Roman Chariot-Racing Arena Is First To Be Unearthed In Britain

By David Prudames | 05 January 2005
Shows a photograph of a terracotta plaque, which has a chariot-racing scene carved into it.

This terracotta 'Campana plaque' comes from the 1st or early 2nd century AD and depicts a quadriga (four-horse chariot) thundering towards a turning post. © The British Museum.

Archaeologists working on a housing development in Essex have unearthed what they believe to be the first Roman chariot-racing arena to be found in Britain.

The discovery was made at a site in Colchester and has hit the headlines across the country with local and national press lauding it as one of the most exciting Roman finds in decades.

Experts are thrilled at the possibility that this could be the first evidence of a chariot-racing circus in this country, but have refuted claims that it was the largest to be built outside Italy.

Speaking to the 24 Hour Museum, archaeologist and excavation project manager, Rob Masefield, outlined exactly what it is they’ve found: "Basically," he said, "we are 99% sure it’s a circus in Colchester."

The remains consist of a number of walls, some running parallel to one another, which altogether form a structure measuring 350 metres long by 70 metres wide.

According to Rob it is comparable in size to chariot-racing arenas in Spain and southern France, but he confirmed that a very significant discovery has been made.

"It’s still a major find," he said, "because it’s the only one in Britain and would be the largest Roman building ever found in Britain."

Shows a photograph of the ruins of a Roman theatre. Two circular walls surrounding an inner wall leading to a pillar in the distance.

While Roman entertainment venues, such as the theatre at Verulamium have been unearthed all over Britain, this latest find is the first Roman Circus. © English Heritage.

Managed and designed by RPS Planning Transport and Environment, the excavations were undertaken by Colchester Archaeological Trust at Abbeyfield, a housing development by construction company Taylor Woodrow.

The structure was found in the northern area of the development and three separate digs have revealed a series of walls. As well as the remains of an entranceway, other sets of double walls, set five metres apart, are thought to have retained a bank supporting tiers of seating.

All the evidence, said Rob, seems to point to it being a chariot-racing arena, which it is predicted might have held up to 8,000 spectators.

"There are no roof tiles which might indicate a domestic building, or indeed a portico for a temple," explained Rob. The walls, he added, "are something else and are identical in form to those that you’d find in other Roman places of entertainment. It conforms to the basic canon of circus architecture and it would have looked very similar to ones in other parts of the empire."

Dating back around 2,000 years, the find helps paint a picture of just how popular chariot racing was in Roman culture but, added Rob, it won't alter the way historians view Roman Britain.

"It isn’t going to change our understanding of Roman Britain substantially because we know that chariot racing went on," he said.

"It was assumed they used open field arrangements, but this shows that at least in one location they did have a permanent structure to support the most popular Roman sport."

Shows a photograph of a number of men dressed up as Roman soldiers and seemingly advancing towards the camera.

The ludi, or games, were among the Romans' favourite pastimes and charioteers were the footballers of their age, celebrated and rewarded with enormous wealth.

Pete Wilson, senior archaeologist at English Heritage, declared the discovery as "not just nationally significant," but, "internationally significant, because they are so rare."

Pete told the 24 Hour Museum that the infrastructure needed to support such a large sporting arena meant that only larger Roman settlements would have boasted one.

"It’s something that you’re only going to get in major towns and cities," he explained. "In Britain we have various hints at chariot racing, it’s depicted in mosaics, but we’ve never actually before identified a possible circus with certainty."

English Heritage hasn’t, as yet, declared any intentions towards the site but representatives from the organisation have been monitoring the excavation and have paid the development a visit.

While no plans have been revealed as to what will be done with the remains, it is expected that the developers will keep them in situ and incorporate them into the finished site.

"The excavation of a Roman circus is a fantastic discovery for Colchester and has caused a great deal of excitement," said Peter Andrew, Taylor Woodrow Eastern regional managing director.

"We are delighted to have supported the Colchester Archaeological Trust in revealing such significant finds and will endeavour to preserve as much of the remains as possible for future generations."

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