Around 4.4 million years ago – give or take a year or two – a hairy, long-armed woman called Ardi and her tribe left the Rift Valley in Africa on the first leg of the human journey across the world.
She is believed to be the first human ever found. Although only the size of a chimp she is our oldest ancestor. New DNA testing has led us to reconsider some of our long-held beliefs about our earliest ancestors but Ardi is the oldest, by some margin.
Our own leg of the human journey began in Burnham as we boarded a minibus heading for the old Officer’s Mess at the former Colchester Barracks to hear Howard Brooks of the Colchester Archaeological Trust give a lecture on the many ages of mankind.
Using projected images he described how the human race spread throughout the world, how we lived and died in the Stone Age, Bronze Age and the Iron Age, up until the Roman invasion.
From being hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age using hand-crafted axes and flint to kill, skin, and cook prey, our ancestors left behind evidence of their lives which has been dug up by archaeologists over the years.
Our ancestors became farmers, adapting to their surroundings and settling in communities. They erected henges of giant stones which continue to puzzle experts. What were they for?
Causewayed enclosures, earthworks, burial burrows, and community life were all discussed along with how we used bronze and iron which changed our lives.
Many Essex sites were evaluated and we saw how Colchester archaeologists unearth burial plots and many other items to understand our past.
All around Colchester and other areas like Burnham, history lies beneath our feet. One site at Gosbecks, west of Colchester, is being dug; it contains an array of Roman remains including a temple which looks very much like the one we are going to tackle at Mayland this summer.
We were all spellbound by Howard’s amusing presentation and learned a lot, but our day was not yet over, the Barrack’s site held another secret which David Gipson will tell you about.
The second part of our trip is in the title of this report – the Roman Circus. And no, it does not include big-tops, clowns, lion-tamers and the like, but it does include horses. Think more the film Ben Hur, particularly the chariot race sequence, and you will get the picture.
In 2004 archaeologists were evaluating part of the Colchester Barracks site prior to a new housing development being built when they discovered the only known Roman chariot circus in Britain – it was a major find!
Imagine a race track, where, in each of the 8 starting gates, instead of a single horse and jockey, you would find 4 horses, a chariot and a man – that’s a total of 8 chariots and charioteers, and 32 horses! The track would have been in the shape of a long rectangle with a central spine 250 metres long around which the chariots competed. Seven laps were raced, a distance of approximately 2.3 miles. It is doubtful whether there was the cut and thrust as portrayed in the film but it would have been very dangerous, particularly when negotiating the tight turns at each end of the track. There would have been seating for 8-10,000 people (150,000 at the daddy of all the tracks – the Circus Maximus in Rome!) who would have been waving the colours of their favourite charioteer. There was a Time Team Special made in 2005 which, although reproduced here in poor quality, gives a good overview of the find and the spectacle. Click on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMRJM9hbv78
Although very little of the remains of this spectacle is viewable today, Jonathan, our guide, did an excellent job of conveying how it might have been. Walking around the site which hopefully, in years to come, will be further excavated, one could not help but have a certain amount of respect for the Roman hierarchy’s ability to devise yet another means of placating the masses, albeit one less barbaric.
The museum, located in the main building on the site, should be visited first. It contains all the details you may wish to know about a Roman Circus including details of the 40 or so other Circuses that have been found in countries around the Mediterranean, Colchester holding the distinction of being the most northern.
You will also find a fine scale model of the track, and be able to view some really excellent paintings by Peter Froste depicting likely everyday scenes from one of these occasions.
Peter also designed a large mosaic which was later reconstructed by local schools and has pride of place on a wall outside of the building.
The site’s Visitor Centre opening times commence on Tuesday 9th April continuing through to Saturday 28th September 2019 (Tuesday – Saturday 11.00 – 16.00) and is well worth a visit. For more details see https://www.romancircus.co.uk/
It was an extremely enjoyable day and many thanks to Sue Spiers and Terry for organising it for us.
The Archaeology Group meets on the 3rd Friday of every month at 4 pm in the Burnham Museum. Please contact Terry Cook on 772882 if you would like to join us.