Race is on to save UK’s only Roman chariot racetrack

When the white handkerchief dropped, the Ben Hurs of Colchester would have set off down Circular Road North, past the banked tiers of seats, turning left at Napier Road, their iron tyres gouging a deep rut in the track,and back up past St John’s gatehouse towards the water-spouting dolphin marking the end of the first lap.

Colchester, it seems, was the Formula One track of Roman Britain, with the only chariot racing circus ever found on the island, and the first found in northern Europe for 20 years. Now modern residents have less than a month to raise the money to save a unique monument and create a visitor centre to reveal the site’s history.

Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of Destination Colchester, said a campaign had received a boost with a £30,000 council contribution. “This has really caught the imagination of ordinary local people,” she said.

“We’re doing a fund raiser at the local football ground, where one man said ‘this was like their football to the people of those days’. We’re extraordinarily grateful to the council – but I still don’t think the authorities charged with protecting it really get how important this heritage is to local people..”

The racetrack is still buried under roads, gardens and old army buildings, but campaigners want to buy a large Victorian garden covering the key part of the circuit. Under the grass lies eight stone enclosures, originally with double wooden doors like giant greyhound racing traps. Each would have held a nervous driver standing in a chariot as fragile as a bentwood chair, reins wrapped around his waist so if he crashed he would probably be dragged to his death, and his four horses waiting for the race marshal on the open balcony above to start the race.

The land is the garden of a listed but derelict sergeants mess, which will become an exhibition, and home to community groups, if the campaign succeeds. If it fails the building will become apartments, the garden private land again.

Digs suggest the circus was built in the early 2nd century, and lasted about 150 years before falling out of use, possibly because local grandees could no longer afford the high cost of day-long races – with not only free admission but the crowd expecting gifts.

Nothing remains above ground except stones taken for later building, but for almost 2,000 years the 350m outline has remained remarkably intact, under fields and 19th-century army land. The stable blocks that held up to 2,500 horses for a day’s racing may lie under derelict Victorian cavalry stables and barracks.

All memory of the circus was long lost, when Colchester Archaeological Trust began excavating after the Ministry of Defence sold most of the barracks for housing. They first hit foundations of a straightbuttressed wall, then an identical wall 75m away – baffling because it was ludicrously wide for either a road or a building.Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, had his eureka moment when a visitor said flippantly it would be more fun if he found a chariot. “It’s a circus!” Crummy roared. “It’s not a road, it’s a Roman circus!”

Since then CAT has traced long stretches of the perimeter, which had banked seats holding up to 15,000 people. In the central reservation they found bases of start and finish posts, and water pipes proving the circus was grand enough to have the elaborate fountain lap markers shown in Roman mosaics.

They also found scraps of beautifully decorated carriage harness right up against the wall – evidence of an F1 style crash when a driver lost control of his team and spun off into the barrier.

All the fragile remains were buried again for protection, but the site is now a scheduled ancient monument. The campaign is backed by historians, archaeologists and celebrities including Tony Benn, Dan Cruickshank, and Tony Robinson, who as Baldrick in the last Blackadder Goes Forth, trained yards away on the Colchester parade ground.

Robinson, presenter of the archaeology series Time Team, called the circus a fantastic find: “I hope local people, politicians and businesses will all play their part in ensuring as much of it as possible, including the starting stalls, is made secure and accessible for future generations.”

The campaigners need £200,000 by the end of February to buy the garden and have the site taken off the market. The building, which they hope will be bought by the archaeology trust and a consortium of community groups and businesses, will cost a further £550,000. Even before the council rowed in, more than £120,000 was raised in a few weeks, almost entirely in small donations from the public. Money came from a couple who asked family and friends to give instead of buying them 60th wedding anniversary presents, and from relatives of a man whose last outing was to the excavation site.

Colchester United flashed up the campaign poster on their giant screens during a recent match. Taylor Wimpey, the house builders, have already changed the layout of the development to protect the underground remains, knocked £10,000 off the asking price – and named the closest development “Quadriga” after the four horse racers.

“This is only the start,” warned Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of the campaign group Destination Colchester. “The fabulous Roman walls of Colchester are falling down. The circus is only the beginning of saving our whole fantastic Roman heritage.”



Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA) and life after PPG16

Kathryn Whittington [PR Coordinator, Institute for Archaeologists] on the major changes to the profession of the last 20 years:

There has been a great deal of change over the past few years in archaeology with far reaching effects on the way archaeologists view themselves and work both with each other, other parts of the heritage sector and other industries.

The Institute for Archaeologists has been at the heart of these changes, and continues to work hard to set and maintain standards of archaeological professionalism and to make sure that archaeologists’ needs and concerns are addressed by government.

The Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA) was founded in 1982 in order to facilitate self-regulation within archaeology and related disciplines through the setting of ethical and quality standards in archaeology. Over the last 27 years the Institute’s Code of conduct, Standards and guidance and Registered Organisations scheme have become the benchmarks of professional practice in archaeology.

However the IFA is no longer an Institute of Field Archaeologists, as the Institute’s membership includes curators, contractors, consultants and academics working in all areas of the historic environment. As a result the Institute has been through a period of change to reflect the more integrated professional environment it inhabits.

The Institute for Archaeologists (IfA), as it is now called, provides a range of services for its members, and most importantly a voice for the sector. It represents nearly 2,700 individuals and over 60 Registered Organisations that have shown their commitment to meeting IfA standards by registering under the scheme. IfA continues to work hard to establish accreditation or ‘barriers to entry’ for the profession, in order to raise standards further and provide assurance
to those who commission archaeologists.

The Registered Organisation (RO) scheme is one such means of accreditation. Those organisations that are registered with the IfA (identifiable by their use of the RO kitemark) have been inspected and have formally resolved to carry out their work in line with the IfA code of conduct and other by-laws.

The work is controlled by a full Member (MIfA) of the IfA, their status as a Registered Organisation is reviewed regularly by the Institute, and any complaints are investigated and appropriate action taken. Anyone wishing to secure the services of an archaeologist is strongly recommended to contact a Registered Organisation.

The past two years have been testing times for the profession, as indeed it has been for the entire heritage sector. The economic downturn has halted the growth we in the sector have enjoyed over the past 15 years, as the number of construction projects has dwindled. Since October 2008 the profession has lost 10 per cent of its entire UK workforce (16 per cent of the commercial workforce) and employers are frequently pessimistic that things could continue to get worse. There are fears that skilled archaeologists will be lost to the profession forever, and so at this time it is more important than ever that the Institute continues its work to promote and maintain high standards of professionalism. We are hopeful that those remaining in the profession also share our concerns. We have received more applications for membership in the last six months, than in previous years, indicating that archaeologists value IfA membership in difficult times.

The sector is also going through a period of legislative change. The Queen’s Speech unfortunately omitted the long awaited Heritage Protection Bill for England and Wales at the end of 2008. Although some of what it promised might be achieved through other mechanisms, other aspects such as statutory status for Historic Environment Records (HERs) and the designation of early prehistoric sites and palaeoenvironmental deposits cannot be achieved without primary legislation. As a result some in the profession are concerned about the future of archaeology and where it lies in the interests of government. However currently the focus is on the new Planning Policy Statement which will replace the long established PPGs 15 and 16.

Planning Policy Guidance note 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG 16) was published in November 1990 and is often considered to be British archaeology’s most important document due to its impact upon the profession.

PPG 16 made clear that
• the historic environment is a fundamental aspect of the Government’s commitment to environmental stewardship
• remains should be seen as finite and new renewable resource
• care must be taken to ensure that archaeological remains are not needlessly or thoughtlessly destroyed
• and preservation of archaeological and historic remains is therefore ‘a material consideration’ in the planning process

Its publication removed any doubt that local authorities had to take archaeology into consideration when deciding planning applications, which meant that developers often had to provide more information before their application for planning permission was determined. This led to an expansion in the number of desk-based assessments and field evaluations being undertaken, and also to a great deal of post-determination work as a condition of permission once granted – the excavation effectively mitigating harm by preserving archaeological remains by record, a record that is then analysed, interpreted and disseminated.

