Detail from An Historical Map of Canterbury from Roman Times to 1907. Available from bookshops and online outlets. £9.99

Twenty Centuries at Canterbury

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Romano-British

While there is evidence of organic town development in the first decades of Roman occupation (c.AD 50–c.90), the end of the century may have seen the planned building of something like a religious ‘resort’ (Figure 1), very similar to establishments seen in Roman Gaul (modern France and Belgium, which had been incorporated into the Roman Empire nearly a century before the Roman invasion of southern Britain). It might even have been entrepreneurial, immigrant Roman Gauls who established a shrine or shrines beside the Stour. Such resorts were typically equipped with a theatre and public baths at an early stage. Certainly, local people were involved in this development; the native peoples (now known as Romano-British) were already beginning to create their own particular brand of ‘Roman-ness’. 

The early public buildings, along with town houses and early streets, lay on alignments that undoubtedly accorded with the topography of the late Iron-Age settlement which, in turn, reflected the contours of the flood plain and river valley. Further clues to the continuity of human settlement and activity can be found in other parts of the developing urban infrastructure. For example, the road running along the valley from north-east to south-west probably lay on an existing prehistoric route. It followed the natural contour of the flood plain. If the route of this road is traced south-west from where it enters the later walled city, it skirts the likely Iron-Age centre, and passes very close to the north-west side of the later Romano-British temple precinct, before continuing upstream on the approximate line of Stour Street. The route, again evidenced by Roman-period streets, would have passed to the north-west of an early Romano-British cemetery in the vicinity of Rosemary Lane and Wincheap Gate. This is also near the presumed location of a first-century Roman fortlet, perhaps positioned to control the flow of resources from the Weald.

To the south-east of the centre, the apparent alignment of a number of burial mounds of the Roman period again broadly reflect prehistoric topography, and we know that at least one of them had late Iron-Age origins. On the opposite side of the settlement, the sloping ground on the north-west side of the floodplain was an early focus for a fledgling Romano-British pottery and tile industry, while another early-Roman cemetery developed from a late Iron-Age one at the top of the slope.

Iron Age

The archaeology of the late Iron-Age forerunner of Roman Canterbury centres on three apparently concentric ditches whose entrances are staggered (Figure 1). These perhaps formed part a large enclosure on the south-east side of the flood plain of the River Stour, the southern corner of which with was located where Rose Square is today. Associated with the enclosures were roundhouses and other structures, pits, wells, and evidence of bronze working; there were also cremation burials. Other known Iron-Age sites around the city include buildings and a richly furnished cremation burial in Palace Street. There was a second focus of buildings, a field system, cremation burials and inhumations in St Dunstan’s. To the south-east of the site of Canterbury Castle, an inhumation burial was probably covered by a large burial mound, one of several that characterised this area well into the Roman period.