Friday, June 10, 2016

Cirencester. Roman Britain's "Second City"

Cirencester is a nice little city in the west of England, down at the lower end of the Cotswolds.  It has a current population of 19,000...about the same as in Roman times.  That made it the second largest city in Roman Britain.  But visiting it today you would hardly know it.

Some cities with a Roman heritage highlight it.  Plaques on the side of modern buildings, preserved archaeology that you can glimpse through skylights, even entire conserved ancient structures.  In Cirencester you get this:

To be fair I will say that there has been quite a lot of archaeological investigation done.  But to find traces of "Corinium Dobunnorum" above ground you have to do some serious looking.

The most obvious remaining structure is the amphitheater.  It stood just outside the city walls and looked from my map to be a nice little stroll from the city center.  So I meandered in a generally southwest direction until I hit a Waitrose store.  This lay along the lines of the Roman wall and they had perched one sad little wall stone in their parking lot to act as a reminder.

From here it got a little tricky.  It seems some locations keep their purpose across many centuries. The spirit of the place - or Genius Locus as the Romans would put it - is a constant. Across the street from the Forum Car Park for instance is a modern day government center.  So also with the defenses of Corinium.  I could see the amphitheater site from the parking lot but there was no visible route to get there.  I had to go to the back  past the rubbish bins and hop over a hedge.  Then dodge traffic crossing the busy Bristol Road that runs the just outside the circuit of the old fortifications.  Thank goodness I have been to the UK so often in years recent that I now instinctively look in the correct direction to spy oncoming mechanical doom.  You see too many US visitors doing "The Colonial Swivel" and looking around in all directions.

I made it across.  Next came some dead reckoning navigation across the grounds of the local hospital. Back by the ambulance garage I found an unobtrusive trail and sign that said "NHS Woods".  A ramble through same brought me to:

What the heck?  You don't need too much of an archaeological "eye" to tell that this landscape has been heavily altered over time.  As it happens the amphitheater was built on the site of a Roman quarry.  So all those long vanished Roman buildings were made of stone that came from this spot. On to the amphitheater.

A pretty spot.  You would never guess that it was once all stone and that the whole range of ancient amusements were carried out here.  The only wild beasts present on this day were a dog and his owner, both of whom seemed entertained by the back and forth throw and fetch of a tennis ball.

The gap at the top of the photo is the north gate of the structure, presumably the main one as a road from there went straight to town.  So, could a stroll about there show us any Roman remains? Oh, if you look at dirt kicked up by rabbits you just might find some very old and corroded brick remnants..

For visible Roman remains that's about it.  Fortunately those needing a more intense Roman fix there is a very nice museum you can visit.  The folks at the Corinium Museum  were quite interested to learn that I was heading up North to excavate a Roman site and gave me a mini guided tour of some of the nicer bits in their collection.

The "Septimus Stone".  This dedicatory marker is the strongest evidence that Corinium was a Provincial Capital in late Roman times.  The earlier entity that united everything south of the Wall in one province had proved either administratively unwieldy or too prone to giving powerful men enough ambition to consider an attempt at usurpation...

A delightful little bronze and enameled bird.  This unusual item appears to be purely decorative. It was found in the grave of a little girl just outside the city walls.  Basically under that Waitrose parking lot as it happens.

Cirencester was a center for mosaic production.  Many swell examples in the museum but I find that they never photograph well from a distance.

And here is an oddity.  This is an example of the Rotas-Sator cryptogram.  They pop up in odd places around the Empire; Egypt, Pompeii, Dura-Europa, Budapest.  And this, the sole example from Roman Britain.  Scholars have expended many gallons of ink trying to puzzle out whether this is a sneaky way of putting some early Christian message up in the era when going public would lead to martyrdom....or was it just an inside joke now lost to history?

For those who enjoy all things Roman Cirencester is a nice little visit.  Of course I would have liked to see more on display but it comforts me to know that there is a lot - an awful lot - still in the ground. Good for Cirencester then.  Without the "help" of the Luftwaffe and the still more destructive forces of developers the past is still asleep underfoot.


David Goldwater said...

Tim, funny that Cirencester is on my list for an amusing reason. Our younger son and his bride got married a few miles away in a lovely old Barn Venue. They know the Cotswolds well. I made concerted efforts to escape for a few hours to explore Cirencester and its Roman heritage. The museum is apparently pretty good. My little scheme was not viewed with favour and although the stoneless amphitheatre is ticked off, the rest of Corinium Dobunnorum remains unexplored and waits for a future visit. Better get a move on........

Borepatch said...

I walked the old walls back in '96. Pretty big, but entirely covered with grass.