Rediscovery of Roman Canterbury
When the Roman town had disappeared from view, the only knowledge of its existence was what later historians had recorded. Bede, writing in the eighth century, was the main source. He had recorded the town’s Latin name, and the survival into St Augustine’s time of Roman church buildings. Little new information was added after Bede, until in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a renaissance of interest in the past, and new studies made of various sources. William Somner stands out among these historians with his book of 1640, ‘The Antiquities of Canterbury’. He was the first person to rediscover the Roman origin of the city wall, and to actually see in it the surviving Roman building work at three of its gateways.
In 1722 another historian, William Stukeley, visited to draw and publish the first views of these Roman remains. Others looked for evidence in place-names and texts, or drew conjectures from Roman roads in the area, and from recording chance finds of coins, graves, or even pieces of mosaic floor, as seen in prints reproduced in the displays.
During the mid-nineteenth century, the construction of new railway lines, main drainage and housing brought to light many Roman remains. Engineer James Pilbrow recorded and saved important items, including fragments of mosaic floors, and parts of a Roman lead coffin found in Bridge Street. Among other nineteenth-century finds are a piece of wall plaster painted with Greek key pattern, a decorated bronze bowl and fragments of Roman glass.
John Brent (1808-82) became Canterbury’s first rescue archaeologist. A display at Canterbury Roman Museum is devoted to his finds and publications. Brent was a keen observer of discoveries made during construction works, and set about rescuing and recording objects and information. He also initiated excavations and published the results, including drawings of items found. Brent’s finds were exhibited at the museum in Maidstone, and also at Canterbury, where he was Honorary Curator. His articles and books began with notes on Roman cemeteries in Canterbury for the fourth volume of the Kent Archaeological Society’s journal. His illustrated book, ‘Canterbury in the Olden Time’, was published in 1860. Brent was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and a frequent contributor to its journals.
During the Second World War, a large section of the city was destroyed by German bombing. The Canterbury Excavation Committee was formed with Government, local and public support to undertake rescue archaeology from 1946, in advance of rebuilding. Mrs Audrey Williams, and later Mr Sheppard Frere, carried out small but wide-ranging and important excavations. The results revolutionised knowledge about the Roman town. For the first time it was possible to reconstruct plans of Roman houses, baths, the theatre, and some streets. The full extent of the Roman town walls could be shown. Using the new technique of stratigraphy, remains were dated by links to datable finds, such as coins and pottery, in the same layers.
Most iconic of the remains found was the Roman ‘pavement’ – a corridor with mosaics from a Roman town house.
Since 1976 the Canterbury Archaeological Trust (CAT) has carried out archaeological investigations in advance of redevelopment projects. A showcase presents a selection of recent Roman finds.