Canterbury’s Roman Origins

The Canterbury Roman Museum was closed due to COVID the last time I stayed here. It’s reopened now, so a visit was in order. The museum is small and below-ground, and geared toward engaging children, but there were some exhibits of interest to me. It’s built on the site of an ancient Roman townhouse.

The Cathedral looms in the background outside the Roman Museum

According to the museum, the town was home to the Cantiaci tribe. The Romans showed up around 43 AD and, over the centuries, developed the town. They renamed it “Durovernum Cantiacorum”. It was located at an important crossroad and was a strategic location, so the Romans applied all of their usual improvements.

What it looked like around 350 AD

A large religious and administrative complex was soon established, including a forum, a basilica, a temple enclosure, and a theater. The theater, originally built around 80 AD, was totally rebuilt in the early 3rd century. It was probably associated with religious festivals as much as the dramatic arts. The public baths were just to the northeast. The town was enclosed by defensive walls in the late 3rd century and was given single-arched gateways.

Oysters, anyone?

Industries included brick, tile and pottery production, as well as bronze working. There were many commercial shops, notably a baker’s shop with donkey-driven millstone. Cemeteries outside the town appear to have continued in Christian use and St Martin’s Church appears to be built around an old Roman mausoleum which stood in one of these.

Durovernum seems to have survived in good order until the Roman administration left, around 410 AD. After that, its decline was rapid. Mercenaries were hired to defend the town but they revolted. By the time of the Battle of Aylesford in the mid-5th century, the Jutes had taken over the area. The town became known in Old Welsh as Cair Ceint (“Fortress of Kent”) and in Old English as Cantwareburh (“Kentish Stronghold”), which developed into the modern “Canterbury”.

As was common practice, eventually the predecessor of the modern Canterbury Cathedral was built atop the site of the Roman temple.

The museum has on display several floor mosaics discovered when the building was being excavated (Canterbury was badly bombed during WWII). Some of these were left in situ and are accompanied by an excellent explanation of how they were created. Wall paintings and the foundations of an under-floor heating system were also discovered. All of these can be seen through glass windows today.

Given the size of the Roman town, the modern museum has a surprisingly small number of artifacts on display. However, its explanations of the various aspects of Roman life are clear and well-presented.

Like many museums committed to stimulating children, there is a large “Please Touch” room, with replica helmets and clothing. There is no separate Gift Shop, just a small display of items for sale near the ticket booth. The museum web site is here: https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/canterbury-roman-museum/

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