AS paintings that show us what Roman Colchester was like go on display for the first time at the Roman Circus Visitor Centre historian Andrew Phillips is urging people to go along.

Not least because it may be the only time they will all be seen together in such a setting.

Here Andrew, who has written a number of books on the history of the town, explains why it is so important to the town and those who live in it - and also encourages people to go to the Roman Circus House itself beside the starting gates of the Roman Circus.

Colchester has enjoyed an age of archaeological discovery in the last 50 years – such as never happened before and may never happen again.

The unprecedented development of the town centre – Lion Walk, Culver Precinct, Middleborough, a dual ring road, which was never finished, the old Garrison, a new Hythe, new shops, new superstores, new car parks, lost bus stations, lost factories, lost hotels, lost pubs, and, soon, lost hospital…… we could all go on: and that’s why.

This was all ‘rescue’ archaeology and we are indebted to an enlightened Government approach (don’t change it!) which has meant that priceless and fascinating features of Colchester’s past, particularly its Roman past, are painstakingly unearthed before they are bulldozed and lost. And, by and large, we have been able to watch these discoveries taking place.

Future generations will not look down into the deep foundations of the Roman Barracks Blocks or the black patch of earth where Boudicca torched Colchester and find, under Colchester High Street, gold rings and bangles buried in haste, or stand above the grave of some unknown Druid physician, seeing his flagon of wine, his surgical instruments, his best crockery and his favourite gaming board.

Gazette: Colchester Archaeological Trust is having a ceremony to mark the completion of a giant circus mosaic, designed by artist Peter Froste on Saturday at Roman Circus, Roman Circus House, Colchester..Sara Green, Principle Volunteer, Pauline Hill, Project Lead

They will not see it, as we who have lived here, except in old photos or a Museum re-creation. For what archaeologists do is extraordinary.

For very little pay they grovel in mud in all weathers, carefully sifting the earth – tons and tons of it. They interpret what happened, identify pottery, coins, stains in the soil which tell you something, microscopic seeds or insects which reveal plants, trees, weather, topography 2,000 years ago, or tell you what year a particular piece of timber in an old Colchester building was felled.

They think the unthinkable and are ready to be surprised. Why are a few rough bits of Roman mortar, some distance apart, built in line? Bingo – Britain’s first chariot racing circus, the only one known north of the Alps is conceived, and slowly, slowly, its frail footprint realised.

But how can we know what it once looked like? In the last 50 years we have found how the Romans first built a military garrison here, then turned it into the civic capital of Britain. We have found baths, a theatre near a Roman Temple, a probable forum and grand houses built in Mediterranean style. Not only that, but we have explored the pre-Roman tribal centre of Camulodunum. It too had a large temple and a ‘theatre’ and its leaders were buried in some style. We have found over 50 mosaic floors, many shrines, 12 or so pottery kilns, shoes, brooches, helmets, coin-making moulds, cemeteries.

Gazette: Entertainment - artist Peter Froste’s painting of the Roman Theatre at Gosbecks

But Colchester is not Pompeii. You cannot walk its Roman streets, see its buildings, its wall paintings, its graffiti.

We know where all the streets were, but what did Roman Colchester look like?

Here too we are fortunate.

In 1971, Peter Froste, an unassuming art teacher, later one of Britain’s finest historic illustrators, came, as a volunteer digger, to that massive hole in the ground, the Lion Walk site, onto which the curious public peered every day through a gap in the fence.

‘Would he’, Philip Crummy asked, ‘be willing to do a sketch and mark up the interesting things being found?’ He would.

And the rest is history. No, call that history come to life.

For since 1971 Peter Froste has produced more than 60 brilliant paintings and illustrations, many of which will be familiar to readers, because these paintings have become our vision of the Roman Temple burning as Boudicca’s warriors cheer, or monks shuffling through the snow outside St Botolph’s Priory.

As well as bullock waggons passing through the Balkerne Gate or an aerial view of the Roman Town in AD 250.

Gazette: The Temple of Claudius, surrounded by Boudicca’s army, burns with the surviving Romans inside

Scrupulously based on surviving evidence and what we know from Roman art and Roman writing, Peter’s paintings remain inspired interpretations, as impressive, but far more accurate, than Cecil B DeMille, Ben Hur or Troy on the telly.

For the first time ever all these paintings and several new ones, including the largest ever painted, are now on show at the Roman Circus Visitor Centre until Saturday April 28.

Go, just go, and see them. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

And if you have never been to Roman Circus House, beside the starting gates of the Roman Circus itself, there is far more to see than just Peter Froste’s paintings.

And if you do not know where it is, just ask or go online. You will never see these paintings all together again. And it will cost you just £1 for a catalogue.

Gazette: CBC.