HORSES returned to Colchester’s Roman Circus for the first time in around 1,700 years as part of an experiment to discover more about the ancient landmark’s past.

Colchester Archaeological Trust, which is based at the Roman Circus Visitor Centre, drafted in the help of Caspian horses for its latest round of research.

The ancient breed come from Iran and, as far as horses go, they are very small - shorter than most adults.

In the Middle East they are known for their ability to pull carts and chariots as well as jumping.

But they weren’t brought to the circus to race.

The trust was hoping to use the horses to discover more about their ancient ancestors who would have competed during its Roman heyday.

Trust director Philip Crummy said: “The size of the horses at a circus is a bit of a puzzle.

“Watch any of the Ben-Hur films or the Time Team special at the Roman circus and you will see strapping big horses doing the racing.

“But look at Roman period images of charioteers and you will see very small ones.

A hoof bone, discovered at the entrance to the circus’ seating, pointed to horses which would have been between in Roman measurements between 10 and 12 hands high - or around 1.1m - to the top of their shoulders.

The discovery of a 4.5 inch long horse bit also indicated smaller animals were used rather than the massive stallions seen in the movies.

Archaeologists next step was to draft in examples provided by owners Dreda Randall, of Monarch Farm and the Caspian Horse Society, and Essex-based Jane Cadman.

Although the trust was forced to improvise slightly, the experiment could now begin.

Mr Crummy said: “With just two horses to work with, a bit of photographic trickery was needed to get our picture.

“Three photographs were involved in this process.

“The first was of the two horses standing together in the centre of one of the starting gates. The second featured one of those horses next to the left-hand side of it and the third showed the other one next to the other side.

“I suppose the resulting photograph risks being regarded as a bit suspect but I’m sure that one day it will be verified by another photograph.”

The photo shows Caspians fitting snuggly within the replica of the circus’ starting gate.

Keen to follow up on the positive results of the first test, analysis began on a well-known Italian mosaic pavement featuring charioteers and their horses.

Each charioteer is shown standing next to his horse, making comparisons easier.

In a bid to in effect introduce a real horse into the mosaic picture, people of different heights played the part of the charioteer and stood next to one of the Caspian horses, reins in hand.

Mr Crummy said: “Each one then gently raised the animal’s head so that the mouth of the animal was level with top of our charioteer’s shoulder, just as it is in the mosaic.”

Although the horses were clearly different shapes to those in the mosaic, the relationship between the shoulder of the charioteer and the head of his horse was interesting.

Mr Crummy said: “If the horse on the mosaic had been 12 hands high, as is the case with the Caspian, then our charioteer would have been 5ft 4ins tall which, on the face of it, seems to be a good result. Had his horse been any taller, then so too would have been our charioteer.”

The trust believe nearly all of the evidence points towards the horses who used the circus being between 10 and 12 hands tall.

Mr Crummy said: “Of course, the horses would all have varied in height as indeed would have the charioteers who raced them.

“Small charioteers could have had larger horses than normal and large charioteers the opposite, at least to a degree.”

He added: “Just to see the horses running round the starting gates was a real joy.”