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Kent Archaeological Review extract

The Excavation and Conservation of the Roman Forts at Dover 1971 -- an account of the struggle.
by Brian Philp.


The mammoth rescue-excavation on the line of the York Street A20 Diversion still progresses (February 1972) after more than 240 days. This has prevented a more detailed report, but just how the two major Roman forts were saved when certainly doomed for destruction is worthy of separate treatment. Several of the more spectacular small-finds are also described and illustrated. The work on the by-pass has been carried out in four main phases.

Phase I: July-September 1970 (13 weeks).

Total excavation of four main sites in the only areas available.

Phase II: July-September 7th, 1971 (11 weeks).

Total excavation of four more major sites in areas subsequently made available.

Phase III: September 8th-December 20th, 1971 (14 weeks).

Excavation of two major and four smaller sites whilst contractors working on site.

Phase IV: December 21st-April, 1972 (19 weeks).

Surveillance, recording of one major and several minor excavations during construction of roadworks. Collation of recorded information and initial processing of finds.

The main task which now lies ahead is that of publication. Without adequate publication the vast amount of hard work by so many people will mean almost nothing. It will require thousands of hours of work by specialists and non-specialists alike. There are hundreds of original sections and plans to be traced; more than 40,000 finds to be sorted and classified and books full of detailed notes to be studied. If publication can be achieved, which may mean several volumes, it is clear that the early history of the town will be transformed. What will be wanted are special facilities for the work of preparing for publication and these must be provided as a matter of urgency before the vital evidence becomes spread or lost.

The Battle for British Archaeology.

That 70 per cent of British history remains unwritten and yet lies buried in the soil is a "secret" known by many, but appreciated by few. Sadly, whole chapters of our early history are weekly being destroyed by developments, great and small, in the majority of our ancient towns. So very few, save such notable exceptions as Gloucester, Oxford and Winchester, are either made aware, made to care or feel obliged to record and occasionally preserve the very roots which made them great. Too few, it seems, can understand that history and archaeology are an essential part of a well-balanced environment. Indeed a town council which destroys its past must appear to have very little future.

PHOTO: Carved chalk block of armless man; pipe-clay figurine of Mother-Goddess.

1. Carved chalk block depicting armless man framed by crude columns and entablature. This is probably a simple votive tablet carved by a Roman Sailor. From a Roman building in the Last Lane area. Drawn by Mr. Beningfield. ( full size). 2. Pipe-clay figurine of Mother-Goddess (head missing) holding twins. A popular votive object known from only a few other sites in Kent. From a Roman building in the Last Lane area. Drawn by Mr M Hickson.

Not so the famous Kentish port and town of Dover. Here the new era dawned in 1970! Almost forgotten are the days of destruction, the total demolition of about a mile of fine town-wall; the removal of great town-gates, the tearing-down of St Martin's Priory and the elimination of many fine town houses. With the advent of the York Street bypass, likely to pass through suspected areas of the Roman town of Dubris and certain to cut through the medieval area, a determination to excavate, record and perhaps preserve was in the air. Sparked off by the imagination of the New Dover Group, and supported by generous grants from the town council, from the Department of the Environment, from the Pilgrim Trust and many other worthy bodies, the work began in June, 1970 under the nominal umbrella of the Council for Kentish Archaeology. On the scene there soon arrived a small army of volunteers, drawn from every corner of the County and from far beyond, of all ages, professions, shades and sizes, most of them tested over many years on other rescue sites in Kent. Soon at convenient sites along the line of the intended road large areas were opened and the excavations began in earnest. In 90 days of non-stop work more than 5,000 tons of soil and concrete had been moved by teams of workers aided by machines and fleets of lorries. In one short gasp the history of the town had shot back 4,000 years to Neolithic times when an extensive farm had existed on the site around 2000 BC. Then a long gap and next an Iron Age farm around 500 BC complete with wooden hut and pits for storage.

