Tuesday, May 21, 2024

First-century fortification rebuilt to mark ‘Gateway to Roman Britain’

A reconstructed Roman military gateway now marks the spot where Emperor Claudius’ invasion force is believed to have established its beachhead in Britain.

The new eight-metre-high structure, with a rampart and watchtower, stands directly on the footprint of a recently discovered Roman gateway at Richborough in Kent. This was part of defences that archaeologists say protected the Romans’ landing place during one of British history’s great turning points, in 43AD.

The reconstruction is also a symbolic tribute to the status of Roman Richborough, or Rutupiae — which developed on the beachhead site — as the gateway to Britannia. The port town was occupied from the beginning of Roman rule in the province to the very end, around 410, and has left an extraordinary archaeological record.

Standing on the watchtower in the footsteps of the invading army’s sentries, visitors will enjoy new panoramic views across Rutupiae’s ruins. These include the foundations of a 25-metre-tall monumental arch, the mound over Rutupiae’s 5,000-spectator amphitheatre and the walls of a 3rd-century fortress that was probably built by a rebel “pirate emperor”.

Richborough’s arch as it may have looked from the waterfront around 150AD. Illustration by Peter Lorimer, © Historic England

Visitors will also gain views across to Rutupiae’s raison d’être, the sea, which is now two miles away due to historic changes in the landscape. In the other direction, they can look out straight along the line of Watling Street — the Roman road starting at Rutupiae that led to cities including London, St Albans, and Wroxeter in what is now Shropshire.

Dr Kathryn Bedford, curator of collections and interiors at English Heritage, said: “Richborough was a beachhead at the moment of invasion. But all that was previously visible on site from that very important period was two ditches out of many sets of ditches. By building the gateway, we have a new focus to talk about that important early period. It also allows visitors the opportunity to look down on what is a very complex multi-period site and get a much better understanding of what they’re actually looking at.”

The reconstructed gateway is part of broader changes at the English Heritage site. These include a major overhaul of the 1930s museum building and display to reflect recent research and show more of Richborough’s collection of tens of thousands of artefacts.

The refurbished museum display at Richborough shows highlights from the site’s vast collection. Photo: Jim Holden, English Heritage

At the time of the Claudian invasion, the site was on a small island in the Wantsum Sea Channel that divided the Isle of Thanet from Kent, and adjacent to a sheltered natural harbour. Parts of defences that appear to have been intended to protect the invaders’ ships, soldiers and supplies were found by archaeologists in the 1920s. However, the post-holes marking the wooden gateway were only discovered in 2021.

As the timbers have not survived, curators based their reconstruction partly on knowledge from other contexts, including Roman fortifications depicted on Trajan’s Column in Rome.

For many in the 40,000-strong invasion force, Britain may have seemed a hostile place “totally cut off from the whole world”. In spite of rapid early advances in the south, the conquest would drag on for decades in the face of determined resistance. Nevertheless, Rutupiae developed into a bustling port town and its monumental arch — one of the largest in the empire, clad in white Carrara marble from Italy — was erected sometime between 85 and 150AD as the proud ceremonial entrance to the province.

Geophysical and aerial surveys show that during its 2nd-century heyday, Rutupiae extended over at least 21 hectares (52 acres).

Roy Porter, properties curator at English Heritage, said Richborough was one of the most significant Roman sites in Britain, with “the whole gamut of Roman history in one place”. He added that the town held onto a special standing even after its port was eclipsed by those of Dover and London. “What Richborough retained was a symbolic importance. And that’s reflected not only in the material remains, but also in the fact that for some Roman writers, the name of Richborough was a synonym for Britain — it was a sort of totem.”

