The so-called ‘Colchester Vase’, decorated with gladiatorial scenes, was discovered in a cemetery off the Lexden Road in 1848. This is the subject of a report (Dalya Alberge, ‘Startling’ new evidence reveals gladiators fought in Roman Britain. The Observer (London) March 4, 2023; James Fitzgerald, ‘Gladiator fights were staged in Roman Britain, evidence suggests‘, BBC News March 6, 2023) that claims ‘Gladiator fights were once staged in Roman-occupied Britain’. Alberge notes a forthcoming ‘research paper’ by Glynn Davis of Colchester Museum and John Pearce of King’s College London. The new research presumably has as its focus a re-interpretation of the pot and its decoration.
Colchester is one of the new cities announced to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Remains of the Roman colony founded shortly after the invasion of Britain in 43 CE can still be seen including the foundations of the temple to the Divine Claudius in the foundations of the castle. Pliny the Elder, who was killed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, mentioned the oppidum of Camulodunum (Camalodunum) in his Natural History (2.187). However the abbreviated name appears on the pre-Roman coinage of Cunobelinus.
Norwich has the highest rating in the RSA Heritage Index (2020) at number 3 for England. The rankings in all seven categories are almost identical to those for 2016. The lowest score, as might be expected for an urban location, is for Landscape and Natural Heritage.
Cambridge is placed at number 9, and like Norwich does not do so well for Landscape and Natural Heritage. Like Norwich, its rankings for the different themes are very similar to those for 2016.
Southend-on-Sea, a unitary authority, is placed at number 19. Its particular strength lies in Landscape and Natural Heritage, as well as Industrial Heritage, and Museums, Archives and Artefacts. Again, note the similarity to the rankings for 2016.
Ipswich, the highest ranking authority for Suffolk, is placed at number 87 (a fall from 2016). There is an improvement in the theme of Culture and Memories, though slight falls for Parks and Open Spaces, and the General category.
Colchester in Essex is placed at number 140. It shares a museum service with Ipswich, though does not perform as well as in the theme of Museums, Archives and Artefacts. There are improvements from 2016 in the themes of Historic Built Environment, Culture and Memories, but a slight slippage for Parks and Open Spaces.
Altogether there are 11 locations in the eastern region that are placed in the top 100 for England: four in Norfolk, three for Essex (plus Southend-on-Sea), two for Suffolk, and one for Cambridgeshire.
The 2020 RSA Heritage Index is now available and Norwich is ranked as number 3 as a centre for heritage in England (up from number 9 in 2016). The city’s particular strengths are in Historic Built Environment (3rd up from 4th), Museums, Archives and Artefacts (7th up from 12th), and Culture and Memories (2nd down from 1st). There has also been a marked improvement for Parks and Open Space (28th up from 40th).
Norfolk as a county featured prominently. North Norfolk came 25th (up from 36 in 2016). Its main strengths included Historic Built Environment (33rd up from 71st), Landscape and Natural Heritage (22nd up from 27th), and Culture and Memories (75th up from 86th). There were also improvements in Museums, Archives and Artefacts (135th up from 141st) and Parks and Open Spaces (131st up from 137th).
Great Yarmouth did particularly well moving from 64th in 2016 to 38th. Its particular strengths were Industrial Heritage (22nd up from 40th), Parks and Open Spaces (56th up from 115th), and Historic Built Environment (85th up from 159th).
Kings Lynn and West Norfolk was ranked 54th (with a rise in Historic Built Environment, 39th), Breckland at 150th (with a rise in Historic Built Environment, 41st, and Museums, Archives and Artefacts, 117th), Broadland at 190th (with a strength in Landscape and Natural Heritage, 123rd), and South Norfolk at 219th (with a strength in Historic Built Environment, 63rd).
Across the region, Cambridge also featured in the top 10 at number 9 (up from 12th). Maldon moved from 40th to 37th (with moves in Historic Built Environment, 48th, and Museums, Archives and Artefacts, 125th), while Colchester remained unchanged at 140th (though with a move to 80th for Historic Built Environment). Ipswich fell from 70th in 2016 to 87th. East Suffolk was placed at 98th, and West Suffolk at 122nd.
