All along the watchtower: New discoveries along the line of Gloucester’s Roman defences

Our investigations at the site of Gloucester Greyfriars between 2012 and 2019 have provided new information about Gloucester’s Roman fortress and its transformation into a civilian town (or colonia). The work was undertaken for Linden Homes (now Vistry Partnerships) in advance of residential development of the former Gloucestershire College of Art and Technology campus, and represents the most extensive development within the walls of Roman and medieval Gloucester since the early 1970s.

Site plan showing Roman defences
Site location relative to the Roman defences

As parts of the site are a Scheduled Monument , we initially dug investigative trenches to help us understand where archaeological remains survived and to inform future construction plans. This was followed by recording any archaeology found within the new building foundations, the narrow width of which, whilst minimising the impact of the development on the remains, afforded only limited opportunity to investigate the archaeological deposits. Despite this, the work uncovered insights into the city’s early origins, and the lives of those who lived there. The project also allowed us, on behalf of the City Council and the developers, to lead a community excavation where members of the Gloucester City Centre Community Partnership  recorded remains within the precinct of the medieval Greyfriars.

Iron Age Activity

Little is known of any settlement preceding the Roman fortress so the discovery of possible Iron Age roundhouse remains, along with ditches, postholes, and a buried soil, is significant and very exciting. It seems that Late Iron Age farmers in the Severn vale were attracted to the drier land created by the slight rise on which the city now lies, although the wider extent of this possible early settlement at Gloucester is unknown.  

The Roman Fortress

A wing from a Roman bronze sculpture found during the excavations
Example of a carrot amphora. Courtesy of Museum of London
Example of a carrot amphora. Courtesy of Museum of London

The first Roman legionary fortress at Gloucester was built c. AD 65–70 and we uncovered evidence for its earliest defences, including remains of the ramparts, which produced Roman pottery of the mid to late 1st to 2nd centuries AD and a hinged buckle from segmented Roman armour (lorica segmentata). Further possible military items recovered from the site include harness fittings, an iron peg (pictured), a hanging lamp, and a saw blade. There were also personal items, including a gaming counter. Amongst the pottery from the early ramparts were sherds from a so-called carrot amphora, a type of ceramic vessel used to transport dried fruit from the Near East, probably during the mid to late 1st century AD – a reminder that Roman Gloucester had quaysides on the River Severn, providing trade links to ports overseas. Some of the finds from the early and later ramparts may have been deliberately placed as votive deposits; these include a human tibia, a partial cattle skull with both horn cores, part of a stamped samian vessel, a wing from a copper-alloy statuette (probably of Victory – pictured above), a portable stone altar (pictured below), and a sword fitting.

Portable altar
Portable stone altar

Limited excavation within the fortress interior revealed several ovens cut into the inner edge of the early ramparts. These were of a type previously found in Roman fortresses at Exeter and Caerleon, and were interpreted as bread ovens used to supply the garrison. There was evidence at Greyfriars to suggest that these were housed within lightweight timber shelters.

Roman tent peg
Roman tent peg

The Roman City

There was evidence for a second phase of defences, which included the construction of a masonry wall and further rampart deposits to its rear. This work probably formed part of the change from a legionary fortress to a civilian colonia between AD 81 and 98, after the Legio II Augusta stationed there had transferred to Caerleon as part of the conquest of Wales. Along with the rear face of the wall, part of one of the towers was revealed; several of these would have been built along the wall, at intervals. This angle tower had been seen in 1931, but the current work allowed its location to be plotted accurately.

Behind the ramparts, the investigations revealed evidence for the colonia, including traces of intra-mural streets, and several masonry buildings with painted wall plaster and opus signinum (concrete) floors, some with tessellated surfacing. No intact ground plans were revealed, and the character of the civilian occupation in this part of the colonia remains poorly understood. The top of a beautiful copper-alloy inkwell (below) from amongst these remains may have been part of an older item from the Roman fortress, and would have belonged to a literate person.

Roman inkwell
Roman inkwell

Jonathan Hart

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