Remains of an apsidal Roman building at Butt Road and Southway

Overview

Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
1470104
Date first listed:
07-Oct-2020
Location Description:
Statutory Address:
Land centred on TL9926124849, nr junction of Southway and Butt Road, Colchester, CO3 3AJ

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Land centred on TL9926124849, nr junction of Southway and Butt Road, Colchester, CO3 3AJ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Location Description:
County:
Essex
District:
Colchester (District Authority)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TL9925924848

Summary

The standing and buried archaeological remains of an apsidal, late-Roman building, interpreted as a church, a funerary banqueting hall, or a mithraeum.

Reasons for Designation

The remains of an apsidal Roman building scheduled for the following principal reasons:

* Period: Colchester, or Roman Camulodunum, was a major Roman urban centre. This monument helps to inform our understanding of Roman Colchester, and the town’s unusually well-preserved Roman remains.

* Rarity: upstanding Roman remains are sufficiently rare to be considered of National Importance.

* Documentation/ finds: various studies and extensive excavations since 1915 provide a considerable archival resource which contributes to our knowledge and understanding of the building, and its place in the wider Roman landscape.

* Group value: there are numerous Roman remains with which this monument shares both a spatial and associational group value, including the town walls which at their nearest point are only 140m north, the Balkerne Gate, 340m to the north, and the Roman Circus, 300m south-east.

* Survival/ Condition: the Roman masonry which survives several courses above ground and clearly defines the plan form of the building, is considered well-preserved despite extensive excavation of associated features. The consolidation of the remains has ensured its survival and will assist its future preservation.

History

The city of Colchester was the Roman city of Camulodunum, originally the Roman provincial capital before the Boudican rebellion in AD 60-61, when the capital moved to Londinium. Colchester continued to be a Roman town of great importance, and contained the only known Roman Circus in Britain.

A cemetery was first identified in the area by William Wire in 1839. There was a sand extraction pit in the area, and Wire recovered a number of finds from the site in the 1830s and 40s. It is not certain whether Wire understood the remains to be Roman, however, by 1876 when the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map was published, the area on the map was marked “Roman Cemetery”. In 1915 P G Laver recorded some foundations and walls in Dr Chichester’s garden, near what is now Burlington Road.

In 1935 M R H Hull of Colchester Museum investigated some Roman walling in the garden of 22 Crouch Street. The owner intended to demolish the wall to build a rockery. The wall was found to be the arc of an apse, which appeared to be the east end of a building. Near the south end of the apse a timber-lined pit was also discovered, covered by a huge stone slab, and containing a large number of finds. Hull tentatively identified it as a well, but this theory has been discounted as it is not deep enough to have reached the water table. This feature continues to be known as “Hull’s pit”.

In 1965 the area was to be redeveloped as a car park. Miss R Dunnett undertook some excavations of the site, making 12 small, square trenches, with the objective of recovering a plan of the building and establishing its precise date. Dunnett discovered that the contours of the land had shifted since Roman times, due to terracing, which was found to have affected the survival of the building. The trenches revealed that the building had been almost entirely robbed out. From 1976-1989 Colchester Archaeological Trust (CAT) undertook comprehensive excavations of the cemetery, which uncovered a total of 669 burials identified with what has usually been interpreted as the Christian phase of the cemetery, most of which were interred in wooden coffins. Most of the cemetery is now covered by modern development. From 1979 CAT also excavated the apsidal building, in preparation for the building of the new police station. The plan was to avoid building the police station on the Roman building's foundations if possible. As a result of CAT’s comprehensive excavations, they exposed and consolidated the remains of the apsidal building, and put them on permanent public display.

Details

Principal Elements

The standing and buried remains of an apsidal building, believed by some to represent a church. Within the building is also an unusual pit, known as “Hull’s pit” after its discoverer.

Description

The late-Roman apsidal building is situated in a roughly triangular area of land centred on TL9926124849, next to a large Roman inhumation cemetery and interpreted variously as a Christian church, a Mithraeum (or temple of Mithras), or a funerary banqueting hall. It is aligned from east to west with the apse at the east end, and measures approximately 7.5m wide by 24m long.

The building was prominently placed on the slope above a small valley which runs east to west immediately outside the town walls, and would have been visible from Head Gate. The building stood on what was probably the north-west corner of the Butt Road cemetery (excavated and largely built over in the mid to late C20) and was built in an area where, with one exception, burials are absent.

Excavation revealed that the outer walls of the building were of stone, and post holes indicated that there were internal partitions or colonnades of timber, some of which incorporated wattle and daub. The roof of the building was tiled. No evidence of floor materials was found.