It also meant that financial responsibilities were passed from the state to private enterprise – the developers – who were able to choose whom they wanted to undertake the archaeological work on their behalf. This led to the rapid expansion of private sector archaeology; between 1991 and 2007 the number of professional archaeologists expanded from 2200 to 6865. By 2006, 93% of all archaeological investigations in the UK had been instigated through the planning process, and 58% of archaeologists’ jobs relied on funding through this process Thus PPG 16 and similar documents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been fundamentally responsible for the shape of UK archaeological practice today – However policy and guidance do not stand still and currently a new Planning Policy Statement 15: Planning for the historic environment is going through a consultation process together with supplementary guidance, Historic Environment Planning Practice Guide.

This new document clarifies the common approach, based on PPG 16, for the whole historic environment: buried sites, standing buildings and areas, whether they are designated (scheduled monuments, listed buildings, conservation areas, registered parks, gardens and battlefields) or not. It emphasises the need for expert input at the earliest stage, particularly through pre-application enquiries to local planning authorities. Importantly, it makes clear that LPAs need to have access to a Historic Environment Record to inform planning decisions, supplemented with site specific assessments of the ‘significance’ (in terms of the historic environment) of what is there now and the impact of the proposed development upon it.

It emphasises and intellectual shift from mitigation by record to offsetting of equivalent harm by increase in knowledge. Both pre- and post-determination analysis, whether of known and visible standing structures or of buried as yet undiscovered sites, should be commissioned from IfA-Registered Organisations, quality assured practices complying with the code of conduct of the Institute for Archaeologists, a professional body for the study and care of the historic environment.


VIKINGS were keen to make an impression

The Vikings are traditionally known for leaving destruction in their wake as they traveled around Europe raping, pillaging and plundering.

But Cambridge University has launched a campaign to recast them as “new men” with an interest in grooming, fashion and poetry.

Academics claim that the old stereotype is damaging, and want teenagers to be more appreciative of the Vikings’ social and cultural impact on Britain.

They say that the Norse explorers, far from being obsessed with fighting and drinking, were a largely-peaceful race who were even criticised for being too hygienic.

The university’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has published a guide revealing how much of the Vikings’ history has been misrepresented.

They did not, in fact, wear horned or winged helmets. And they appear to have been a vain race who were concerned about their appearance.

“It seems that the Vikings may not have been as hairy and dirty as is commonly imagined,” the guide says.

“A medieval chronicler, John of Wallingford, talking about the eleventh century, complained that the Danes were too clean – they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday, and changed their clothes regularly.”

The guide reveals that Norsemen were also stylish trend-setters: “Contemporaries who met individual Vikings were struck by the extreme bagginess of their trousers.

“A tenth-century Persian explorer described trousers (of Vikings in Russia) that were made of one hundred cubits of material, and a number of runestones depict warriors with flared breeches.”

The traditional view of the Vikings as “illiterate warring thugs” exaggerates considerably the reality of their life, the academics argue.

“Although Norse men and women may have sometimes liked fighting and drinking, and were sometimes buried with weapons, they also spent much of their time in peaceful activities such as farming, building, writing and illustrating.”

The guide points out that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a contemporary list of notable events beginning in the ninth century and running through to the twelfth, records some battles, but not for every year.

“Life can’t have been as violent as we sometimes like to imagine,” it adds.

Dr Elizabeth Rowe, a Viking expert and lecturer in Scandinavian mediaeval history at the university, said it was important that children should not picture the Norse warriors as an aggressive race, preoccupied with raping and looting.

“Many British children are quite likely to have Viking ancestry and we want to make them think about the reality of their past,” she said.

“It’s damaging to think that they were simply a violent society, and easy to undermine them as a people who have no redeeming qualities.

“The truth is that their culture was very artistic and they were keen to make an impression because they want to cultivate a certain look. They were very concerned about their appearance.”

The first burial ground of Viking origin in Britain was located only four years ago. Discoveries at the site have challenged the romanticised picture of a noble savage race, perpetuated most famously in Wagner’s operas and Hollywood films.

Archaeologists in Cumbria unearthed the remains of Viking men and women buried with copper brooches, jewellery, and riding gear as well as swords and spears.

Dr Francis Pryor, an archaeologist and regular on the Channel Four series Time Team, said the discovery had shown the Norse warriors to be part of an advanced society.

He said: “Far from the illiterate warring thugs in horned helmets who brought us to new depths of barbarism after landing by boat to sack monasteries and molest women, they were a settled and remarkably civilised people who integrated into community life and joined the property-owning classes.”