During the final week of excavations in 2014 at the Williams and Griffin store at High Street, Colchester, archaeologists discovered a hoard of Roman gold and silver jewellery and coins. This is the first hoard of precious metals ever found in Colchester. It is especially significant as it was found in a small pit within the floor of a house and appears to have been buried for safekeeping during the early stages of the Boudican revolt in AD 61. The jewellery was buried under the floor of a house which was subsequently burnt to the ground, along with the rest of the town.
The collection of jewellery included one gold and two silver bracelets, two gold and one silver armlets, five gold finger-rings, a silver chain and loop, a copper-alloy bulla (pendant worn around the neck), a glass intaglio with the incised image of a panther, a collection of Roman republican coins, and the remains of a jewellery box containing two sets of gold earrings and four of the gold finger-rings. The jewellery appears to have belonged to a wealthy Roman woman who lived in Colchester.
The 'Fenwick hoard', as this collection of jewellery is known, is currently on display at Colchester Castle.
One of the most famous artefacts associated with the Roman history of Colchester wasn’t found in Colchester and may not actually be from Colchester at all...
In 1907, the hollow bronze head from a well-crafted statue of a Roman emperor was discovered in the mud of the River Alde in the south-east Suffolk parish of Rendham, some 40 miles from Colchester. This head was quickly identified as depicting a member of the Julio–Claudian family, with early opinion favouring an identification with Claudius (reigned AD 41–54), the emperor responsible for the Roman invasion of Britain.
We cannot be sure where the statue originally came from, but we know that a temple to Claudius was erected in Colchester in the mid-1st century, probably when the town became the Colonia Victricenis, and this temple may well have contained just such a statue of the emperor. Tacitus records how by the time of the Boudican uprising in AD 61 the shrine had become a focal point of anger and resentment amongst the indigenous population and that when the town was sacked by the Iceni a handful of defenders made their last stand in the temple. The rough hacking off of the head at the neck is suggestive of its having been violently destroyed, and very soon after its discovery the head came to be seen as a war trophy taken by force from Colchester by the Boudican forces and later discarded into the river.
More recently, scholars have begun to think that the statue might actually be a portrait of Claudius’ successor Nero (who reigned AD 54–68), although the consensus is still that the statue was destroyed as part of the Boudican uprising in AD 61. We will never be certain whether or not the statue originally stood in Colchester, but, in the words of Mark Twain, we should ‘never let the truth stand in the way of a good story’!
Sir Mortimer Wheeler was one of the twentieth century’s most important archaeologists. He became famous in Britain in the early 1950s when he featured on the BBC television series Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and in this role he popularised archaeology with the British public. Prior to this, he had been responsible for the establishment of the Institute of Archaeology at University College, London, in 1934, where he assumed the position of Honorary Director. During the late 1930s and early 1940s he excavated numerous large and complex sites, including the Iron Age hillfort at Maiden Castle in Dorset. In 1944 he was appointed Director of the Archaeological Survey of India, where he focused much of his attention on the Bronze Age civilisation of the Indus Valley.
What is perhaps less well-known about Sir Mortimer Wheeler is that he carried out his very first excavation in Colchester, in 1917, at the Balkerne Gate. This gate was the western entrance to the Roman town.
Gosbecks, located about 4 km to the south of the walled town, was probably the centre of Iron Age Colchester and possibly the home of King Cunobelin.
The Romans took over the settlement at Gosbecks and built a temple, possibly dedicated to Mercury. This would have been a religious focus for the native population.
The Romans also built a huge theatre at Gosbecks in around AD 100. Gosbecks’ theatre is the largest known from Roman Britain, seating around 5,000 people. It was probably used with the temple for assemblies, speeches, religious rites and dramatic performances.
In around AD 275 the importance of the site declined. The theatre and the temple were abandoned and dismantled and the building materials were taken away and recycled.
Today, both the theatre and the temple have completely disappeared; only the outlines can be seen marked out on the ground.
The Temple of Claudius was the largest temple building in Roman Britain, an indication of Colchester’s status and the focus for the worship of the emperor and his successors. A temple already existed at the time of the revolt of Queen Boudica in AD 60 and it is referred to in the historical account of the destruction of the town. Today, only the foundations of the original temple survive below Colchester Castle.
The inside of the temple was reserved for priests to worship the spirit of the emperor; everyone else would have gathered outside in a large enclosed space known as the precinct. It is likely the precinct would have housed a statue of Claudius and an altar, approached through a monumental arch.
At the end of the Roman period, the temple may have been used as a Christian church before it fell into disuse. The whole site was largely abandoned for centuries, although shortly before the Norman Conquest a Saxon chapel was constructed among the ruins. The Normans recognised the importance of the temple site, both as a legacy of an ancient past and as an excellent location for their castle as they realised they could use the existing foundations. Today, these remains – the Vaults, as they became known in the eighteenth century – can be visited on guided tours of Colchester Castle.