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Excavation reveals large Roman cemetery

An excavation during the first quarter of 2011 on the former Hallet’s Garage site, in the St Dunstan’s area of Canterbury, uncovered a large Roman inhumation cemetery and one rather startling, extremely ancient, item – a 400,000 year old elephant tusk!  The site lies in an important suburb of the Roman and medieval city and has been intensively occupied for the past 2000 years. The fossilised elephant’s tusk was recovered from gravels, 3m beneath the existing surface.
Hallett's Garage: 400,000 year old fossilized elephant tusk
The earliest archaeological deposits comprised clay quarries and rubbish pits of the early to mid Roman period (first to later third centuries AD), perhaps suggesting some form of ribbon development against a Roman road following the line of St Dunstan’s Street. At that time the Roman provincial town contained a civic centre with fine public buildings (theatre, temple precinct, forum-basilica and public baths), a regular pattern of streets with town-houses, shops, workshops, store-houses and all the attributes of an administrative centre, including a sizeable resident population.The Roman road from the conquest period landing base and important early Roman port of Richborough (Rutupiae) passed through the Roman town to connect with the road to London (Londinium). The street formed one of the main thoroughfares of the town (a decumanus) extending along the present line of Burgate, past the civic centre baths and the forum. Outside the town the road follows the line of St Dunstan’s Street, joining the Roman London road near today’s St Dunstan’s Church where the ancient street turns to follow the line of present day London Road.  St Dunstan’s Street is therefore very ancient and follows the line of a Roman road that was probably in existence by the mid first century AD.

A small bronze figurine was found in the fill of a linear Roman feature, perhaps part of a ditch, but analysis has yet to establish the purpose or date of this feature. The figurine. however, has been identified as representing Jupiter holding a thunderbolt (fulmen) in his right hand. His raised left hand would have originally held a spear, but this is now lost. The figurine is Roman and probably of second- or third-century date.
Roman bronze figurine
In the late third century the town was provided with a defensive wall and gates. The Roman predecessor of Westgate, together with an associated bridge would have been one of the most important gateways to the town. Soon after the defences were constructed (c AD 270-90) a cemetery was established on the site, with burial here continuing perhaps into the late fourth century or later. One hundred and thirty-eight burials were excavated. There were no grave goods and the cemetery appears to be for a later Roman population. Most burials were aligned parallel to the street in deeply-cut graves, often with evidence for coffins. The graves appeared to have been laid out in groups or rows, suggesting a degree of organisation. One part of the cemetery appeared to have been reserved for children.
Hallett's Garage: Recording one of the many Roman burials.Hallett's Garage: The same burial, detail.Hallett's Garage: Excavation of another Roman burial.
Anglo-Saxon occupation was represented by a small number of pits containing burnt daub, remnants of ephemeral timber structures. One pit contained a large number of fired clay loomweights.The development of the suburb of St Dunstan’s probably dates from the late Anglo-Saxon or early Norman period. By 1200 a number of properties probably existed against St Dunstan’s Street with near continuous development thereafter. The present rear wall of the development site was found to have been also the rear boundary for at least three medieval properties on the site. These medieval buildings were represented here by masonry dwarf walls, clay floors, peg tile hearths and masonry-lined wells.  Rubbish pits and cess pits associated with these properties are also present in back-garden areas. There are also larger features, possibly clay quarries, cut in open ground behind the property blocks.Medieval timber-framed buildings gave way to more modern properties and the remains of their foundations cross the site. One of the most interesting sets of brick foundations belonged to a Jewish Synagogue built in open ground behind road frontage properties in 1762.Following the establishment of the world’s first passenger railway in 1830, the synagogue and other properties occupying the site were demolished to make way for the development of Station Road West. By 1841 six properties, domestic and retail, occupied the site including an inn called the ‘Catherine Wheel’ by 1862, whose cellar was located in the excavation. Hallet’s Garage was established on the site in 1933 and in the post-war period adjoining properties were amalgamated or redeveloped to form the single complex that was recently demolished.
Hallett's Garage: Working shot, surveying in features.Hallett's Garage: Detailed recording of burial.Hallett's Garage: Each burial is recorded in detail.
Excavation finished on Sunday 27th March.

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