Whether you call the town Britain’s first city or Britain’s oldest recorded town there is no disputing Colchester’s undeniable connection to the Romans.

The town had a theatre, the famous Temple of Claudius where Colchester Castle now sits, the iconic town walls, a pressurised water supply, a public drainage system and the UK’s only Roman Circus. But what else could lie beneath the surface of Colchester’s modern streets?

Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, is one of the best people to ask...

It is an exciting time to be an archaeologist or history enthusiast in Colchester.

This month the site of the town’s first Roman bathhouse was discovered - underneath what used to be the much-loved Jack’s hardware shop.

Although the layout and development of the bathhouse is not an exact science, the find was the latest in the chronicle of Colchester’s rich Roman history.

Colchester Archaeological Trust had been on its trail for some time before its exact location was finally discovered by accident during renovation works as the building prepares for a new lease of life.

All Roman towns, particularly one as important as Colchester, would have at least one bathhouse.

Philip Crummy, director of the trust, said: “It was not unexpected. It is in a very good position for a bath house opposite the Temple of Claudius and it is right in the heart of the town.”

Excavations at the bathhouse were awkward because of the confined space and the safety equipment needed.

What was eventually uncovered, however, was a 3.5 metre deep shaft with layers showing different parts of the building’s history, including evidence of its Boudican destruction.

The trust was able to identify the bathhouse by the discovery of essential components like hollow and ceramic flues which would have lined both the walls and floors of the house’s different rooms.


Mr Crummy said: “The way the bathhouses worked was there would have been a floor built on stacks of bricks with a furnace below. This was a hypocaust.

“The hot air circled towards the flues built into the wall. Hot air goes around there and up the flues and ends up in the roof.”

The bathhouse complex at Jack’s could have been made up of several hot rooms, of varying degrees of heat, and the complex could have also included things like a gymnasium as other examples do.

Mr Crummy said: “We did quite limited digging but we were able to do a little bit and we think the hypocaust might be there. It may be under the cellar floor or it might be all gone, we don’t know.”

The trust also thinks there might be the site of a second bathhouse buried very nearby.

Mr Crummy said: “Baths are generally formulaic. Most of them have two sites - a big site for the men and a smaller site for the women. There might be another one near to Jack’s.”

On Colchester’s Roman map, created by archaeologists, there is a large gap next to Jack’s, where another public building could be sited.

Mr Crummy said: “One thing which also could be nearby is a macellum - a market hall.

“They used to take the form of like an undercover market with an open square in the middle. Most, if not all, big Roman towns had one.”

An amphitheatre, essentially a big outdoor entertainment centre, must also be somewhere within the Colchester’s Roman walls.

Mr Crummy said: “The obvious site for it would be in West Stockwell Street where the road curves to the left. The curve is quite out of character with the medieval streets. It has always been an interesting site for archaeologists in Colchester.

“We are hoping to have a tiny little dig over the next month or so to get a picture to see if we can understand it a bit better.

“There would be the perfect position because of the relationship to the barracks. Soldiers would be provided with entertainment at the nearby amphitheatre.”

Mr Crummy believes the existing Roman map is also missing a basilica and forum, which are Roman administrative buildings.

He said: “The public buildings are important because they tell us how life in Roman times was very organised.”

In fact, Mr Crummy estimates only about 20 per cent of Roman Colchester has been completely or partly excavated - an incredible thought when you think what has already been found.

Mr Crummy said: “Colchester is a fantastic place to work as an archaeologist especially when there is so much to be found.

“When the opportunities come we will be ready to take them.”

More details of the Jack’s excavation as well as many other important finds can be found at Colchester’s Roman Circus visitor centre’s exhibition Dig It! which is open now.

Visit romancircus.co.uk for more information.