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


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1019960

Date first listed: 10-Aug-1923

Date of most recent amendment: 02-Sep-2002


Ordnance survey map of Gryme's Dyke Middle: part of the Iron Age territorial oppidum and Romano-British town of Camulodunum
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Essex

District: Colchester (District Authority)

County: Essex

District: Colchester (District Authority)

Parish: Stanway

National Grid Reference: TL 96155 24267


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

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 features.

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 three most prominent of which are the Lexden Tumulus, 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.

Gryme's Dyke Middle is one of the best surviving examples amongst the linear earthworks which defined the perimeter of the settlement. The bank is a substantial and impressive earthwork which will contain further evidence for the date and manner of its construction and use. Furthermore the ground surface sealed beneath the bank at the time of its construction has been shown to retain evidence of pre-existing settlement activity related to the oppidum to the east. The line of the attendant ditch survives well as a buried feature. The lower fills of the ditch are unlikely to have been disturbed and will similarly contain valuable archaeological evidence for the date of its construction and the period over which it was maintained. The silts may also contain environmental evidence illustrating the appearance of the landscape in which the dyke was set.

Together with its continuations to the north and south, Gryme's Dyke Middle forms the westernmost boundary in a system of some 12 dykes constructed to define and defend the territorial oppidum of Camulodunum and the later Roman colony. 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.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


The monument includes the buried and upstanding remains of the middle part of a late Iron Age or Romano-British linear boundary earthwork (Gryme's Dyke) located some 3.5km WSW of Colchester town centre.

The section of dyke extends over a distance of about 1.7km, following a NNW-SSE alignment southward from London Road towards the rear of Ladell Close (east of Stanway Green). This route, which also serves as part of the boundary of the Borough of Colchester, formerly ran through open countryside. It now provides a wooded corridor and pedestrian access separating modern housing estates and industrial areas.

The bank (or rampart) at the northern end of Gryme's Dyke Middle has been destroyed by gravel quarries which have since been levelled to form the northern part of the Lexden King George Playing Field. The ditch, however, which lay to the west of the bank, is thought to survive as a buried feature alongside the playing field, beneath Council Road and the unsurfaced track which forms its continuation to the south. The bank is encountered alongside this track some 320m south of London Road and remains visible (with minor interruptions) to the southern recorded end of the dyke, averaging 12m wide and 2m high. A section excavated through the bank to the south of Dugard Avenue in 1977 revealed its construction to be of sand and gravel with some evidence of revetment to prevent material from collapsing into the ditch.

Fragments of pottery and a copied coin of the Emperor Claudius allow the bank to be tentatively dated to the period AD 40-75, perhaps constructed on the eve of the Roman conquest (AD 43), but more probably later and possibly as late as the aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt (AD 60-61). The bank overlay a buried soil horizon cut by earlier features which included one possible post hole. These contained pottery fragments dating from the period AD 5-25, indicating a still earlier phase of occupation.

The ditch remains buried over the entire length of the dyke section, possibly due to the accumulation of silts and a final act of levelling with material taken from the top of the bank around the time of the 1821 Lexden Enclosure Act. Excavations to the south of Dugard Avenue in 1978 found the ditch to measure some 8m in width; its depth is estimated at 3m.

The line of the bank is broken by a footpath cut through to the south of Dugard Avenue (the site of the 1977 excavations), a footpath between Stanway Green and Pilborough Way, which crosses the dyke 100m north of the southern terminal, and by the modern carriageway of Peartree Road/Dugard Avenue some 350m further north. Although the bank has been levelled in each case, the buried ditch is thought to survive and is included in the sched centre of the dyke section (at the north western corner of Oaklands Avenue) both the bank and the original ditch are absent over a distance of about 18m. Between 1946 and 1948 excavations demonstrated that this was an original entrance through the dyke, complete with a timber gateway. It was subsequently adopted for the route of a Roman road, although use of this road was curtailed at a later stage when the dyke ditch was joined by cutting through the gravelled carriageway. This area retains valuable evidence for the function and development of the dyke and is included in the scheduling.

Gryme's Dyke Middle is part of the westernmost boundary of the territorial oppidum and Roman town of Camulodunum. In total, together with visible and recorded sections to the north of the London Road and south of Stanway Green, (those at Stanway Green form the subject of a separate scheduling), the boundary extended over a distance of approximately 5km between the River Colne to the north and the Roman River to the south. The boundary is thought to have been constructed in several phases.

Current theories maintain that the middle and northern parts of the dyke were constructed in the years immediately after the Roman invasion of AD 43 in order to consolidate the western perimeter of the settlements and military encampments positioned to the west of Colchester. The southern section of the dyke (which follows a somewhat different alignment) is thought to have been added at a later stage, perhaps after the Boudiccan revolt of AD 60-61.

The modern made surfaces of all roads and footpaths, together with all garden structures, walls, fences, notice boards and street lights are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath these items is included.

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


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 29452

Legacy System: RSM


Books and journals
Crummy, P, City of Victory: The story of Colchester, (1997)
Radford, D, Gascoigne, A, The Colchester Iron Age Dyke System: Integrated Management Plan, (1997)
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995)
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 171-72
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 28
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 59-60
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 161-178
Hawkes, C F C, Crummy, P, 'Colchester Archaeological Reports' in Camulodunum II, , Vol. 11, (1995), 109-15
Radford, D and Gascoigne, A, The Colchester Iron Age Dykes: Archaeological summary, 1997, Colchester Museums Internal Report

End of official listing