Today, the remains of Roman Richborough lie two miles inland, surrounded by the Kent marshes, but 2,000 years ago this spot faced a key sea crossing from Gaul. It is for this reason that the site is reputed to be a landing site for Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 43 –but nevertheless Richborough represented a vital military supply base as the imperial army pushed further inland, later flourishing into a thriving port town called Rutupiae. This prosperous settlement boasted grand public amenities, including an amphitheatre – and it is this structure that has formed the focus of recent excavations by Historic England archaeologists, working in partnership with English Heritage, in whose care the site lies.
Measuring 62m by 50m, the amphitheatre could have seated up to 5,000 spectators, who may have witnessed bloody entertainments including wild beast hunts, gladiatorial combat, and the public execution of condemned criminals. This once-popular attraction would ultimately fall out of use, and out of public memory, however. Although its remains survive above ground as grass-covered banks forming a doughnut shape, and are possibly depicted on a 16th-century map of the area, it was not until the 18th century that its original purpose was identified, when the site was visited and drawn by William Stukeley in 1724. More intensive investigations were later still in coming: the first excavation of the amphitheatre took place in 1849, overseen by a local antiquarian, William Rolfe. He uncovered two entrance walls and may have exposed the top of the whole arena circuit, as the entire outline was documented by a surveyor from the area, John Noakes Coleman. But little more about the remains was recorded – and, this autumn, English Heritage historian Paul Pattison and archaeologists headed by Tony Wilmott of Historic England have been working to find out more.
Investigating the arena
The recent project has established that the floor surface of the Roman arena lay far below the present ground level, identifying the line of the interior wall that had surrounded this space beneath a slump of archaeologically sterile soil that the team suggests represents the collapsed material of the amphitheatre’s seating bank.
Two sizeable trenches dug into this mass of soil have revealed portions of the interior wall itself, which still survive to an impressive height and were robustly built from large chalk blocks. The inner face of this wall was coated with rough mortar which provided a keyed surface for a layer of white plaster. This surface was not plain white, however – excitingly, both exposed sections appear to bear traces of colourful painted decoration. Analysis of the precise nature of this decoration is ongoing, but the scheme was apparently divided into panels using black vertical stripes; the team has also identified traces of red and yellow. These colours would have been applied to the plaster when it was partly cured but still retained moisture, in true fresco style, so that it could be absorbed and become an integral part of the surface – if the paint had been applied to dry plaster it would have simply flaked off.
It is not clear what the decorations represent – they do not look like imitated marbling, Tony Wilmott said, but the red might have formed part of a geometric or possibly figurative design. Either way, though, the traces of colour represent a very rare discovery. This is the first known instance of muralled walls at a Romano-British amphitheatre, and is unusual within Roman territories generally, Tony said – he has consulted an expert on the subject who suggested that only 19 amphitheatres with frescoed decoration are known from the entire empire.
In excavating the arena wall, the team has exposed the remains of what is thought to be a carcer, or cell, that would have been used to confine people or animals before they entered the arena to meet their fate. The recessed space, which has walls standing to almost 2m tall, was first uncovered during the 1849 campaign – it is depicted on Coleman’s survey, and indeed the modern excavators found a graffito on its wall that had been left by their Victorian predecessors – but until now its purpose was unknown. Now the Historic England archaeologists have identified indentations on either side of its entranceway that might have held a door that slid upwards to release the cell’s occupants into the view of the spectators.
While investigating the carcer, the team also uncovered a more enigmatic element: beneath the cell floor were the remains of a white plaster surface continuing under its back wall. These traces provide tantalising hints of a previously unknown earlier phase of the amphitheatre’s construction – though one that is unlikely to be unpicked further, as it would require rather more destructive investigation of the amphitheatre, which is a scheduled ancient monument.
