opposite Looking across the remains of Richbrough Roman fort, towards the reconstructed gateway that was recently built on the site. above The on-site museum’s displays have been completely transformed to offer a more representative selection of the tens of thousands of finds that have been excavated at Richborough.

Gateway to Britannia: reimagining Richborough Roman fort

Richborough in Kent was one of the key locations in the early stages of the Roman invasion of Britain, later flourishing into a wealthy port town and then a significant military site. Over the last century, excavations have provided an extraordinary array of insights into the experiences of people who lived and worked within its walls – now, following a transformation of the on-site museum and the presentation of the outdoor archaeology, what new stories are there to tell? Carly Hilts visited to find out more.


Known as Rutupiae to its Roman inhabitants, Richborough could be described as the launch pad for the imperial project in Britain, being the traditional landing point for Claudius’ invasion fleet in AD 43. Its location on what was then a small island in the Wantsum Channel provided conveniently sheltered anchorage both for these ships, and for the Continental commercial vessels that visited in subsequent decades, plying their trade in the bustling port town that grew out of the initial military supply base (see CA 257).

Roman Richborough was an undeniably successful settlement – as early as AD 85 it boasted a mighty marble-clad triumphal arch representing a symbolic entrance into Rome’s new province, and it was subsequently furnished with all the public facilities expected of a thriving town within the Empire, including an amphitheatre whose remains were recently excavated by Historic England archaeologists working with English Heritage, in whose care the site now rests (CA 382). In the 3rd century, though, the site reverted to a military role once more, when a large portion of the town (including the triumphal arch) was demolished to make way for two forts – part of a chain defending England’s south and east coasts.

opposite Looking across the remains of Richbrough Roman fort, towards the reconstructed gateway that was recently built on the site. above The on-site museum’s displays have been completely transformed to offer a more representative selection of the tens of thousands of finds that have been excavated at Richborough.
Looking across the remains of Richbrough Roman fort, towards the reconstructed gateway that was recently built on the site.

This eventful 360-year-long story has left a vivid signature in the archaeological record. In the 1920s, Joscelyn Plunket Bushe-Fox carried out the site’s first systematic excavations within and around the surviving fort walls, and these investigations produced such a quantity of finds that the authorities were rather taken by surprise. At that time, it was more common for the archaeological sites themselves to be protected, but for many of the finds to be discarded. Richborough’s archaeological richness inspired a different response: the team wanted to keep the objects together, and to display them on site, so that visitors could appreciate the artefacts alongside the surviving stonework. After a lot of back and forth, the Ministry of Works agreed to fund the the finds’ new home, and Richborough gained the first purpose-built museum on (what would become) an English Heritage site.

The on-site museum’s displays have been completely transformed to offer a more representative selection of the tens of thousands of finds that have been excavated at Richborough.

Of course, no single building could accommodate all of the Richborough finds, and within a year of the original museum’s completion, the site team was already applying for more money for an extension (an initiative that was scuppered by the outbreak of the Second World War and a rather drastic change of funding priorities). Today, many of the artefacts are housed in English Heritage’s regional stores in Dover Castle, where they have two whole dedicated rooms – a completely different scale to other local sites. There are more than 9,000 small finds, including 1,000 hairpins alone, and 450 brooches; more than 20,000 pottery finds and fragments; and around 56,000 coins. Despite the original excavation team’s ambition, only selected highlights were on show in the on-site museum – and these had to be limited mainly to ceramics and building materials, because there were neither the environmental controls nor the on-site security to allow for metalwork to be displayed.

This has all changed, thanks to a recent initiative that has seen the site museum completely transformed, reopening last month with much more representative displays. The project had been in the works since 2016 and, as well as updating the exhibits, the team took advantage of the opportunity to examine the entire collection, which had not been extensively researched in 50 years. What followed was a huge job of cataloguing, photographing, and repacking artefacts, and making sure that good records existed for each. These efforts allowed the curators to make informed decisions about what was available, as they were faced with the difficult task of narrowing down tens of thousands of objects to the 400 or so that could fit in the display cases. And although the selection of artefacts has changed, as much as possible of the original fabric of the building itself has been preserved – although it has now gained an educational space and a gift shop.

A steelyard weight, dating to the 2nd century and depicting Silenus – in Classical myth, the tutor of the wine god Bacchus.

