Treasure, roads, villas and forts - where to find Roman remains in Suffolk
- Credit: Andy Abbott
Two thousands years ago the Romans made their way to Britain. And while many of the physical remains sadly haven’t stood the test of time, what we have found has taught us a great deal about what life was during the Roman era.
“There are very few Roman structures surviving in Suffolk as visible monuments, and most remains are on private land beneath the ground,” explains Faye Minter, senior archaeological officer at Suffolk County Council’s Archaeological Service.
“But finds and exhibitions with Roman material can be seen in Ipswich Museum, West Stow Museum and Mildenhall Museum.”
Here are just a few examples of one of the greatest civilisations to ever exist.
‘All roads lead to Rome,’ as the old adage goes, and that certainly applies here in Suffolk.
“The most enduring monument to the influence of the Romans is in our landscape - and very straight. Most of the A140 is a Roman road, part of the Roman route from Colchester to Caistor by Norwich,” says Faye.
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The road would have carried thousands of soldiers marching between what is now Essex and Norfolk during the Roman era, and in 2004, the remains of a Roman settlement were discovered in the Suffolk village of Stoke Ash. Just a stone’s throw away from the A140 road, archaeologists John Fairclough and Mike Hardy found pottery, brooches, coins and other items that date back to the 1st century.
Here in Suffolk, archaeologists have also uncovered evidence of 1st century Roman forts at both Coddenham and Pakenham.
“Both are protected, on private land and only visible from the air as crop marks,” explains Faye.
“There also would have been a late 3rd century shore fort at Felixstowe – like the one at Burgh Castle in Norfolk – but it has since disappeared into the sea.”
Succumbing to the perils of erosions in 1766, Walton Castle was a shore fort described in a 1722 letter as being “100 yards long, five foot above ground, 12 broad at each end and turned with an angle. It’s composed of pebble and Roman bricks in three courses, all round footsteps of buildings, and several large pieces of wall cast down upon the Strand by Seas.”
In 1740, Suffolk traveller J Kirby noted how a “great variety of Roman urns, rings, coins, etc have been found there”, and as recently as 1974, pieces of masonry could be spotted in the sea on aerial photography during low tide.
There are a handful of villas across Suffolk – but like many other Roman ruins here in the county, are on private land and beneath the ground. Examples of these include Stonham Aspal, Lidgate and Icklingham.
However, Castle Hill in Ipswich is the county’s most prominent Roman villa. Originally excavated in 1931, and later again by Basil Brown between 1948 and 1950, the villa was found to contain several buildings – possibly in a courtyard arrangement – alongside a number of Roman architectural features such as hypocausts, a bath building, decorated mosaic floors and painted plaster on the walls.
It is believed to date back to the 2nd century, and was thought to be in continual use until the end of the Roman period in the early 5th century.
Roman towns and settlements
“There are a number of small towns in Suffolk, including one at Long Melford beneath the modern town, Pakenham, Coddenham (part of which is under Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm), Felixstowe and Icklingham,” explains Faye.
“The latter probably had a Pagan temple and also a Christian centre in the 4th century, and one of the lead tanks with Christian links from Icklingham can be seen in the British Museum.”
More prominently however, over the border in north Essex, is where you can find Camulodunum - now known as Colchester.
The former capital of Roman Britain was once home to two theatres, several temples, the country’s only known chariot circus and around 50 mosaics and tessellated pavements. At its height, it is thought its population reached 30,000.
Remains from Camulodunum that can still be seen today include the town’s Roman wall which spans a whopping 2,800 metres, Roman vaults beneath Colchester Castle and a number of artefacts on display such as the Fenwick Hoard and the Colchester Gladiator Vase.
The first examples of Roman pottery kilns here in Suffolk were excavated at West Stow Heath in 1886 by Henry Prigg, who found two kilns mere yards away from each other.
“There are numerous examples in the Wattisfield area, where resources included good potting clay,” says Faye.
“Most of the Roman kilns produced a grey ware for everyday kitchen ware - but some finer wares were also produced.”
Other Roman pottery kilns have since been uncovered across the county, including one in Homersfield, which contained pottery, a face mask mould for jugs, and coins; and one in Botesdale which was excavated by Basil Brown and his crew in 1946.
Nearly three decades ago, Suffolk’s largest Roman hoard was discovered in village of Hoxne. Uncovered by metal detectorist Eric Lawes in 1992, he only dug out a few objects before realising the extent of what he had found and reporting it to Suffolk County Council.
What Eric had stumbled upon led to the eventual discovery of nearly 15,000 coins, alongside 200 other gold and silver objects that were buried in the 5th century. These included bracelets, toiletry and tableware and the Empress pepper pot – a statuette bust in the shape of a wealthy Roman woman.
While much of the hoard was exhibited at Ipswich Museum between 1994 and 1995, it is currently on display in the British Museum in London.
Prior to this, the Mildenhall Treasure was uncovered in 1942, and consisted of 34 pieces of Roman silver tableware from the 4th century. The most significant find within this hoard was The Great Dish. Also known as the Oceanus Dish or Neptune Dish, it measures 605mm in diameter and weighs a whopping 8kg.
While the original finds from this Roman haul are currently housed in the British Museum, replicas can be seen in the Mildenhall Museum.
Actual Roman finds can however be found in Ipswich Museum – including a range of coins, keys, bones, military artefacts, tableware and jewellery which have been excavated over the years.