This autumn’s excavations explored the outer wall of the arena, too, revealing that it was a substantial construction, up to 6m wide, and built from carefully stacked turves. The huge number required to build the amphitheatre would have had a dramatic effect on the surrounding landscape, as the area was stripped of its surface at the time of construction. The outline of individual turves could still be seen in section at the time of CA’s visit, and for Tony Wilmott it was an aspect of the amphitheatre that was immediately familiar. ‘I’ve dug on Hadrian’s Wall for decades,’ he said. ‘I know a turf wall when I see one!’
These materials are also instructive in terms of the amphitheatre’s possible age, he added. Chalk and turf are readily available local materials, in contrast to the imported ragstone used to build the 3rd-century shore fort. The date of the amphitheatre’s construction has long been unknown, though it has been suggested that it might have been linked to Rutupiae’s 2nd-century zenith. The use of local materials, however, could indicate an early date. ‘At this stage, this is just a guess, but possibly Flavian,’ Tony said.
Traces of the town
Outside the amphitheatre, the team found two areas of intense burning indicated by distinctive bands of heat-reddened soil, as well as the well-preserved (if rather blackened) remains of charred wattle-and-daub structures. These lay on either side of a gap, and it is thought that they might represent structures that once stood against the outer wall of the amphitheatre, though the cause of their destruction remains unknown.
Another trench outside the amphitheatre has uncovered a wealth of traces of domestic activity linked to the surrounding Roman town. In this area, pits and ditches have yielded large quantities of animal bone, around 200 coins, pottery fragments, some 400 nails including numerous hobnails from footwear, and personal items including clothes fasteners, pins, and tweezers. Significantly, many of these finds date to the later part of the 4th century. It is known that Rutupiae was one of the last places in Britain to be supplied with coin by the Roman Empire – these finds provide further evidence of civilian inhabitants persisting in the town until the final days of the official imperial occupation.
Among these finds, the butchered animal bones provide possible evidence of some related form of industry taking place here in this later phase of the town’s life – possibly hide processing and/or tanning. ‘We don’t know the status of the amphitheatre by this point,’ Tony said. ‘Given its shape, and the presence of so much animal bone nearby, perhaps it was being used as some kind of cattle corral.’ These were not the only animal remains present: on the edge of a ditch associated with this area of the domestic settlement, the complete skeleton of a cat was found, carefully placed in a way to suggest that it had been deliberately buried on this spot. It has been dubbed ‘Maxipus’ by the team.
Not all the finds relate to Roman activity, however: the earliest discoveries found by the team are five pieces of Neolithic worked flint including a delicate arrowhead, while they have also recovered a five-centime coin dropped by a visitor to the site in the late 19th century.
The excavations form part of, and will help inform, English Heritage’s major refurbishment and representation of the site and its museum, to take place over the winter as part of the Richborough: Gateway to Britannia project. The fort site is currently closed to the public during these works, but it will reopen in summer 2022.
The rise of Rutupiae
Roman Richborough began as a military supply base, supporting the imperial army in the early days of the Claudian invasion. Traces of large storehouses and granaries that would have held these provisions have been identified. This early settlement developed into a bustling port town, Rutupiae, which boasted a massive triumphal arch possibly as early as AD 85. Standing 25m tall, clad in imported Italian white marble, and adorned with sculptures and inscriptions, it represented a grand symbolic gateway into Roman Britain. By the 2nd century, the town was flourishing: its mansio (a residence for official visitors) was rebuilt in stone, and shops lined its streets. Geophysical survey and aerial photographs preserve shadows of a substantial settlement that covered at least 21ha.
Dramatic change came in the mid-3rd century, however, as the military returned to Richborough in response to a range of threats from both within and outside the Empire. A key part of the settlement was demolished – even the monumental arch was levelled – and two successive forts were built on the site, one of several defending the eastern and southern coasts. The remains of the second of these, built in the 270s or 280s, can still be seen today, with tall ragstone walls standing within the additional defence of deep twin V-shaped ditches.
ALL IMAGES: English Heritage.