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Lexden Dyke Middle: part of the Iron Age territorial oppidum and Romano-British town of Camulodunum

A Scheduled Monument in Prettygate, Essex

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Latitude: 51.8841 / 51°53'2"N

Longitude: 0.8679 / 0°52'4"E

OS Eastings: 597470.2275

OS Northings: 224508.1256

OS Grid: TL974245

Mapcode National: GBR RLS.XXQ

Mapcode Global: VHKFZ.0W5Z

Entry Name: Lexden Dyke Middle: part of the Iron Age territorial oppidum and Romano-British town of Camulodunum

Scheduled Date: 10 August 1923

Last Amended: 2 September 2002

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1019966

English Heritage Legacy ID: 29463

County: Essex

Electoral Ward/Division: Prettygate

Built-Up Area: Colchester

Traditional County: Essex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Essex

Church of England Parish: Lexden St Leonard

Church of England Diocese: Chelmsford


The monument includes the visible and buried remains of the central section of
a late Iron Age linear boundary earthwork known as Lexden Dyke Middle, which
is located to the south of Lexden Road, some 2km east of Colchester town

Lexden Dyke Middle covers a total distance of about 1km, extending southwards
along the eastern side of Lexden Park for approximately 400m, before
turning to the SSE and continuing through Bluebottle Grove to the rear of
Magazine Farm Way. At the northern end the dyke follows the upper scarp
along the eastern side of a natural valley which runs north to south
through Lexden Park and the adjacent gardens of properties to the east.
The bank is largely absent for the first 200m length to the south of
Lexden Road, although excavations in 1932 revealed the surviving base of
this earthwork and demonstrated that the original construction was
probably slighted shortly after the Roman conquest. The natural scarp to
the west was also shown to have been enhanced by increasing the severity
of the slope and creating a counterscarp ditch (now largely infilled) at
the base. Part of the dyke was found to have overlain a child's cremation
buried in a shallow pit. This may reflect a ritual associated with the
raising of the bank, or simply a matter of coincidence - the grave being
an outlying component of an extensive Iron Age burial area known to exist
on the eastern side of the dyke.

A narrow break in the dyke at the southern end of this slighted section was
shown in 1932 to have been an original entranceway. To the south of this point
the bank rises to a height of 3m and continues, measuring up to 21m in width
and accompanied by a substantial western ditch, towards the south eastern
corner of Lexden Park. A trench cut across the full width of the dyke in 1932
found the bank to be composed principally of gravel, supported on the west
side by stacked turf which had been stripped from the original ground surface
prior to construction. Evidence was also found for a timber revetment along
the western face of the bank and for a retaining fence following the tail of
the bank to the east. The ditch, measuring 13.4m across and 4.3m deep, was
originally cut to a V-shaped profile, with a further narrow gulley incised
along the base.

The bank has been levelled at the south eastern corner of the park, and
the ditch infilled leaving no visible trace. The course of the buried
ditch can, however, be determined from its reappearance on the south side
of the footpath which separates Lexden Park from Bluebottle Grove, and
the intervening section (through the garden of No 30 St Clare Road) is
included in the scheduling.

The dyke continues for a further 420m through Bluebottle Grove, a narrow
wooded corridor between Magazine Farm Way and the grounds of the Philip Morant
Secondary School. This section is in the care of the Secretary of State. The
bank survives beneath a footpath on the eastern side of the ditch, maintaining
a width of about 19m which extends, as a slight rise, into the adjacent school
sports field. The partly infilled ditch has a rounded base and measures some
14m across and 2.5m deep, although limited excavation in 1987 revealed an
original V-shaped profile descending to 4.1m, with evidence of secondary work
to steepen the lower portion. The bank, also examined in 1987, proved to
survive to a height of 1.4m beneath the modern footpath. Evidence for
revetment was not found, since the relationship between the bank and the
ditch had been damaged during World War II, when the Bluebottle Grove
section was adapted to form a tank trap. During this work, in 1943, the local
archaeologist A F Hall noted that the southern end of the dyke converged and
overlay the ditch of an earlier dyke (Heath Farm Dyke) which is now known to
extend around the Iron Age settlement at Gosbecks to the south. A third
boundary, known as the Prettygate Dyke, also converged at the southern end of
Bluebottle Grove. This dyke (together with the Straight Road or Triple Dyke)
formed part of an enhanced pattern of western defences created shortly
before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Following the Romans' successful
attack on the Colchester oppidum, these two dykes appear to have been
modified to defend a temporary encampment based around the Lexden
Springs, with the Lexden Dyke itself serving as the eastern boundary.
Prettygate Dyke and the section of Heath Farm Dyke approaching Bluebottle
Grove have been overlain by modern developments and are not included in
the scheduling. The Straight Road/Triple Dyke is the subject of a
separate scheduling.

