Gateway to Britannia

English Heritage

Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre, Kent

Today, Richborough Roman Fort is a peaceful archaeological site amid the rolling hills of Kent. However, in AD 43, the sea was much closer, and Richborough was the beachhead for the Roman invasion of Britain. It later became the official gateway to the Roman province of Britannia.

Walking around the site today, visitors can explore many phases of the site's history, including fascinating features from more than 1,000 years of occupation.

Archaeologists have uncovered ditches from several distinct phases of Roman occupation that would not have been open at the same time.

Initially, a pair of ditches were dug parallel to the coast as a simple defensive earthwork.

There is evidence for large storehouses or granaries which would have been used to supply the troops as they made their way inland.

Richborough, or Rutupiae as it was known, became a civilian port and was officially recognised as the ‘accessus Britanniae’ or gateway to the Roman province of Britannia.

At the heart of the port was a magnificent monumental arch.

Built around AD 85, the excavated remains show it to have been one of the largest arches in the Roman Empire.

Arches like this were built to commemorate the achievements of the emperors and were powerful symbols of power and authority.

They were used to commemorate victories or to mark important boundaries including, as at Richborough, the transition from land to sea.

The arch at Richborough would have stood 25 metres high and would have dominated the busy port town. Large quantities of stone from the Imperial quarries at Carrera in Italy have been found on the site.

This indicates that the arch was faced in ornate and expensive white marble cladding. It would also have been covered in sculptures and inscriptions.

It was a ‘quadrifrons’ arch with four gateways. Two large gates faced east/west and led out onto the Roman road of Watling Street while two smaller gateways were on the north and south sides.

The Roman town extended to around 21 hectares and included shops, an amphitheatre and an official ‘mansio’ - an inn for those travelling on Imperial business.

As time went on the south and east coast of Britain was increasingly harassed by Saxon and Frankish raiders.

Around AD 273 the boomtown of Richborough was replaced by a heavily defended fort, even the monumental arch, which had stood for almost 200 years, was demolished and reused in the huge walls that surrounded the fort.

Object Gallery
A series of excavations at Richborough throughout the 1920s and 1930s uncovered a large number of objects that date from the entire Roman occupation of Britain. The collection is exceptional for a single site and allows us to explore both the buildings themselves and the huge variety of people who lived, worked and travelled through Richborough over the centuries.

Sometimes objects are found alongside the others they were used with. This 1st-century AD bronze lamp is decorated with a pair of lion’s heads and a large leaf-shaped counterpoise at the back which covers the handle.

It was found with a pair of tweezers for trimming the wick and sections of chain (by which it would have been suspended from a hook in the wall or ceiling) corroded onto its surface.

Mica-dusted ceramics like this jar have a slight sheen or sparkle that is intended to make them look like bronze or gold.

They were used as high quality tableware and were produced either on the continent or in a small number of British kilns, including in London.

While shards have been found at various sites around the country, complete vessels like this are rare.

Richborough is often portrayed primarily as a military site but the survival of over a thousand hairpins demonstrates the presence of women as well.

A few pins are decorated with military symbols such as acorns, suggesting that some of these women had a connection to the army. Others, like this one depicting a woman with a domed hairstyle that was fashionable in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD, are from Richborough’s time as a port town.

A number of fragments survive from the sculpture that was on top of the monumental arch. It was probably an emperor on a horse or chariot.

Unfortunately there is not enough to attempt a reconstruction but the scale of pieces such as this rosette, which is likely to come from a piece of armour called a cuirass (a joined breastplate and backplate), suggests a figure that was well over life-size.

This small votive statuette illustrates the religious side of Roman life. It was probably from a private household shrine.

It depicts a young man holding a patera dish and a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and has been identified as Bonus Eventus (literally ‘good outcome’), a divinity associated with agriculture and good fortune.

The weighing of commodities was an important part of daily life; used when distributing rations, manufacturing objects and trading goods. Some steelyard weights were made into the form of gods and goddesses, like this Silenus bust.

Having a deity attached to your weighing scales implied that your weights were honest and guaranteed by the gods.

A seal box was used to protect the wax securing documents such as scrolls and writing tablets during transport.

The hare on this box lid is a typical animal to appear in this context, along with frogs, toads and eagles - all animals characterised by speed. This suggests that they may have been used on official documents carried on the cursus publicus, the Imperial courier service.

Money and valuables would have been kept secured in boxes which could themselves be elaborately decorated.

The conical bosses seen on this lock plate are common throughout the Roman world, occasionally covering the entire chest. The plate was mounted on a modern wooden block after excavation.

Various professions and crafts are represented at Richborough including fishing, farming and weaving. This small bowl is one of a number of pieces of medical equipment found on the site. Others include scalpels, tweezers and forceps.

This large crossbow brooch (so named because of their shape) was probably used by a soldier to fasten his cloak. It is one of 445 brooches found on the site.

Brooches of this type are complex constructions with many pieces. You can see here where a third onion-shaped knob would originally have been screwed into the hole at the top.

Richborough continued to be used beyond the Roman period and objects such as coins, keys and this pitcher have been found in the area of the Anglo-Saxon church.

Unlike Roman pottery which was typically thrown on a wheel, the pitcher was made by hand and has a curved base so it is unstable on a flat surface. It would have been hung from the lugs on each side.

This sword was found in the south west of the site, away from the majority of the post-Roman material, with the remains of its scabbard. It was constructed from a central core of pattern-welded iron with two steal cutting edges welded on separately.

Usually a sword of this type would have been ornamented but no evidence of decoration has survived.

The complex remains of Richborough and the magnificient collections found at the site give us an incredible insight into centuries of life at the fort.

As a place that witnessed both the beginning and the end of Roman rule, it is one of the most significant Roman sites in Britain.

Credits: Story

Kathryn Bedford, Andrew Roberts, Matt Thompson, Rose Arkle

Visit Richborough Roman Fort and Amphitheatre/a>

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