With the advent of Roman rule in AD 43 the quiet hillside by the River Dour was transformed into an important military base. Two major Roman forts were found, the earlier one totally unsought but the later one was predicted by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1929. Both displayed impressive defensive walls and ditches and the earlier one had fine internal buildings and roads. Above all this were the ruins of the Saxon town destroyed by fire in about AD 800 and higher still the foundations, floors and rubbish of medieval and later townsfolk. A vast display through more than 4,000 years of history was buried beneath the pavements and tarmac of modern Dover!

DRAWING: Pipe-clay face mask; Carved chalk votive tablet.

3. Pipe-clay face-mask, probably used for ceremonial purposes, Only part of the right eye and hair survive. From Durham Hill area. Drawn by Rowenna Chatters. ( full size). 4. Carved chalk votive tablet from Last Lane area. Drawn by Rowenna Chatters.

With the winter demolition of several schools, shops, pubs and houses to make way for the by-pass new areas became available for excavation in 1971. Again the volunteers returned in June and so began another 70 days of non-stop work, with blisters, back-ache and the constant threat that time was running out. Another 5,000 tons of soil and concrete were removed by machine and hand. This time complete Roman barracks and granaries, with walls remaining up to 9 feet high were exposed and flanking these more Roman roads. drains and water-mains. To the north a fine Roman house or bath-building was found with two rooms largely complete and decorated with large areas of brilliantly painted plaster, an exceptional survival from the province of Roman Britain.

Time ran out. On September 1st, the road-builders moved in and took possession of the sites as all knew they would, and all save the "Painted House" was doomed for immediate destruction, or so it seemed. Readily the contractors began their opening campaign in an area largely unavailable for prior archaeological investigation on the south side of Queen Street. Shortly, here too, whole ranges of complete Roman buildings could be seen and suddenly the situation became all too clear. The earlier Roman fort survived intact! Here was the finest and most complete Roman fort ever found in Southern Britain fairly bristling with buildings, sewers, drains, internal roads and high defensive walls. This was the headquarters of the Roman fleet in Britain, the mighty Classis Britannica no less, as hundreds of tiles stamped with their insignia soon showed. All of the sites abounded with domestic pottery, coins and tools which, together with evidence from earlier and later times, now total more than 40,000. Was all this to be destroyed by the new by-pass designed to nestle deeply in the hillside just above the Market Square? This was the Dover Castle of the Roman province, but 1,000 years older than the famous medieval castle still sitting on the hill outside the town.

DRAWING: clay lamp.

5. Almost complete clay lamp stamped on the base with the name of the maker (THALL not T. Hall). This would have been filled with oil from the centre and the wick placed at the tapered end. From the Queen Street area. Drawn by Miss W Dolphin.

Determined negotiations began on September 19th with the substantial backing of archaeological bodies, local, county and national. Instant action came from the New Dover Group, the CKA and the fledgling 'Rescue', the latter body dedicated, it seems, to the national cause of archaeology. Aided by loud public clamour and encouraged by the sympathy of the Mayor, Town Clerk and Council, the unswerving support of the Dover Express and Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the cause was not lost. Most could see the immediate threat as needless destruction of one of the finest ancient monuments in Britain. The wires buzzed furiously, the archaeological excavations renewed with tired vigour, the weather closed and resources stretched, but time was running out. Happily the road-engineers at Guildford were equally anxious to avoid needless destruction and soon the Department of the Environment had joined the cause. By mid-October Mr Julian Amery, Minister for Housing and Construction, was able to announce that the by-pass level could be raised! A victory for Dover, Kent and Britain, or so it seemed. However, the Minister's good intentions had been frustrated, for almost inevitably "insurmountable technical difficulties" made it impossible to raise the road by more than 12-18 inches and this would still substantially destroy the Roman fort.

DRAWING: Complete green-glazed medieval jug.

6. Complete green-glazed medieval jug with applied spiral decoration, single handle and large spout. This vessel was found in a medieval pit in the Adrian Street area. Probably early 14th century. Drawn by Gerald Clewley.