Artifacts recovered during the 1932 excavations indicate that Lexden Dyke was
constructed in the final years of the first century BC. A southerly extension
to the dyke (Lexden Dyke South) has been traced by excavation, although
its full extent is not known. This is now overlain by housing and is not
included in the scheduling. To the north, the dyke continues beyond the
break formed (since Roman times) by Lexden Road and leads towards the
River Colne. This section, known as Lexden Dyke North, is scheduled as a
separate monument. On the far bank of the river a similarly aligned dyke
(the Moat Farm Dyke) extends in a north easterly direction for 1.5km.

The Lexden and Moat Farm Dykes are believed to represent a single boundary,
which was originally broken only by the River Colne and its flanking marshes.
It is thought to be the third boundary constructed during the development of
the oppidum of Camulodunum, added to the north of Heath Farm Dyke to provide a
single barrier between the Roman River and the Colne, thus securing the
western approaches to the intervening spur. In particular, the Lexden Dyke is
considered to have provided a single barrier integrating the defences at two
distinct settlement areas, one at Gosbecks to the south west of modern
Colchester, the other to the north west at Sheepen.

The modern surfaces of footpaths and all fences and fence posts are excluded
from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The Latin term `oppidum' usually refers to a town, although in the context
of the Roman invasions of Britain, its use in the writings of Julius
Caesar and Suetonius encompassed a wider range of fortified settlements
and native strongholds. In archaeological terminology `territorial oppida'
is used to describe a settlement phenomenon of the later Iron Age - areas
of farmsteads, field systems and nucleated settlements of various kinds
covering wide areas bounded by substantial earthworks. Such sites are
considered to have been tribal capitals or focal places for communities
between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD, serving as centres of
trade, manufacture and social prominence. Only a handful of sites in
England have been identified under this term (principally Colchester,
Bagendon, Silchester, St Albans, Chichester, Grims Ditch and Stanwick),
all of which lie in southern, central and western parts of the country.
They all share the common characteristic of boundaries defined by massive
linear banks and ditches, sometimes intermittent and positioned to include
natural barriers such as rivers and marshes. The enclosed areas vary from
between 30 sq km and 90 sq km, some marked out by curvilinear boundaries,
others by more rectilinear patterns. Activities within the enclosed areas
may vary considerably and, given that Iron Age society in southern England
was not homogeneous, there is no reason to suppose that all territorial
oppida exhibited the same status or served identical purposes. In addition
to farmsteads, areas of nucleated settlement and related field systems,
other known features of the enclosures include storage pits and wells,
areas set aside for burials (sometimes extremely elaborate), temple
complexes and areas of pottery manufacture, metal working and the minting
of coins. Some, particularly those positioned in coastal or estuarine
locations, provide evidence of widespread trade in the form of imported
goods, notably Gallo-Belgic pottery, from the continental mainland and the
western Roman Empire.
Territorial oppida reflect the development of complex social organisation and
increased permanence of settlement in the late Iron Age. They also provide
some of the most valuable evidence for the impact of Roman conquest and
government on native society. Given the rarity of this settlement form and its
importance for our understanding of the period, all territorial oppida are
viewed as being of national, if not international importance, and all
surviving elements are considered worthy of protection.

