‘Rare find’: amphitheatre dig in Kent paints picture of Roman town

Richborough, a Roman settlement on the Kent coast, was a big party place about 2,000 years ago. It might have included gladiatorial competitions, wild animal hunting, or occasional execution of criminals.
The event took place in an amphitheatre that could hold up to 5,000 people on the western edge. It was a unique occasion that attracted people from Richborough and the surrounding areas, according to Paul Pattison (a senior properties historian at English Heritage). These were public spectacles that could be compared to going to a blockbuster movie.

Centuries later, an archaeological excavation at the site in recent weeks has revealed a new window into that time.

One of the most notable discoveries was the skeleton of Maxipus, a cat whose remains were buried in an area for domestic settlement. It is believed that Maxipus was a pet.

It would be normal for it to have been ripped apart by predators, but it is almost complete so it appears that it was intentionally placed where it wasn't disturbed.

Although it was likely that people had pets, they were not as passionate about them as we are. It is not clear if they kept them in their home.

Maxipus, the skull of a cat was found at the site. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Another find is a small carcer (or cell with a doorway), that was likely used to hold wild animals before they were released into the arena.

Covid restrictions caused delays in the excavation which began in September and will be completed next month. A partial excavation that was done in 1849 had confirmed the existence of the amphitheatre. Pattison said that we had a clue but not enough to be certain.

The amphitheatre's remains are located on a hill that is low and prominent, with an oval-shaped depression. It is close to one the most important Roman historical sites of England. It dates back to the Roman invasion of AD43 and the fall of Roman rule in AD 410.

Richborough was the entry point to mainland Europe for part of Emperor Claudius' 40,000-strong invasion force. Around the port a bustling town developed.

Excavators have revealed details about how the amphitheatre was built over the last few weeks. The arena's exterior wall measured six metres in thickness and was constructed of stacked turf. The interior wall was built of chalk blocks from local quarries.

Covid restrictions caused delays in the excavation which began in September and will be completed next month. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage

We discovered that the people who rendered the wall facing the arena had plastered the walls. Pattison said that there is still paint on the arena wall.

Because there are horizontal and vertical lines in red, yellow and black, we are starting to believe that there were a series or painted rectangular panels. These panels may have contained scenes painted by the artist, or figurative scenes from amphitheatres.

Although we don't have this detail, we do have the paint. That is a great start. We have only found a small part of the wall so it is possible to find better-preserved scenes painted elsewhere on the circuit. We were very excited.

Pattison stated that none of the 15 or 16 other British amphitheatres had received this treatment. This is a rare find in Britain. It is possible that there were as many as 19-20 in the entire Roman empire.

During the dig, a Roman coin was unearthed. Photograph: Jim Holden/English Heritage

Excursionists also found coins, personal adornments, and pottery fragments, which all indicate that Richborough was occupied during the Roman period in Britain.

Recent discoveries have significantly increased our understanding of the structure and nature of the nearby settlement. Pattison stated that future excavations will help to build a better picture of how settlement developed and grew.

He said that excavators were extremely excited about their discoveries. Everyone is motivated and eager to dig every day. This is a rare opportunity to excavate such a unique site.

Richborough's on-site museum is currently being renovated and will reopen in the summer 2022.