ROMAN CANTERBURY
(Durovernum Cantiacorum - the enclosed settlement
of the Cantiaci by the alder swamp)
 

Canterburycity centre plan after Detsicas1

Canterbury plan overlaid on aerial image2

Aerial view of central Canterbury3

Plan of Roman Canterbury after Detsicas4

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Origins

First mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary (a kind of early road map) from the late 2nd Century, Durovernum Cantiacorum was the civitas capital of Romanised Kent. It is generally believed the first late Iron Age Belgic settlement was founded here shortly after Caesar's invasion of 55BC; with the locals routed by Caesar it appears that the oppidum on nearby Bigberry Hill was largely abandoned as its inhabitants moved to the site of present day Canterbury. Because Canterbury has been in continuous occupation since Roman times archaeology has been rather difficult and opportunities to dig are prized. From the evidence so far gleaned a map has been built up, albeit sparse, of Roman Canterbury. Click either of the images 1 & 4 here. [These maps are from Detsicas ca.1983.]

The Buildings

Archaeology has turned up not only Belgic ceramics as might be expected but also finds from the Claudian era. This indicates that the settlement was quite quickly developed by the Romans after Claudius' landings in AD43. The Roman bridgehead at Richborough would have been the main military base with supplies coming into Canterbury by road from Richborough at Burgate and more probably the River Stour at Fordwich (then North Gate) or even Canterbury if it reached the town. [Whether the river was navigable right up to the West Gate given that the area was described as an 'alder swamp' I don't know for I read somewhere that there was a Roman port at Sturry; one can speculate there may have been a wharf of some sort between the north and west gates since this is the most likely place for one.]

So, looking at the plan of Canterbury after Detsicas '83 above we can see the regular, or not so regular, 'squarish' grid of the Roman town with 8 or 10 buildings, a couple of drains and a theatre of some sort. There is no evidence for an enormous military camp or fort (no real finds). Lack of lots of evidence of habitation means no real idea of how the town was except that the remains of a Belgic hut have been found indicating that it was still standing in AD60. A gradual demolition of Belgic structures being replaced by Roman ones is assumed. A theatre and baths have been found but not the exact position of the forum or basilica though these must have existed in the civitas. The theatre and associated buildings would have been built in Flavian times Agricola 21 funded by either the local tribal Úlite, Romans or, my personal guess, Gaullish merchants. The mediaeval wall copied the route of the Roman town boundary wall from the 3rd century (see image 2, overlay) so the gates are still visible but little of the insulae within the town have been found.


Canterbury - Tutor Led Site Visit

The Quenin Gate

Quenin Gate Photo & Diagram (after Marian Day?)On our last day of 2004 we took a trip around Canterbury with tutor Jake Weekes to look for ourselves at some of the evidence of the Romans in Kent. There is very little for the casual visitor to see in Canterbury. First stop was our meeting place - Quenin Gate. A look at the image on the right is self-explanatory - the closed entrance of Quenin Gate in the mediaeval wall of Canterbury. The gate is made of Kent Greensand and Ragstone blocks (from a nearby site) supporting a red brick arch; it may just have been a postern gate but is wide enough to accommodate a wagon at just under 3m. wide, but no noticeable road is associated with it.

The Theatre

Artist's impression of the town in AD300 We walked on to the site of the Roman theatre, nothing can be seen here on the surface in the area of present day Watling Street (different from the Roman street) and St. Margaret's Street but there was a simple theatre of sorts started here in Flavian times (AD69-96); it was probably an oval shaped gravel bank with wooden seating on top. [Vespasian started the building of the Colosseum around AD80 so it seems to me there may have been those entertainments like gladiatorial combat and wild beast fights taking place at that time here too.] From the substantial flint and tile foundations and opus signinum floors discovered, the theatre was redeveloped at least once into a much larger edifice so that by the beginning of the 3rd. century it had a massive superstructure four storeys high and was now semi-circular with a diameter of some 70m., a truly impressive building for plays, performances and religious ritual showing off the town's munificence. Parts of it can apparently be seen in the cellar of the Slatters Hotel in St Margaret's Street.

The Temple Precinct

No Roman town would be complete with a temple and its precinct, it was usually sited opposite the theatre. Evidence from other theatre sites suggests there would have been a view from the auditorium straight through the skene into the temple precinct. The precinct would be expected to be surrounded by a portico and be associated with a temple and a fountain, shrines and statues (remember the Romans fleeing to the temple in the destruction of Camulodunum and massacre of its residents?). Excavations over the years have indeed revealed large tracts of resurfaced gravelled surface; fragments of a Corinthian column, fluted drums and hundreds of pieces of Italian marble veneers put the temple plaza right here.

The Basilica & Forum

Later version of Roman Canterbury map ca.2000 (1MB)The Basilica and Forum have not been located precisely as yet although it looks like it may have been in the area of the nearby High Street, White Horse Lane and Guildhall Street beneath the County Hotel and Fleur de Lys Hotel; and why not, why shouldn't the market place be in the same place as the modern High Street is today? The artist's work above has it next to the temple complex on the top right hand side of the image. See later plan here on the right.

The Public Baths

Waterstones' bookshop basement - pilae tiles - public bathsBathing was essential to Roman culture and a trip to Waterstone's Bookshop basement in St. Margaret's Street to look for concrete evidence, excuse the pun, was called for. Here are the visible remains of a 2nd century bath complex: there is evidence of the usual furnace (praefurnium), caldarium, tepidarium and frigidarium with a cold plunge pool. There may also have been a very hot dry room (laconicum) and a palaestra (exercise yard) under the church of St. Margaret, even a swimming pool as well. My image here shows what can be seen from the basement, behind glass, of the hypocaust system. Above the pilae is an artist's impression of Roman Canterbury showing the position of the baths in the bottom left of the image.

Artist's impression of public baths in Canterbury (& flash flare)The well preserved red pilae tiles would have supported a floor of opus signinum over large flat tiles. Found in situ were pieces of flue tile, wood ash and voussoir tiles these indicating the baths had a barrel vaulted roof. Painted plaster pieces and marble veneers found suggest a lavishly decorated bath complex.

Town Housing

From the plan (above right) it looks like Roman Canterbury had all the public spaces one might expect from a civitas: a theatre, basilica, forum, temple & baths and a square gird road system, or did it - for some reason not all the roads are at right angles. Most are and the insulae were probably in-filled with town houses. A transformation must have taken place in the 1st. century: circular houses with thatched roofs with wattle and daub or clay walls being replaced with rectangular timber framed dwelling and later, masonry houses of flint and mortar or ragstone and greenstone blocks all roofed with imbrices and tegulae tiles.

Last stop on our walk then was the Roman Museum. The foundations of several town houses have been found in Canterbury they are of the 'winged corridor' type and the most well known is that underneath the Canterbury Museum in Butchery Lane. The building, dating from the 1st century, was built of masonry and has been altered and reconstructed over time and in its last manifestation had a hypocaust system, tessellated floors and extant mosaics. I have tried to photograph the undulating floor of the house, my less than successful images are below, the mosaics are scanned postcard views. (Tesserae: black = Dolomitic limestone, red & yellow = pottery, white = marble.) The museum has excellent displays of all sorts of finds showing all aspects of Roman life.
 


Roman Museum - Longmarket House

Longmarket town house beneath museum - hypercaust

Longmarket town house beneath museum - flower and leaf & guilloche

Longmarket town house beneath museum - floor

Longmarket town house beneath museum - flower & guilloche

Longmarket town house beneath museum - mosaic

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