Only Roman circus in the UK at risk

Colchester Roman circus excavationFive years ago excavations in the UK city of Colchester uncovered what archaeologists at first thought was an oddly wide road, but then quickly realized was actually a 2nd century A.D. chariot racing circus. This was a major discovery. Not only is it the only Roman circus ever found in the UK, but it’s the only one north of the Alps.

Nothing remains above ground except stones taken for later building, but for almost 2,000 years the 350m outline has remained remarkably intact, under fields and 19th-century army land. The stable blocks that held up to 2,500 horses for a day’s racing may lie under derelict Victorian cavalry stables and barracks. […]

Since then CAT has traced long stretches of the perimeter, which had banked seats holding up to 15,000 people. In the central reservation they found bases of start and finish posts, and water pipes proving the circus was grand enough to have the elaborate fountain lap markers shown in Roman mosaics.

They also found scraps of beautifully decorated carriage harness right up against the wall – evidence of an F1 style crash when a driver lost control of his team and spun off into the barrier.

The remains were reburied for their protection. Unfortunately, they are located underneath said Victorian army barracks, gardens and public roads, so unless the community can raise £200,000 ($312,000) by the end of February to buy the Victorian garden site from developers, the circus will remain underground and be built upon.

Plan for circus site, with visitor's center in grey at the bottomThen they have to come up with another £550,000 ($860,000) to buy the barracks building itself. They tried to get a million pound grant from Heritage Lottery Foundation, but despite the international importance and rarity of the site, the bid was refused. It was just too high a price, ultimately. The HLF could fund tons of smaller projects for that money.

If they are able to buy the site, the next step will be to build a vistor center on the grounds of the barracks, right next to the starting gates of the circus. The boundaries and divider of the track will then be built up into knolls so the entire area can be walked and people can get a sense of the size of the structure, which in its heyday accommodated 15,000 fans.

Go to the Save Colchester’s Roman Circus blog for more news about the fundraising appeal and to donate to the cause.

9 thoughts on “Only Roman circus in the UK at risk

  1. Excuse me, but I don’t think this is the only one situated north of the Alps. I am not an expert of the theme, but I am sure, there are some, for example in Pannonia.

    1. There is a circus in Sirmium, in Roman Pannonia now Serbia, but it’s south of the Alps. Almost the entire province of Pannonia is southeast of the Alps, except for a wee tip of it which is right about parallel with them.

      1. Yes. An amphitheater is a circular or elliptical structure used for gladiatorial games, military reenactments, sports of various kinds. A circus is a long, u-shaped structure used for chariot racing.

  2. It sad to see that even in a case of cultural heritage everything still starts and ends with money. I wish they manage to raise the amount necesary to preserve this site.

    You said: “Not only is it the only Roman circus ever found in the UK, but it’s the only one north of the Alps.” – do you maybe have any information how rare this circuses were if this is the only one found north of the Alps. There were probably more than just this one – north of the Alps I mean.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. I don’t have an information on how many might have existed north of the Alps and simply not been found. If Colchester’s could be completely forgotten for 1500 years, then any number of others could have been as well. I’m not sure there’s any way to tell which unknown circuses might have survived.

      Thank you kindly. Same to you. :hattip:

      1. Yup. You are absolutely right. If you just think about it, if a structure as big as this circus was undiscovered for 15 hundred years, we can only imagine how many of the smaller ones could be still out there.

  3. Having been to Sremska Mitrovica a dozen times, I have a feeling that not all of “Sirmium” has been excavated, and that there are probably more houses, streets, amphitheatres and probably a large circus yet to be uncovered!

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