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.
Iron Age Colchester was protected on its western edge by a series of defensive earthworks known as the Dykes. A dyke is a bank formed from the earth dug out of a defensive ditch. When first constructed, the banks reached up to 4m in height and the ditches 4.5m deep, so they created a formidable barrier. Over time, this form of earthwork appears to have developed for different reasons. As well as being used to protect settlements from attack by warriors in chariots or from cattle raiders, the Dykes were used to confine grazing animals. In Colchester, their sheer size and extent emphasised the importance of the settlement at this time.
Several stretches of the Colchester Dykes are still accessible for everyone to see today. Lexden Triple Dyke and Blue Bottle Grove are well-preserved examples from the Iron Age. Gryme’s Dyke is a later Roman addition to the Iron Age system and may have been built as long as 20 years after the Roman invasion in AD 43, perhaps in response to the revolt led by Boudica, the queen of the British Iceni tribe, when the town was destroyed by fire.
In 1940, the defensive importance of the Dykes was appreciated once again when the stretch known as ‘Blue Bottle Grove’ was refortified, in expectation of an imminent German invasion.
The Red Lion Hotel is one of the earliest surviving buildings in Colchester town centre. It was originally built as a town house for Sir John Howard, the Constable of Colchester Castle, in 1481 or 1482.
The building's oldest feature is a 14th century stone doorway and Roman pavements have been recorded in the vaulted cellars. It was first recorded as an inn in 1515 when it was known as the White Lion, after the heraldic badge of the Howards. After 1603, it became known as the Red Lion in honour of James VI of Scotland and I of England, whose Scottish royal arms featured a red lion.
The archway is decorated with St George and the Dragon and two male figures which possibly represent merchants or lawyers. As in previous centuries, today the lower part of the building is used for retail, with the hotel on the upper floors.
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.