 1965.<5> The latest excavations occurred in three stages 1978, 1979 and 1988 undertaken by Colchester Archaeological Trust.<6>

The building was prominently placed on the slope above a small valley which runs E to W immediately outside the town walls, and would have been visible from Head Gate. The building stood on what was probably the north-west corner of the Butt Road cemetery and was built in an area where burials seem absent (with one exception). No graves seem to have existed to the west of the church and the steepness of the slope to the north makes it probable that none existed to the north. The building did not suffer full-scale demolition at the end of the Roman period but survived as a ruin.<6>

The outer walls of the church (CAT Building 139) were of stone which was probably plastered and painted inside. There were internal partitions or colonnades of timber, some of which incorporated wattle and daub. The roof was of tile. No evidence was found for solid floors of any kind. The building probably incorporated some carved stone and a veneer of Purbeck Marble and Purbeck burr. The building has been heavily damaged in post Roman times and it is conceivable that traces of flooring or window glass could have been lost. The walls were of mortared greensand and tile. A large number of coins found during the various excavations indicate that a major phase of coin loss equates with the construction of the church started sometime between AD 320 and 340 and lasted until the end of the century. Internal features included two possible burials and various post holes relating to the aisles and a possible north-south partition.<6>

In 1995, Martin Millett reviewed the publication of the excavations, and challenged the identification of both the apsidal building as a church, and both church and cemetery as necessarily Christian.<8> Millett questioned the firm date of AD 330 for the basilica, stating 'We can only legitimately say that activity in this area increased sometime after A.D. 294' (p.452). He also questioneed the structura development of the building, and the evidence used to support the idea that the apse was secondary. Instead, he argues, the whole building was designed and built as a single, carefully planned entity. Taken with the dating evidence, 'this alternative interpretation casts doubt on its identification as a church since it would be entirely pre-Constantinian' (p.452). He writes, 'a pagan context is surely more likely. I would thus see the basilica as a funerary banqueting hall (as noted on p. 187) used after A.D. 294 and without Christian associations' (p.153). 'The report takes the view (p. 59) that the construction of the basilica set the alignment for the cemetery, but the reverse may equally be true. It is surely even more likely that both the graves and the building were set out in relation to the local topography as created by the road which had been in existence since Period 1' (p.453). There is also more widespread evidence for a change in fashion towards east-west grave orientation during the early fourth century. Millett concludes, 'trying to shoehorn the [varied and ambiguous] evidence of one site into a simple category like Christian does no justice to the evidence' (p.454).

Sources/Archives (8)

  • <1> Serial: The Essex Society for Archaeology and History. 1866. Vol. 4 (Old Series) Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society. Vol. IV (Old Series). p.265.
  • <2> Serial: Crummy, Philip. 1993. CAR 9:Excavations of Roman and later cemeteries, churches and monastic sites in Colchester, 1971-8. 9. p.6.
  • <3> Cartographic materials: Ordnance Survey. 1876. 1876 OS 1:500 Map of Colchester, sheet XXVII 12.12. Map sheet.
  • <4> Monograph: Hull, M.R.. 1958. Roman Colchester: Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London. No. XX. pp.245-248.
  • <5> Article in serial: Dunnett, B.R.K.. 1971. Excavations in Colchester, 1964-8. Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society Vol. 3, Part 1. pp.78-84.
  • <6> Serial: Crummy, Philip. 1993. CAR 9:Excavations of Roman and later cemeteries, churches and monastic sites in Colchester, 1971-8. 9. pp.164-202.
  • <7> Monograph: Gascoyne, Adrian and Radford, David. 2013. Colchester. Fortress of the War God. An Archaeological Assessment. pp.162.
  • <8> Article in serial: Millett, Martin. 1995. An Early Christian Community at Colchester. Archaeological Journal 1995, 152.1, 451-454. pp.451-454.

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Record last edited

Oct 8 2020 8:13AM

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