Most of the building material has been robbed out, but the foundations of the west wall, and western half of the south wall survive, including in places one or two courses of tiles, with masonry above, forming the lowest courses of the walls. Most of the east end survives, forming an apsidal end to the building with a short straight wall to the south-east. There is a straight joint in the masonry between the straight wall and the apse, suggesting that the apse was possibly a later alteration. A small fragment of the north wall foundation was also uncovered.

The site slopes away considerably to the north, and excavations revealed that a large quantity of soil had been placed on the site before the north wall could have been built. That soil contained pottery dating to the C2-C3, which has been used as evidence for the terminus post quem (the date after which the wall could possibly be built). A large number of coins found during the various excavations of the building indicate a major phase of coin loss between AD 320 and 340, giving a terminus ante quem (the date before which the building must have been built) around this date.

A number of pits were uncovered inside the building. Three pairs of matched post-pits were found, and some retained packing material, indicating that they had contained circular posts, 0.6m in diameter. Two smaller post pits, aligned north-south, indicated the line of a probable partition.

Three larger pits were found inside the nave area, interpreted by some as graves, although they did not contain human remains. There was also a grave almost immediately to the north of the apse outside the building. Towards the east end, parallel to the north wall, a series of pits were uncovered which appeared to represent robber trenches from the C19 or earlier.

A large pit inside the south-east end of the building, known as Hull’s Pit, is about 1m in diameter and contained wooden shuttering. It had contained a skull and femur of a young to middle-aged female. Also found were a large number of coins, including a silver medallion of Constantine, a silver armlet, silver rings, various iron objects, a piece of marble, a large number of bird bones, a complete beaker and substantial remains of at least six other pottery vessels. Hull believed the finds were suggestive of votive deposits.

Finds on the site have included a large quantity of animal bone, principally chicken bones, a number of coins, including those in Hull’s Pit, five complete oil lamps, indicating that the building was probably lit this way. Other finds included a number of architectural fragments, a small amount of Roman pottery, clay pipes, and a number of small finds including armlet fragments and rings, later Roman military equipment including a hilt-guard and a heart-shaped strap-end, and some counters and dice of bone and pottery.

Immediately to the west of the building, a group of 20 small post holes around a rectangular hearth have been interpreted as a small utilitarian building for the preparation of food. The hearth was 1.1 m wide and 1.3 m long and consisted of two to three roughly-coursed broken tiles set in daub. Coin evidence suggested that this building dates from AD 335 or earlier, and is likely to have been abandoned around AD 388. The presence of this food preparation building on site, and the very large quantity of chicken bones found on the whole site, has led to alternative theories that the apsidal building may be either a funerary banqueting hall or a Mithraeum.

The finds from the CAT excavations are held by Colchester and Ipswich Museums. Some of the finds from the earlier excavations are also held by them, the whereabouts of many of the finds from earlier excavations is unknown.

The church foundations have been consolidated and left on permanent public display. The area of the building has been covered in gravel. The line of the missing areas of wall has been indicated on the ground with strips of mortar, approximately 45cm wide, contained by brick edging tiles. Where there are standing remains, the outer edge has been protected by a course of gravel approximately 40cm wide, contained by mortar edging strips. The positions of the aisles and partition have been marked by low timber posts. The monument has recently (2020) undergone some repair and consolidation with a sandy lime mortar.

Extent of scheduling

The scheduled monument includes all upstanding masonry, the entire footprint of the building, and the ground beneath it, including a one-metre buffer which is considered necessary for the preservation of the monument.

Sources

Books and journals
Millet, M, 'An Early Christian Community at Colchester?' in Archaeological Journal, (1995), .
Walsh, D, 'Reconsidering the Butt Road "Church"' in Late Antiquity, , Vol. 11.2 (Fall), (2018), 339-374
Websites
Colchester Heritage Explorer ECC1876 – Burials observed by Wire at Mill Place, Butt Road, Colchester, 1839, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Event/ECC1876
Colchester Heritage Explorer ECC397, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Event/ECC397
Colchester Heritage Explorer ECC432 - Excavations 1976-9, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Event/ECC432
Colchester Heritage Explorer ECC662 - Excavation at the Firs Car Park 1965, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Event/ECC662
Colchester Heritage Explorer ECC938 - Excavations at 22 Crouch Street,1935 M R H Hull, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Event/ECC938
Colchester Heritage Explorer Monument Record MCC480 – Roman Cemetery, Butt Road, Colchester, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Monument/MCC480
Colchester Heritage Explorer Monument Record MCC480 – Roman Christian Cemetery, Butt Road, recorded by excavations between 1976-8, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Monument/MCC481
Crummy, Philip. 1993. CAR 9: Excavations of Roman and later cemeteries, churches and monastic sites in Colchester, 1971-8. 9. Pp164-202, accessed 23 July 2020 from https://colchesterheritage.co.uk/Source/SCC106

Legal

This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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