The bronze head of the Emperor Claudius (or perhaps Nero) was found in the spring of 1907 in the River Alde at Rendham, west of Saxmundham, in Suffolk. As Jocelyn Toynbee observed: ‘The lower line of the neck is torn and ragged, and there can be little doubt but that this head was violently hacked from its body and carried off as loot from some important Roman centre’. The suggestion is that it was removed from the Roman colony at Colchester: see Janet Huskinson, CSIR GB I, 8, no. 23.
The head (‘The Saxmundham Claudius’) was purchased by the British Museum after it had been sold at Sotheby’s in 1965 (inv. 1965.12-01.1).
The collection within Colchester Castle contains one of the best presented collections of objects from Roman Britain. It is displayed in an imaginative and engaging way from the mosaics and (funerary) sculptures to the inscriptions and pottery.
In spite of this Colchester has, surprisingly, not featured as high in the list of museums for the RSA Heritage Index.
2017 marks the centenary of the first guidebooks to what can now be termed the National Heritage Collection. One of the first was written by Sir Charles Peers on St Botolph’s Priory in Colchester and now in the care of English Heritage. The guidebook was reissued as a ‘blue’ guide in 1964.
The 1917 guide include a fold-out plan of the priory inside the back cover. This was prepared by E. Dace Brown in July 1916. The guide was divided into three sections: The Augustinian Rule; History of St Botolph’s Priory; and The Priory Buildings.
The Fenwick Treasure was discovered in 2014 during excavations adjacent to the present High Street in Colchester. It appears to have been deposited in a small pit under the floor of one of the houses during the destruction of the Roman colony by Boudicca.
The treasure includes jewellery as well as coins.
The treasure is displayed in the Colchester Castle alongside other finds from the colony.
There is a reconstruction of the so-called ‘Doctor’s Grave’ in the Colchester Museum. The grave itself was excavated at Stanway. One of the features is the presence of a gaming-board with counters laid out as if the game had been interrupted by the funeral. The cremated remains of the individual were found adjacent to the board. Note the presence of the Roman amphora.
There is a new guidebook to Colchester Castle by Tom Hodgson and Philip Wise (Jarrold Publishing and Colchester Castle, 2015). This beautifully designed and colour illustrated book of 72 pp follows the history of Colchester through the collections displayed in the Colchester Museum.
The castle itself is built on the foundations of the Temple of the Divine Claudius destroyed during the Boudican revolt.
The main sections are:
a. Iron Age (including the Sheepen Cauldron dating to 1275-1140 BC; the Mount Bures Firedog; the Augustus Medallion from the Lexden Tumulus)
b. Roman Invasion (including tombstones of veterans from the colony; the Fenwick Treasure perhaps deposited during the Boudican destruction)
c. Roman Heyday (including slave rings; ‘the Colchester Vase’ showing gladiatorial combat, dating to AD 175-200; lead curse tablets; the Colchester Sphinx excavated on the site of the Essex County Hospital in 1821)
d. Roman Decline (including Christianity in Roman Colchester; jet bear)
e. Saxons and Normans (including St Botolph’s Priory; the Town Charter)
f. Medieval (including Medieval painting)
g. Post Medieval (including the Colchester Martyrs; the Siege of Colchester in the Civil War)
h. Modern (including the formation of the museum collection; Colchester Castle in wartime including an exhibition in 1944)
Inside the back cover is a plan of Colchester pointing visitors to key locations around the town.
I have two other guides to the collection: Colchester Castle: a history, description and guide (Colchester Borough council, 4th edition, 1978). This includes plans of the castle and a more detailed history. There is also a section drawing showing how the castle included the Roman temple in its foundations.
The second guide is Roman Colchester by M.R. Hull (Colchester Town Council, 1947). This was prepared ‘in response to a great demand among visitors to Colchester Museum for a Guide to Roman Colchester’. The sections are:
1. Colchester before the Romans
2. The beginnings of Roman Colchester
3. The colonia
5. The visible remains of the Roman town
6. Civic organisation and administration
7. The Middle Empire
8. The legend of King Coel
9. The end of Roman Colchester
There is a particularly useful foldout paper plan inside the back cover.
One of the earliest guides is Dr J. Horace Round’s The History and Antiquities of Colchester Castle (1882).