Roman Towns and the Archaeology of the Revolt of Roman Britain


The Boudiccan revolt of Roman Britain in 60AD can be detected in the archaeology of roman towns such as Colchester, St Albans, London and Silchester.

The Boudiccan Rebellion of Britain occurred between 60-61AD. Instigated by the Iceni, it saw the tribes of Britain rising up against their roman conquerors.

Tacitus identified Colchester, London and St Albans as the three Roman towns which were focal points of the rebellion. The archaeology of these towns certainly suggests that a revolt occurred as described in the ancient sources. But they are not the only towns in Britain that show evidence of a violent revolt.

Colchester, A Roman Town

Camulodunum or Colchester was the pre roman capital of the Trinovantes, one of the first British tribes to join the Iceni in rebellion. It was also the first target of the rebels, according to Tacitus. The town was attacked because after they drove out the Trinovantes, the Romans claimed Colchester and re shaped it as a Roman town.

Despite being settled by Roman ex-soldiers, Colchester was easy to attack because public amenities had been put before defences. Ironically, one of those amenities, the temple of Claudius, became the chief refuge of the city’s inhabitants before it fell after a two day siege.

The layer of archaeology dating to the time of the revolt is up to half a metre deep in places. It also shows that early Roman Colchester was destroyed by fire. The remains of fire damaged buildings and goods have been discovered: charred fragments of wattle, daub, timber and clay floors baked red by the heat of major fires.

The destruction was not accidental. Warehouses of pottery have also been found. All of the goods were smashed, as if they were smashed during conflict.

Londiunium, A Port of Roman Britain

Although not a major roman settlement at the time of the Boudiccan revolt, Roman London or Londinium was a major port and trade centre. Tacitus explains it was a target for the rebels because of its wealth and the fact that it was undefended.

The archaeology of London is often hard to read because of the many layers of occupation. Although finds such as the Walbrook skulls suggested that some of the inhabitants of the city had met with violent deaths in the early roman period, it was hard to find evidence to show that the roman town itself had been destroyed.

The evidence was found during the 1930s by Gerald Dunning. Dunning had noticed that early Roman pottery found around the city had been damaged by fire. The pots, were finished goods and otherwise undamaged. It was as if the warehouses storing them had burnt around them.

Dunning looked at the excavation reports for the locations where the pottery was found. In each case, he found evidence for fire damage. Clay sub layers were baked red as if subjected to intense heat. Other finds, such as coins, also showed evidence of fire damage.

Dunning plotted the locations. In this way, he was able to identify that the commercial heart of the roman settlement – an area roughly around modern London Bridge – had been destroyed at a period contemporary with Colchester’s destruction.

St Albans, A Roman Municipium

Verulamium or modern St Albans was a mainly British settlement at the time of the revolt. It was also a Roman municipum or provincial town, an honour bestowed by the emperor Claudius. This was a reward for services rendered; the inhabitants of Verulamium had collaborated with the Romans since the time of the conquest and grown rich. This marked the town out for destruction by the rebels.

The archaeology of Verulamium shows that the town adopted a roman plan very early during the Roman period, which verifies the collaboration theory as it suggests roman help was given. The early Roman destruction layer shares similar characteristics to that of Londinium and Colchester with one difference; there are very few finds. This suggests that the people of Verulamium and many of their goods may have fled before the rebellion reached them.

New Evidence from Silchester

Silchester was in the early 60’s AD a British tribal centre to the south of Colchester, London and St Albans. Whilst it is not mentioned by Tacitus, Professor Michael Fulford has found evidence for widespread destruction by burning contemporary with the time of the so called Boudiccan revolt.

Professor Fulford’s excavations have identified burnt layers and filled in wells. The findings are important because they show that the extent of the rebellion went beyond that of Tacitus’s account.

The archaeology also shows some of the reactions to old British culture after the revolt. For Silchester was not only rebuilt but realigned. The orientation of the native British town followed the path of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. This was altered by 45 degrees during the rebuild.

Silchester, which was clearly pro roman, hence its destruction, seems to have been eradicating the last traces of its heritage. It was reshaping itself on the lines of a Roman town and discarding the elements that related to the old ways.

Perhaps the citizens were showing allegiance to Rome or embracing roman ways at the expense of their own. Perhaps the change was enforced. But the abandonment of such a key cultural feature shows how post Boudiccan Silchester, like many British settlements became a full Roman town.