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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Digging up the Past (9) --
Pioneers at Richborough.
by Harold Gough.

C Roach Smith, in his Richborough, Reculver and Lymne, gives a number of references to early discoveries at Richborough, down to the "antiquities" found during the building of the railway line just below the fort itself, only a few years before he wrote. He quotes the 16th-century John Leland:

"The walls the which remayn ther yet be in cumpas almost as much as the Tower of London ... The mater of them is flynt, mervelus and long brykes both white and redde, after the Britons fashion. The sement was made of se sand and smaul pible ... Ther hath owt of mynde been found mo(re) Romayne money that yn any place els of England."

As the answer to Quiz 4, question 4 (KAR 24) shows, the site has kept up its reputation in this matter to the present day.

Leland saw, but did not identify, the amphitheatre, and was, also shown where excavation for "treasure" had been attempted. Peering in with a candle (it was too narrow to "crepe far yn") he only saw 'conys' or rabbits. But the "industrious heremite" who inhabited the site in those days provided him with souvenirs in the shape of unspecified small finds.

At the end of the same century, William Camden pioneered the study of crop-marks -- "when the corn is grown up one may see traces of the streets intersecting each other, for where the streets have run, the corn grows thin," he noted at Richborough.

William Boys, the historian of Sandwich, about 200 years later, did some practical if inconclusive fieldwork based on Camden's hint, and identified the nature of the amphitheatre, but never got round to excavating it as he had hoped. He did, however, examine a structure north of the fort, which he identified as a wharf. It was built of tiles and bricks; Mr Ebenezer Mussell bought these materials to pave the yard of his house at Bethnal Green. One wonders if the tiled yard has survived in London E1, or if it has provided London archaeologists with a puzzle!

Boys, too, investigated the platform inside the fort, but failed to prove his theory that it was the site of the practorium; he was of course unaware of the vast masonry foundation below it. This was discovered in 1823 by an excavator named Gleig, who dug a shaft 22 feet deep down the face of it, but was prevented by water from reaching the bottom of the stonework. It was Roach Smith's friend William Rolfe who began serious investigation of the feature, with a seven-week season from September 5, 1843. After tunnelling for some distance around three sides of the foundation, looking without success for a way in, he decided to make one himself, and his workmen hacked a 12-foot passage straight into the flint and concrete, with dire effects on their tools. This passage can still be seen going fruitlessly into the mass. By 1850, when Smith published his book, Rolfe was still hopeful of finding an entrance to an inner chamber.

Rolfe's investigations found about 1200 coins, while another Sandwich man, Edward Reader, had accumulated a similar number but had given half of them away. Roach Smith prints lists of coins derived from both collections and adds that many of Reader's coins were "minims."

It was another twenty years before Reader's nephew, George Dowker, undertook excavations on behalf of the KAS. He too tried to locate the bottom of the masonry, but had the same trouble as Gleig with water at the same depth. The descendants of Leland's "conys" were still about, apparently, for where the sandy soil beneath the platform had sunk away a little, the under-surface of the stones was polished by contact with their fur. Like Rolfe and Roach Smith, Dowker hoped to prove that the foundation was hollow, though his report does not make it clear what he expected to discover if he should ever succeed in penetrating to the interior.

Although Dowker and his colleague, the Reverand F Drake, were acting on behalf of the Society, and his report (Archaeologia Cantiana VIII) is a reasonable and reasoned account of his findings -- he correctly concluded the relative ages of the masonry foundation and the fort walls, on simple stratigraphical grounds -- the then Editor took the remarkable step of adding an appendix of his own, flatly contradicting what he took to be Dowker's conclusions about the foundation in favour of his own view that it had supported a Pharos or watchtower. While politely referring to the "zealous and obliging conductor of the Society's researches" in the first lines of his note, he leaves the reader in no doubt that he had little faith in Dowker's views. Further on, he calls the excavation "our researches," with the air of a participant, but it transpired later that he had not seen much if any of the actual progress of the work. He became almost poetic, however, in his graphic account of how and why, he believed, the foundation was constructed on the orders of the Count of the Saxon Shore himself. The reader is left with the clear impression of some very bitter discord in the background of 1865.

Dowker however, with a KAS grant of 26, did some extensive trenching in the area of the crop-marks in 1887, and some roads and foundations were plotted; other marks were found to be due to natural gravel patches.

Only after Dowker died in 1899 did a posthumously published paper in Archaeologia Cantiana XXIV reply to the editorial comment in volume VIII. In his turn he poured scorn on the Pharos theory, and at length put forward his own -- a monster capstan on the platform, to haul ships close up to the fort for safety; such a machine, he declared, would need a long spindle, securely set into a strong foundation! Perhaps this startling idea, voiced but not set down in print in 1865, was the cause of the Editor's agitation. By a refreshing coincidence, the same volume of Archaeologia Cantiana published a report in more modern style by John Garstang on what was hoped would be the opening of a new series of excavations at Richborough. Nothing more however was done until the Society of Antiquaries' major operations after the First World War, on which five Research Reports have now been issued. 

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