The territorial oppidum surrounding Colchester (`Camulodunum' in antiquity)
encompassed an area of about 25 sq km mainly located between the
converging courses of the River Colne and the Roman River to the west of
the Colne estuary. In addition to the rivers, the settlement was defined and
protected by the largest group of linear earthworks of the period in Britain.
These developed over a period of about one hundred years from the foundation
of the settlement in the early first century BC and mostly take the form of
large V-shaped ditches with banks constructed from upcast on the sides facing
the settled area. The dykes may have been made still more formidable by the
addition of timber palisades and gateways, and they have been interpreted as
an expression of the settlement's status, as a means to control and protect
grazing stock and as an effective defence against chariots - one of the
principal features of later Iron Age warfare. If placed end to end the dykes
would extend over a total distance of about 25km. Some 6km now survive as
extant earthworks, and many other sections are known to survive as buried

The interior of the oppidum is thought to have been largely agricultural - a
mixture of enclosed fields, pasture and woodland - with small occupation sites
scattered throughout and two particularly large and complex areas of activity
located to the west and to the north. At Gosbecks, to the west, an extensive
farmstead has been identified. This has been associated with Cunobelin (one of
the most famous British kings prior to the Roman conquest) and interpreted
as a centre of political authority and religious practice. Further north, at
Sheepen, excavations in the 1930s and 1970 revealed widespread evidence of
industrial processes, the minting of coins and continental trade. Associated
with the settlement sites are burial grounds, the most prominent of which are
the Lexden Tumulus, Lexden Mount, a group of excavated burial enclosures at
Stanway (beyond the western dykes) and a similar (unexcavated) enclosure at
Gosbecks. These sites reflect the beliefs and complex burial rituals afforded
to the society's elite; a large number of less elaborate burials have been
discovered across the oppidum.

The rulers and occupants may have fluctuated according to the relative
fortunes of two rival tribal polities - the Trinovantes centred on modern
Essex and the Catuvellauni based in modern Hertfordshire. An alternative
suggestion is that the oppidum served as a Catuvellaunian colony within
Trinovantian territory, maintained through political agreements or the warlike
ascendancy of the former in order to provide this otherwise landlocked tribe
with access to coastal trade. In either case, the oppidum was clearly of
central importance to the region in AD 43 when it formed the primary military
objective for the invading Roman army. After the collapse of local resistance,
the Emperor Claudius personally led his victorious forces into the oppidum -
which was subsequently reorganised to provide a centre of provincial
government and bridgehead for the further conquest of Britain. A small Roman
fort was constructed within the Gosbecks complex, and a larger legionary
fortress was established on the hill to the east (now the centre of modern
Colchester). As the focus of military activity shifted towards the north and
west of Britain the fortress was redesignated as a `colonia', a chartered town
for a colony of retired soldiers. `Colonia Victricensis' (City of Victory) was
the first Roman town established in Britain and thus the earliest truly urban
settlement in the country. The burgeoning town was destroyed in AD 60-61 - the
first major casualty of the tribal revolt led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni.
In the aftermath of the revolt the town was rebuilt with a protective wall
(based on the perimeter of the earlier fortress), and with the return of order
the colonia developed in a manner apparently calculated to integrate the old
and new social orders. Native settlement and burial practices continued within
the territorial oppidum (now probably a `civitas' or self governing town)
which was protected with additional dykes. A temple and a theatre were
constructed at the Gosbecks site, and the Sheepen industrial zone was
maintained, enlarged and extended to include a further religious complex.

The collapse of Roman government in the early fifth century signalled the end
of Colonia Victricensis. Medieval Colchester emerged within the walls of the
former Roman town leaving the greater part of the extended settlement and
oppidum to disappear beneath its rural hinterland. As a consequence the
archaeological remains in this area are remarkable for the lack of later
disturbance and present a unique opportunity for the study of the Iron Age and
Roman past.

Lexden Dyke Middle, and particularly the section alongside Lexden Park, is
recognised as the best surviving example amongst the linear earthworks which
defined the perimeter of the Iron Age settlement. The surviving bank and the
attendant ditch have been shown to contain valuable archaeological evidence
for the date and manner of its construction and the period of partial
demolition following the Roman conquest. In addition this section can be
expected to retain environmental evidence which may survive beneath the bank
and in the lower fills of the ditch, illustrating the appearance of the
landscape in which the dyke was set.

Lexden Dyke forms the westernmost boundary of the late Iron Age territorial
oppidum, later superseded by an enlarged system of boundaries constructed to
define and defend the Roman colony and Romano-British civitas. It therefore
forms part of the archaeological evidence for the development of one of the
earliest `proto-urban' settlements in Britain and for its translation into
Britain's first true town in the years following the Roman conquest.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 154-58
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 48-50
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995)
Radford, D and Gascoigne, A, The Colchester Iron Age Dykes: Archaeological summary, 1997, Colchester Museums Internal Report

Source: Historic England

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