"Open day at the Circus !" Top 5 Page for this destination Colchester Travelogue by alucas
Colchester Travel Guide: 76 reviews and 227 photos
A Roman chariot circus has been found in Colchester during excavation works at Colchester Barracks. This is the ONLY one ever found in Britain. The excavations were originally open to the public for one day only, Saturday 22nd January, but because of the demand, a second open day was held last weekend.
There were hundreds of people there - we queued for an hour to get in.
Whilst we were queuing, this chariot provided some entertainment for the children. The charioteer explained how the racing chariots were totally different from this one, and told us all about chariot racing as a spectator sport.
The racing chariots were much lighter than the one in the picture and were drawn by four horses. They could achieve speeds of up to 75 km/hour (45 mph). The races were held between four teams of up to three chariots each. The sight of twelve chariots thundering down to the first corner must have been quite exciting.
The charioteers were the equivalent of the Formula I drivers of today - feted as heroes. They competed for huge prizes - as much as 60,000 sestertii for one race, at a time when a legionary's annual pay would have been 900 sestertii. It was though a very high risk sport, with many charioteers not surviving into their late 20's.
We were taken round the excavation in groups of about 50 people. The archeologists explained what they had found, what they had deduced, and told us about the history and all about chariot racing and the design of the circus.
The first archaeological find of the existence of the Roman circus was in May 2000, when some foundations were found during the digging of a trench for some lighting cables. Its significance was not realised at the time because finding Roman foundations is not an infrequent event near the centre of Colchester. Prior to the forthcoming redevelopment of parts of Colchester barracks for housing, sample trenches were dug in 2002 in various places to look for any significant archaeological remains that might need further investigation. Again a short piece of foundation was found, but not obviously of any significance. In 2004 further excavations nearby found more foundations, all of similar construction, and it was realised that they all formed part of the walls of a Roman circus. Further excavations have now been carried out, and it is these latter excavations which were open to the public.
It has been possible to date the foundations to no earlier than the latter part of the first century AD, mainly because of the form of construction and the materials used. It is certainly later than the town walls, which are 65-80 AD.
Although the full extent of the circus at Colchester has not been fully established yet, it is known that the circus was at least 350m long and 69m wide. Tiers of wooden benches surrounded the arena, supported on a mound of earth retained in place by a low wall on the inside, and a taller, buttressed wall on the outside. The capacity of the circus would have been between 7000 and 9000 people.
Now the area will be covered over again to preserve the finds, and will probably not be seen again in our lifetimes. The finds will not be built over though, and there is talk of a permanent exhibition, but this will probably not open for two or three years.
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