The circus is in town: new discoveries at Colchester

Recently there have been some exciting discoveries in the suburbs of Colchester. When I say recently, for most archaeologists that’s anything this side of the Victorian era, for some it means anything this side of the Gravettian period…
Anyway, back to the discoveries: those enthusiastic diggers have uncovered a Roman circus. Or at least the remains of one. It’s not a circus as you and I know one, with a Big Top, performing animals and acrobatic stunts, but rather one of these:

It’s the first one to be positively identified in Britain (although a tentative site is located at Knightrider Street in London – I know, Knightrider Street, titter ye not, it’s on the north bank of the Thames, just by the Millenium Bridge…), and it’s thussly rather special. A Roman circus is the name given to a two-sided racing track, with starting gates at one end, and a semi-circle for turning round the central reservation, the spina, or euripus at the other. To give an idea of scale, the Colchester one has been calculated to seat 12,000 – 15000 people. The one pictured above, the circus maximus in Rome itself, could seat 250,000 guests.

Chariot racing was the oldest and most popular sport in the Roman world.  Circus games originally consisted of chariot racing and boxing, with athletics and wrestling added in the 2nd Century BC.  The Circus was the largest of all the entertainment buildings in the Roman world, and comprised an elongated oval track flanked by tiers of seating (cavea) with a low barrier running down the centre to prevent collisions.  Turning posts (metae) were placed at each end and an obelisk (especially in examples from Egypt) might be placed in the centre. Circuses were of Greek origin, coming to the Roman empire via the Etruscans.

Back to Colchester: the circus there is estimated at 450m long, and 71.1-74.2m wide, and so is comparable in scale to other examples known from the Roman world, if at the small end of the scale, and similar in size to sites known in Spain and north Africa.   All that survives of it now are the foundations of the external walls, and most of these have had the stone removed (probably in the early medieval period) for reuse elsewhere (‘robbed out’ – archaeological technical term, we’re big on those, oh yes.).

You can find out more through these links and articles:

Crummy, P            2005 The Circus at Colchester. In Journal of Roman Archaeology 18 (2005) pg267-77
Crummy, P            2006 The Circus comes to Britain.  In Current Archaeology 201 pg468-75

There are also a couple of good websites: the first details all the news to the present day, from the first discoveries in 2005.  There’s also a blog with updates here.

If you’re really enthused, the Colchester Circus management plan can be found here in PDF format.


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