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Roman Circus 200m south of Abbey House

A Scheduled Monument in New Town and Christ Church, Essex

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Latitude: 51.8836 / 51°53'1"N

Longitude: 0.899 / 0°53'56"E

OS Eastings: 599616.054443

OS Northings: 224533.943703

OS Grid: TL996245

Mapcode National: GBR SN5.S4D

Mapcode Global: VHKFZ.JXMD

Entry Name: Roman Circus 200m south of Abbey House

Scheduled Date: 13 November 2007

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1021426

English Heritage Legacy ID: 35614

County: Essex

Electoral Ward/Division: New Town and Christ Church

Built-Up Area: Colchester

Traditional County: Essex

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Essex

Church of England Parish: Colchester St Botolph with Holy Trinity (LEP)

Church of England Diocese: Chelmsford


The monument includes the buried remains of a Roman circus or chariot racing
track and a section of the precinct wall relating to the Benedictine Abbey of
Saint John. The monument is orientated east to west and is situated to the
south of Colchester town centre on the crest of a prominent ridge.

The classic Roman circus is an elongated oval track flanked by cavea (tiers
of seating) along two sides and around the curved end. A low barrier known as
a spina runs down the centre to prevent collisions. Turning posts known as
metae were placed at either end of the spina and at the open, non curved, end
was a row of starting bays known as the carceras. Circuses were used
originally for chariot racing and boxing but athletics and wrestling also
became popular.

The Colchester circus is orientated east to west and measures 448.2 meters in
length and between 71.1 and 74.2 meters in width. The area of protection also
includes a ten metre buffer zone around the circus which is considered
necessary for the support and preservation of the monument.

Three area excavations and a number of evaluation trenches have been
investigated and all contribute to our understanding of the form and fabric
of the circus. Most recent excavations (2007) by the Colchester
Archaeological Trust have exposed a section of the spina at the junction
between Napier Road and Circular Road North. All the evidence helps to
illustrate and confirm the archaeological potential of the monument. It has
been calculated that the circus had a seating capacity of around 8,000 -
15,000. The starting gates are thought to have been situated at the western
end of the structure with the semi circular end to the east. The stand or
cavea at Colchester varied between 5.8m and 6.0m in total width. It was built
of earth but was retained by stone or timber walls, a similar method of
construction to that found in theatres and amphitheatres in Britain and
elsewhere. At Colchester it is thought the inner cavea was built of stone.
The large exterior buttresses with parallel, less substantial walls 5m inside
imply the outer cavea wall was of stone and has been estimated to be at least
2m in height. These may have supported blind arcading enhanced with pilasters
much like examples on the continent. Finds from robber trenches certainly
confirm the presence of Romanised decorative architecture such as tile
coursing, opus signinum facing mortar (fine Roman concrete), and a piece each
of column and incised marble facing (possibly Purbeck). The stone used in the
foundations of the cavea is greensand which is rare elsewhere in Colchester
probably because it had to be bought in from Kent. On the whole dating
evidence from the circus is limited but based on the dated contexts of the
stone elsewhere in the area the use of Kent greensand implies it was built in
the second century AD. The sheer scale of the building was so great that it
is believed that the emperor must have paid for its construction. Hadrian's
visit to Britain in AD122 is associated with a revival of public buildings in
towns and it is thought that he may have been responsible for the
construction of the circus at Colchester. A number of glass and pottery finds
discovered in Colchester in the past depict images of chariot races. Given
the discovery of the circus it is now thought that some of these may be
souvenirs of actual events. New finds associated with the sport include a
piece of horse furniture which was recovered from the robber trench of the
inner wall. A coin from a grave dated to the early first century AD features
a four horse chariot and rider and is a rare find in Britain. A silver coin
found in a rare hoard dated to between 150BC and AD117 also depicts a four
horse chariot. It is unclear when the circus came out of use but analysis
suggests the circus was probably levelled in the late Roman period, whilst
the footings were subsequently robbed in the medieval period.

Early medieval pottery from a trench dug to extract building material
suggests that some material may have been dismantled and used in the abbey
construction. The abbey precinct wall exhibits some odd bends in the south
west corner and implies that its alignment may have been, at least in part,
determined by elements of the surviving circus. A section of the precinct
wall lies approximately 60m west from the eastern end of the monument. It
stands to almost 2.5m high and although there is evidence of dressed facing
stone it survives mainly as a randomly coursed stone core. This section of
walling is included in the scheduling.

Excavation also confirmed that the circus was surrounded by a contemporary
cemetery. A total of 516 burials have been excavated and recorded. The known
areas of the cemetery have been fully excavated and preserved by record and
are not therefore included in the scheduling.

All buildings, with the exception of the upstanding precinct wall are
excluded from the scheduling as are all road and path surfaces, fences,
signage and tennis courts. However, the ground beneath all these features is

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 10 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The Colchester Roman Circus is a unique archaeological monument in Britain.
It is the only place in the country where there is excavated and convincing
evidence for a circus and is one of only six locations in the north west
provinces of the Roman empire where circuses have been securely identified.
The area excavations and numerous trenches investigated highlight the
archaeological potential of the site and the scope for improving the
knowledge and understanding of such buildings not only nationally but in an
international context. The Roman circus must be considered in conjunction
with other monumental buildings or structures surviving from Roman
Colchester. It provides further evidence of the importance of Colchester as
one of the principle urban centres of Roman Britain.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Crummy, P, 'Journal of Roman Archaeology' in The circus at Colchester, , Vol. 18, (2005), 267-277
Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeologist' in Circus Revealed, , Vol. 19, (2006), 2-8
Masefield, R, 'British Archaeology' in When the Circus came to Colchester, , Vol. 81, (2005), 14-15
Colchester Borough Council, Colchester Roman Circus management plan, 2006, JUNE

Source: Historic England

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