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Richborough Environs Project

Air photo interpretation and mapping has recorded extensive archaeological remains around the Roman fort at Richborough. There are well-preserved stone and earthwork remains for the fort itself, which were previously well known, but the survey recorded the extensive and complex remains of the associated "vicus" or civilian settlement.

Colour aerial photograph showing a stone walled enclosure with a set of multiple ditches and some structures within it
Richborough fort taken on 17-JUN-2002 looking west from across the River Stour. The earlier fort containing the rectangular base of a triumphal arch can be seen within the later walled fort. (NMR 21656/03). © Historic England


Richborough (or Rutupiae as it was named by the Romans) is located on a former island on the eastern coast of Kent, on the south-eastern end of the now silted Wantsum Channel which divided the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. Three phases of the fort are visible – the Claudian Ditches (post-invasion beach head of 43 AD), the inner early fort and the outer later walled Saxon shore fort dating from 275 AD.

The survey

The survey area covered an area of 15 square kms centred on the Richborough Roman fort and was carried out as part of a multi-disciplinary research project on the Roman fort initiated by what was at the time the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology, based in Portsmouth. The aim of this project was to establish the extent, morphology and complexity of the settlement in the area under active ploughing between the Saxon Shore fort and the amphitheatre.

Greyscale image showing a pattern of darker and lighter lines defining the archaeology against a grey map background
Geophysical survey of the environs of the Roman fort at Richborough © Historic England

The fort and Roman settlement at Richborough

The extensive remains of the settlement have been detected both through aerial survey of the entire site, and geophysical survey and excavation. The fort was excavated first in the 1920s by Bushe-Fox coinciding with the first aerial photographs of the site. However, it is the most recent photographs of the site taken during aerial reconnaissance by English Heritage in July 2001 which proved to be the most informative, revealing previously unrecorded features within the settlement as cropmarks. Traces of the settlement were seen extending to the west, south-west and north-west of the fort. A network of roads and rectilinear enclosures interpreted as the robbed-out foundations of buildings could clearly be seen as cropmarks in the fields adjacent to the fort.

The aerial survey revealed a high concentration of archaeological features, mostly attributed to the Roman settlement or vicus, located in the immediate vicinity of the fort earthwork. Visible are the course of the road (pale curving line) and traces of robbed out building foundations. All these features have been plough levelled and are only visible as faint cropmarks. The remains of the amphitheatre are visible to the south-west of the fort (excavated by Rolfe in 1849).

Colour aerial photograph showing walled fort in bottom left with adjacent arable fields with cropmarks
The Roman fort at Richborough photographed on 16-JUL-2001 revealing the traces of the adjacent settlement and road visible as cropmarks (centre) and the grassed-over earthwork remains of the amphitheatre in the top right-hand corner (NMR 21266/04). © Historic England

The development of the Roman settlement at Richborough

The settlement appears to have two distinct areas lying on totally different alignments, linked by a curving stretch of metalled roadway. This is the one feature which has been consistently visible as a cropmark throughout several decades of aerial reconnaissance, possibly due to repeated re-metalling over time creating a considerable depth of compacted material. It is possible that the two areas of the settlement represent the Roman settlement adjacent to the fort and the contemporary (and possibly earlier) native settlement. This could explain why there are two separate nuclei of settlement where there is no obvious reason, topographic or other, for this change in alignment.

Colour map showing archaeological features in various colours against a greyscale map background
Extract of mapping showing the plough-levelled remains of the settlement with building foundations and roads forming a grid outside the fort © Crown copyright. HE

The key findings from the project can be found in the report:

Richborough Environs Project, Kent

Richborough Environs Project, Kent

Published 1 April 2002

Report on the aerial survey of the environs of the Roman fort at Richborough (Rutupiae)

The images used on this page are copyright Historic England unless specified otherwise. For further details of any photographs or other images and for copies of these, or the plans and reports related to the project, please contact the Historic England Archive.

For further information on a project or any other aspect of the work of the Remote Sensing Team please contact us via email using the link below.

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