Revisiting early excavations.
The Roman site of Richborough has been the subject of three targeted excavations by the Archaeology Projects team. All re-examined areas that had been excavated in the past, and all contributed to new understandings of the four centuries of Richborough’s Roman history
The site occupies part of what was once a small island or peninsula on the south side of the Wantsum Channel, the now silted arm of the sea, which formerly separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland of Kent.
The most prominent feature of the site are the walls of the late- 3rd century AD fort, which formed part of Roman defences against sea-borne raiders along the coast, known as the ‘Saxon Shore’. The fort featured projecting square interval towers and rounded corner towers.
The Bushe-Fox excavations took place within these walls, but the site is much more extensive. Geophysical survey, undertaken in 2001, revealed that the fort was built within an un-walled Roman town, earlier than the fort, of some 21 hectares. On the western fringe of the town was an amphitheatre, one of the first three in Britain to be recognised as such – by the antiquary William Stukeley in 1776.
Within the town was a huge 'quadrifons' or four-fronted arch placed at an intersection of roads, presenting an arched façade to the approach from all four directions. Only the foundation of this survives, but it was one of the most impressive ceremonial arches in the Roman world; an imperial project, clad in white marble from the quarries at Carrara, Italy. It stood as a ceremonial and symbolic gateway to the province of Britannia until it was demolished, together with six insulae or city blocks during the later third century in order to construct the Saxon Shore fort.
The coastline and the conquest
The earliest Roman features discovered on the site were a pair of long, parallel defensive ditches which produced material dating to the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
Since these early ditches were discovered, Richborough has been identified, though not without controversy, as the landing place of the successful Roman invasion of AD 43 ordered by the Emperor Claudius.
Archaeologists refer to this early period as “Claudian”.
The purpose of these ditches is linked to a long-standing problem in the understanding of Richborough; the proximity of the site to the Roman coastline.
The relationship between the ditches and the coastline is confused by the interaction between the two complex processes of erosion of the land and silting of the channel, and by the fact that the railway line runs along the base of the scarp on which the site stands.
Excavations and core sampling to the east of the site in 2001 and 2008 sought to clarify the relationship. The work indicated that open water conditions existed at the base of the scarp until the late medieval period, when silts began to accumulate. Before this an unknown amount of erosion of the scarp had caused the collapse of the east wall of the Saxon Shore fort.
At a depth of 2 metres beneath the silting and the eroded material, a foreshore deposit was discovered upon which lay waterworn Roman ceramics. Research continues on these questions, and the location of an actual waterfront remains to be discovered. However there is little doubt that the Roman shoreline was quite close to the present scarp .
The Claudian ditches were laid out parallel to the coast for a distance of at least 650 metres, and it is likely that the up-cast from their excavation was deployed on the eastern side as a rampart.
The ditches are now interpreted as a defended beach-head for the landing of men and materiel during the initial phase of the Roman conquest.
The only way through to the landward side of this defence was a narrow causeway which was equipped with a single-portal timber gate. This causeway established the line of the later Watling Street. The gate was built on a square plan, supported by four very substantial ground-fast posts. Bushe-Fox had excavated the components of this structure, but aspects of the recording left much to be desired.
At the request of the English Heritage Trust, and to gather information for future interpretation, a small scale excavation was undertaken in early March 2020 to confirm the shape, size and layout of this gate, to check the accuracy of Bushe-Fox’s work, and to record information which he had omitted.
A team from Archaeology Projects undertook this work in the last few days before the general Covid-19 lockdown .
A trench was laid out to sample three of the four post positions (Bushe-Fox’s B, C and D). Bushe-Fox had excavated the sockets left by decaying posts 30 centimetres (one Roman foot) square in section, and had then excavated the post pits in which they were set, but he had not recorded the shape or size of these pits. One (B) was excavated in 2020, and proved to be very substantial, measuring 1.86 x 1.01 metres on plan and 1.25 metres deep.
These pits would have been packed around the posts to resist any movement in the rather soft sand subsoil. Unfortunately Bushe-Fox did not record the nature of the packing. The position of the post in (C) is unknown, as the post pit was disturbed by the large ‘Pit 120’, which Bushe-Fox had left intact. This meant it was possible to sample this pit to retrieve dating evidence and the first archaeobotanical material to have been recovered from the area previously excavated.
The development of the town began very soon after the conquest. As the first port of Roman Britain its growth seems to have been rapid. There is evidence that it had begun to decline and shrink in the mid- 3rd century AD. Beyond the walls of the Saxon Shore fort, it is known solely from geophysical survey, aerial photography and antiquarian observations. Important features are the amphitheatre and two Romano-celtic temples. A part of one of these, previously examined by Bushe-Fox, was re-excavated in 2001, showing that it had been an early feature of the town at its southern extent. In the 4th century AD it had been demolished, and the area turned over to rubbish pitting.
The Saxon Shore Fort
The impressive masonry walls on the north, south and west side of the late 3rd century fort survive, in places to almost full height. However the east wall has collapsed due to erosion. In 2008, again to inform interpretation, the collapsed sections of wall were cleared of thick vegetation and properly recorded. The standard and frequently published plan of the fort places the east wall where the fallen section lies – at the foot of the scarp. Close examination, never previously done, shows that this is impossible, as the collapsed segment lies 30 - 40˚ below the horizontal; the wall must have fallen and then slid down the scarp.
So where was the original east wall of the fort?
Bushe-Fox excavated a length of foundation on the top of the scarp which was reinforced with timber piles and was identical to the foundations of the other three sides of the fort. This was originally thought to be ‘unfinished’ or a ‘mistake’, and that no wall was ever built upon it. This idea was based upon complex arguments concerning aspects of the original excavation and its publication. Examination of the original site notebooks by Philip Smither has shown that serious errors were made in interpretation. Correction of these errors combined with the revelation of the angle of repose of the collapsed wall has reversed the previous interpretation, and makes it clear that the east wall must have been built on the so-called ‘unfinished’ foundation, and this has enabled a new plan of the fort to be presented.
The Roman remains at Richborough have been studied for centuries, but still our knowledge and understanding of the site – its chronology, its features, its internal relationships – remain partial. Town and fort present opportunities for further discovery, in particular through the use of modern archaeological techniques and each new investigation will help to build up a better appreciation of the significance of the remains.
Our recent work will enable a new plan of the fort to be presented and will contribute to the management and understanding of a site of great national and international importance.
About the author
Tony Wilmott MA, FSA, MCIfA
Senior Archaeologist with the Archaeology Projects Team of Historic England
Tony joined English Heritage/ Historic England in 1987, originally to direct excavations on the Hadrian’s Wall fort at Birdoswald. Since then he has run many excavations, at Whitby Abbey, the Chester Roman Amphitheatre, Richborough, and a further 15 sites on the Hadrian’s Wall frontier. He has published many excavation reports, other books, and articles in archaeological journals and conference proceedings. His main interests lie in the Roman and early medieval periods.
Millett, M and Wilmott, T 2003 ‘Rethinking Richborough’ in P Wilson (ed) The Archaeology of Roman Towns, Oxbow Books, 184-94
Wilmott, T and Smither, P 2020 ‘The plan of the Saxon Shore fort at Richborough’, Britannia, 51, 1-28
Wilmott, T, Linford, N and Martin, M 2009 ‘The Roman amphitheatre at Richborough (Rutupiae) Kent: Non-invasive research’, in Wilmott, T (ed) Roman amphitheatres and spectacula: a 21st-century perspective, BAR International Ser, 1946, Oxford: Archaeopress
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