The situation was now desperate and made no better by some of the early support withdrawing from what they thought was a finished cause. Happily, the stalwart few remained and as an instant remedy commissioned a well-known Sandwich surveyor and engineer, George Ashenden, to make a new survey of the road. His keen mind soon produced a possible solution whereby the new by-pass and both Roman forts could yet survive together. This imaginative scheme was explained to Mr Peter Rees, Member of Parliament for Deal and Dover, who was at once convinced that justice must be done. In turn, the Minister readily agreed to consider the fresh evidence. On November 16th the final grand decision came: The by-pass was to be raised by nearly six feet in places and both Roman forts were thus to be saved. The new road would appear as planned, the contractors, as always, anxious to help, received an extended contract and some of the most important structures ever built in the town of Dover were not to be destroyed. The work of excavation and negotiation had lasted 140 days and there were only four survivors of the team left. Now, archaeologists and contractors work side by side on the York Street Road. The future too looks bright. Dover Corporation has announced bold plans to open the now-famous "Painted House" and to create around it a fine new archaeological museum, a scheme which may well cost 100,000: an outstanding new attraction for the town's six million annual visitors. And, incidentally, the shell of The-Cause-is-Altered public-house is to be retained. Although of no vast archaeological merit, this famous Kentish pub preserves within its walls parts of the medieval town-wall and Cow Gate. It will create a landmark to fix for ever this part of the medieval plan and will also provide a quiet corner of old Dover for the enjoyment of the old folk from the nearby Old People's Home -- a peaceful sanctuary for them from the terrors of the 20th century. So too in years to come, long after the by-pass is no more, future generations will be free to open up the great Roman naval forts and marvel at their past. Meanwhile, thanks to the strenuous efforts of many both in discovery and in conservation, these vestiges of the ancient Gateway of Britain will at least be preserved in safe storage.

The Painted House.

One of the most interesting discoveries of the recent excavations was part of a fine Roman house near Market Street. Several large rooms were revealed and each was found to be heated by means of underfloor heating. Some of the walls still stood nine feet high and more than 400 square feet of finely painted wall-plaster was found intact. Both Professor Toynbee and Sir Mortimer Wheeler were shown the plaster and marvelled at its extent. It seems likely that it represents the finest and most extensive Roman plaster ever found outside Italy itself.

Dover Corporation has announced a scheme to cover the Roman Painted House with a protective building and to create within it a fine new archaeological museum. This highly enlightened scheme should prove one of the major tourist attractions of Southern Britain. It is hoped that a report dealing with the discoveries in the Painted House will be published in the next issue of the KAR.


The struggles of the past few months have called upon the time and energy of many people and it is essential that those who have made a substantial contribution to the work be thanked by name. The first thanks must surely go to Edna Philp, Gerald Clewley and Howard Davies who have continued throughout all phases of the operation with loyalty and determination. Next thanks to the various supervisors and section-leaders; Mrs N M Roberts, Miss K Filden, Mr D Ellwood, Mr G Cramp, Mr A Mills, Mr I Jackson, Mr A.Gidlow and Mr E Connell. Of the diggers, Mrs T Clithero, Mrs Robertson, Miss P George, Miss J Taylor and Messrs W Harcourt, Perkins, G Hutchinson, E Tullett, P Bennett, C Reed, M Errington, J Kay, N Robson, J Gaunt, N Logan, J Williams, D Crellin and D Garrod all worked for protracted periods and deserve special mention.

The cost of the whole operation was considerable and financial support can from many sources. Particular thanks are extended to the following:

  • The Department of the Environment,
  • The Pilgrim Trust,
  • Dover Corporation,
  • Kent Archaeological Society,
  • Council for Kentish Archaeology,
  • British Academy,
  • Mr I D Margary,
  • Society of Antiquaries,
  • Marc Fitch Fund.

In addition many people and local authorities throughout Kent subscribed generously to the CKA Appeal and their support was particularly beneficial. The spectacular discoveries truly reflected the grand response and ready co-operation of so many people.

Excavations at Dover 1972 and Open Days.

Further large-scale rescue-operations are planned for Dover in 1972, during the months of July and August. It seems certain that much more of the Roman and medieval town will be revealed and a section of the Painted House will also be opened. Special arrangements are to be made to cater for visitors who will be welcomed in small or large parties daily from 11 am to 1 pm and from 3 pm to 5 pm from 20th July to 20th August, 1972. Visitors will be able to see many of the very latest discoveries and it should be possible to arrange guided tours.

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