Remains of monumental Roman arcade discovered in Colchester

The remains of a monumental Roman column arcade 120 meters (394 feet) long have been unearthed in the old town center of Colchester in Essex, England. The Colchester Archaeological Trust has been excavating the site on 97 High Street in advance of construction of a new apartment building. The site was known to be inside the precinct of the ancient Roman Temple of the Deified Claudius and small finds have been made in the area over the past 60 years, but because there was an office building on the spot a thorough excavation was not possible. When the offices were demolished to make way for the new block of flats, archaeologists were able to fully explore the site and realized for the first time just how massive a structure the arcade was.

Colchester is the oldest recorded Roman town in Britain. The Romans built a legionary fortress there after the conquest of Britain in 43 A.D., and six years later the town was renamed Camulodunum and founded as a veteran colony. It was the first capital of Britannia province. Public buildings — a theater, the town council house, a forum — were constructed befitting the new capital. A large temple completed after the death of emperor Claudius in 54 A.D. was dedicated to him as the Temple of the Deified Claudius. It was the largest classical temple built in Britain and the only one in the province known to have been dedicated to Claudius.

The city was destroyed in the Boudiccan revolt of 61 A.D. The residents fled to the safety of the temple whose cella (inner chamber) had thick, windowless walls and massive bronze doors. Boudicca’s Iceni warriors besieged the temple for two days before storming it and putting it to the torch along with the rest of the town. Camulodunum was rebuilt after the revolt was suppressed. New city walls were built between 65 and 80 A.D., and around the same time the temple was rebuilt within an even grander temple precinct. Later additions expanded the temple and precinct. At its peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Temple of the Deified Claudius had a massive monumental arch in the center flanked by an arcade of 14 columns on each side. The vast scale of the temple and precinct was unique in Britain.

Phillip Crummy, the [Colchester Archaeological Trust]’s director told The Telegraph: “This arcade is the largest of its kind in Britain. Its closest rival in terms of size stands in what was Gaul, in northern France, and shares some of the architecture we can see in Colchester today – but that is only around 70-metres long.

“The original arcade and its grand columns are similar to those you see in Bath, at the Roman Baths. It really is an extraordinary find and confirms the grandeur and richness of its Roman culture.”

Large sections of the temple were intact through the Saxon period when it became known as King Coel’s Palace. By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the “palace” was in ruins, but the Normans used the base of the temple as the foundation for Colchester Castle, now a museum. The temple podium is still visible in the vaults underneath the castle.

Remains of the monumental central archway were first discovered in 1931. Subsequent investigations in 1953 and 1964 unearthed more of the arcade, but the remains were reburied. It wasn’t until a 2013 evaluation of the site that a large section of the massive foundations of the arcade was discovered. On June 12th, 2014, the archaeological team surveying 97 High Street found a collapsed brick and stone pier from the monumental arcade. Made of alternating layers of brick and stone, the column was found inside the Norman-era layer. It’s evidence that at least part of the colonnade was still standing when the Normans arrived. Archaeologists believe the Normans stripped the prized marble facing stones of the arcade to use in the construction of the castle and then toppled what was left of the column.

Flying Trade Group, the developers who are constructing the new apartments on the site, plan to preserve the foundations and columns of the arcade in the ground floor of the building. They will install a café with glass panels in the floor that reveal the ancient remains. The café/archaeological park will raise money for local and international charities including World Food Aid.

If you’re anywhere near Colchester on Saturday, February 13th, you can surprise your history nerd sweetheart with a romantic early Valentine’s Day outing to the Claudius Temple arcade excavation. From 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM, visitors are welcome to view the site. All 13 meters (43 feet) of the arcade’s foundations will be visible with special labels, lighting and projected digital reconstructions installed just for the day.