As for the displays themselves, the curatorial team has set out to show off the breadth of the collection in ways that they had not achieved before. They have chosen to acknowledge the chronology but not to tell the story of the site itself – they want visitors to experience that while exploring the remains – so, while there is a short film providing a basic timeline to orientate people beginning their visit at the museum, the objects have been arrangeds instead to address two main themes: connections – Richborough’s place within the wider Roman world – and identity – the variety of people who called the site home.

Tools and trade

Roman Richborough was undeniably important as a commercial hub, attracting and facilitating trade from across the Empire. A diverse range of goods, both locally made and imported from the Continent, have been excavated over the years, together with the tools of this trade: steelyard balances that were used to weigh small goods for sale; the weights that were hung on them for this purpose; and quantities of seal boxes, which would have secured official documents, money pouches, and packages. Strikingly, none of the seal boxes found at Richborough were made in Britain, highlighting just how many items were being brought to the site from abroad. Many of the tens of thousands of coins recovered from the site also have origins ranging across much of the Empire, spanning much of Europe, as far as Constantinople – and the collections include at least one coin to represent the reign of every Roman emperor who ruled Britain for at least a year.

A ‘Hofheim’ cup, one of the earliest types of blown-glass vessel, dating to c.AD 43–50.

One of the key signs of the site becoming Romanised was the introduction of glassware. Raw glass was made in Syria and Egypt, before circulating across the Empire to be remelted and shaped as required. The technique of glassblowing was first developed in the Middle East c.37-34 BC, and Richborough seems to have enjoyed access to these high-quality wares from its earliest contact with Rome: among the vessels now on display is a ‘Hofheim’ cup, a very early example of blown glass and one of the oldest objects from the site. Other fragments speak of truly luxurious tableware, however: the site has yielded lots of pieces from millefiori bowls, signalling that someone was probably having these fragile and expensive items shipped from Italy in some quantity. They probably adorned the tables of the site’s mansio – a high-status residence used by travelling officials – and colourfully demonstrate Richborough’s wealth even in its earliest days.

In the museum’s previous incarnation, some 50% of the displays had featured pottery, and despite the recent rebalancing there are still plentiful examples of the diverse range of wares that were bought, made, and used within the Roman settlement. Some had been brought from other areas of Britain – including from Hampshire, the East Midlands, Kent, and Oxfordshire – as well as imported examples that had made a much longer journey to the site, travelling from what is now Belgium, France, and the area of the lower Rhine. These range from beakers and cooking pots to an ornate cup adorned with hunting scenes, and highly decorative Samian bowls and dishes. The hunt cup on display comes from the lower Rhine, but the artisans who made such items are known to have brought their techniques to Britain c.AD 150 – and alongside the Rhineland pot is another, virtually indistinguishable vessel that had been made in the Nene Valley.

Richborough saw an influx of people and goods from across the Roman Empire; this bone comb, shaped like a horse, dates to AD 300-410 and probably comes from what is now Germany.

Such a diversity of artefacts reflects the influx of people who came to Richborough from across the Roman Empire: the site was part of a well-connected world, and some of the items that travelled with these people demonstrate how dramatically the material worlds of local communities changed under Roman rule. Richborough’s residents had access to items and inventions from across the Empire, and could set their tables with fine glassware and decorated imported pottery, enjoying new fashions and foodstuffs.

Exploring identities

These changing fashions feed into questions of identity – gender, class, nationality – and how it was expressed in Roman Richborough. The scale of the finds from the site allows for detailed insights into commonalities in taste and disparities in wealth – take, for example, three hairpins included in the new displays. All are topped with the bust of a female figure, but each is strikingly different in form. Among them is a delicate gold example; a finely crafted version in bone, imported from the Continent; and a third, much simpler local copy, also made from bone but carved in a more abstract British style.

A selection of 1st-century Roman hairpins. Pins topped with a miniature hand, like the example second from the left, are only known from military sites in Britain.

The site’s military population also used personal adornments to express themselves: far from the stereotype of Roman soldiers all looking the same, their clothing and armour evolved over time, and was also repaired as needed – not always to the original design. In the site museum, an array of brooches helps to illustrate soldiers’ changing fashions: they begin with items forged from a single piece of metal, but as the 1st century progressed these fasteners developed a separate spring and pin, and blossomed into a much greater variety of styles; then, by the 3rd- 4th century, soldiers were mainly wearing crossbow brooches with a distinctive P-shaped profile.