The reconstructed Claudian-era gateway looks onto the massive walls of the 3rd-century ‘Saxon Shore’ fort. Photo: English Heritage

There must therefore have been a great upheaval in the later 3rd century when Rutupiae’s arch was dismantled and its materials reused, along with other demolition rubble, in the construction of a new fort with walls 3.3 metres wide at the base. Recent research based on archaeological findings indicates that this stronghold — part of the chain of “Saxon Shore” coastal defence forts — is likely to date from the reign of Carausius, a usurper and alleged former pirate who set up a breakaway state in Britain and northern Gaul from 286-293.

The traditional view was that the Saxon Shore forts were built to protect the coast and shipping from Saxon raiders. However, it has also been suggested that Carausius erected them to defend against invasion by forces seeking to bring Britain back under central imperial control. If so, they proved ineffectual. After Carausius was murdered and replaced by his official Allectus, an army under Constantius Chlorus, the father of Constantine the Great, retook the province.

Thereafter, evidence from coin finds indicates that Rutupiae was occupied until the end of Roman rule in 410 and was one of the last places in Britain to receive supplies of money. In total, around 56,000 Roman coins have been recovered from site — forming an important part of Richborough’s artefact collection. Other items in the collection range from large fragments of multicoloured Italian glass bowls to complete cups decorated with hunting scenes and also include some 450 brooches and 1,000 hairpins.

Bedford said: “Richborough has one of the largest single-site collections in the country. By comparison to most Roman sites, it is massive. What makes it unique is the fact that it covers the entire period that the Romans were in Britain. It’s also very unusual to have such a proportion of high-quality objects, that are complete and in good condition, in a large collection. Normally, you would expect to see a far greater proportion that are barely recognisable.”

The new display includes many artefacts that have never been on display before. And it explores what the different objects can tell us about the people of Rutupiae, who included Britons and incomers from across the empire — most often from Germania or Gaul. Individual items can be identified as belonging to soldiers, farmers, officials, craftsmen, pagans, Christians, and women and men of all social classes.

Second-century weight in the form of Harpocrates, god of silence. Photo: English Heritage

Highlighting Rutupiae’s far-flung connections are a 2,000-year-old cup made from blown glass from the Middle East and a trader’s weight in the shape of Harpocrates — a god of silence first worshipped in Ptolemaic Egypt — that is the only one of its kind known in Britain.

Some of the artefacts tell very personal stories — for instance, the military brooch inscribed SI AMAS EGO PLUS, “If you love (me), I love (you) more”. As archaeologist Dr Catherine Johns writes in her book The Jewellery of Roman Britain: “The imagination immediately conjures up a romantic scenario involving a handsome Roman soldier and his woman, no doubt a beautiful young Briton with a passionate Celtic temperament, who has presented him with this small, practical item, unobtrusively but clearly inscribed with a message that will remind him daily of her devotion.”

The name of Rutupiae may be familiar to some through the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. However, curators said many people were unaware of Richborough’s existence in spite of its tremendous significance — a situation they hope the latest changes will remedy.

Bedford said: “Richborough is an incredibly fascinating and important site that has not been getting the attention it is due. It is under-known. If the site with its collection and what survives there was on Hadrian’s Wall, say, it would be getting ten times the number of visitors.”

Roman women’s hairpins, dating from 43-100AD. Differences in materials and craftsmanship reveal differences in wealth, as well as cultural influences and personal taste. Photo: English Heritage

Recent excavations and analyses have contributed greatly to knowledge of the site, including in mapping its geographical extent and identifying a holding cell for gladiators, prisoners or animals at the amphitheatre. However, Bedford said there was still much to unravel. “For decades Richborough has also been underestimated within the academic community, so it hasn’t been getting the level of study it might have. That’s simply because people have assumed that it was already understood. And it isn’t. There’s so much more to find out.”

Visitor information for Richborough is available on English Heritage’s website. The nearest rail station is Sandwich, two miles away, served by Southeastern trains. Visitors will have the chance to use new audio guides led by historian and broadcaster Dr Tessa Dunlop. They include interviews with locals such as oyster sellers, a special-forces soldier and an Olympic boxer, to draw parallels between the Roman inhabitants and their living counterparts.

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