Other pieces of military kit include a crest-stiffener for helmet, which dates to AD 43-100 but had been reused on a 4th-century helmet; a shield boss; military decorations called phalerae; a throwing axe called a francisca; and the hinges of buckle straps from lorica segmentata (plate armour). Rather more personal, though, are a cavalry horse buckle that had been made from a recycled women’s armlet, probably in the 4th century, transforming this feminine item into a masculine, martial one; and a military brooch from Sicily, with the sentimental inscription Si amas, ego plus – ‘if you love me, I love you more’. Might both of these items have been gifts or keepsakes from loved ones?

A high-status military buckle with enamel decoration, dating to the 1st century.

Religious identities feature strongly, with evidence of both Classical and Christian beliefs in abundance at Richborough. Statuettes and figurines, made locally and on the Continent, depict deities such as Apollo and Mercury; traders’ weights represent Silenus, Harpocrates, and Minerva. There are intaglios, lost long ago from the rings that they once decorated, depicting divine figures, while a series of copper-alloy discs probably came from a sistrum, a kind of rattle associated with the worship of Isis, and we also find miniature models of animals and weapons – probably votive offerings. As for Christian imagery, chi-rho symbols can be seen etched on to a dish and on the fittings of a soldier’s helmet, while a strap-end depicts a scene from the story of Jonah and the whale.

Perhaps the most impactful religious find on display, though, is a huge votive figure representing an unknown goddess, probably dedicated by sailors or traders from the Rhineland in the 1st century. Although the figure is badly damaged, it was clearly finely carved – but the deity it depicts was shown rather less reverence in the object’s later life: it was found face down within the church that was built inside the fort’s walls during the Anglo-Saxon period, where it had been reused as a step, close to the font. The carving had been housed in the site museum for almost century, moving during the recent renovations for the first time since its discovery – a process that took a full day, as the stone figure weighs half a tonne.

Gateway to the past

Outside the museum, the site has gained new reinforced pathways to make the routes around the Roman remains more accessible, as well as new graphic panels interpreting the above-ground archaeology and unpicking the different phases that it represents. These boards have technology embedded that can be scanned by visitors using the audioguide, triggering interviews with people offering modern insights into activities that took place on the site centuries earlier. In these recordings, historian and broadcaster Tessa Dunlop speaks to figures including an Olympic boxer – who describes the psychology of the arena and what it feels like to participate in a visceral sport – a special-forces soldier, a local oystermonger, miners, stone-masons, and a former harbourmaster, drawing parallels between Richborough’s ancient inhabitants and modern occupations, and offering a contemporary take on life in the Roman town.

A weight depicting Harpocrates, god of silence.

Perhaps the most dramatic addition to the site, though, is a reconstructed Roman gateway, which is situated within the fort at the point that Richborough meets the start of Watling Street. Although today the start of its route survives as a quiet track running between a scattering of houses, this was the first major Roman road to be developed after the invasion, and a significant routeway running all the way to north Wales via the important towns of London, Wroxeter, and Chester. From the top of the gateway, 8m above the ground, visitors can see the archaeological remains from above for the first time, overlooking the outline of buildings like a phase plan of the site. With the remains of the amphitheatre visible in a nearby field, you can also appreciate the scale of the town (which, geophysical surveys attest, once covered an area of 50 football pitches), look out across the landscape towards the sea, and understand how the local geography influenced the settlement’s location.

The gateway itself is based on archaeological evidence from the site – big post-holes, uncovered on the same spot, which would have supported large timbers for a wooden gateway and tower – as well as traces of campaign gateways in Britain and further afield, and depictions on Trajan’s Column in Rome. It is built from oak, and as far as possible (and is allowed by modern safety requirements) it uses Roman construction techniques known from preserved timbers at sites like the London riverside, including dovetail, lap, and scarf joints, as well as hand-made iron nails similar to 1st-century examples. All of the underlying archaeology has been carefully recorded and preserved in situ for future archaeologists.

The ‘gateway to Roman Britain’ may have lost its monumental arched entranceway centuries ago, but its new gatehouse offers visitors an exciting new perspective on this significant site, just as its new interpretations give a fresh way in to its archaeology.

All images: English Heritage

Further information
For more about Richborough Roman fort and how to visit the site, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/richborough-roman-fort-and-amphitheatre.