Skip to Content.

Kent Archaeological Review extract

Rescue Excavations, Northgate Street, Canterbury 1973.
by Duncan Harrington.
(University of Kent Archaeological Group.)

In 1965 Professor S Frere, of Oxford University, wrote:

"Canterbury in the past has shown too little respect for the earlier relics of its long history. But even now, casual finds whether of walls or portable objects, will continue to be made from time to time wherever holes are dug".See Footnote [1]

The wisdom of this statement was demonstrated in July, 1973 when builders started excavating for the foundations of a shop extension at 68, Northgate Street, Canterbury. With the ready consent and physical help of the owner, Mr Michael Dack, a short rescue-excavation was carried out and an important contribution made to our knowledge of Roman Canterbury.

The workmen demolished part of the existing structure and, on 16th July, excavated a trench (Trench A) to take a massive concrete foundation. Both Mr Dack and the workmen agreed to recover any pottery which might be revealed and by the end of the day an important collection had been made. It was even possible to zone the material and to relate it to more detailed archaeological excavations subsequently carried out. A second trench (Trench B), also intended for a concrete foundation, was then dug in close proximity by the writer and Mr Dack on behalf of the contractors. This went through an overburden of concrete and hardcore to reveal only a rubble-filled soak-away and a post-medieval drain. This was the state of affairs on 30th July; two trenches (both flooded), a group of Roman and medieval pottery, a drain and a potentially important site. The following week a building-inspector ordered trench A to be deepened and again the builders recovered Roman pottery. The writer was able to collect this and with the help of Ann Fish and Ashley Ailes, both of the University Group, to clean, index and study it. From this it was clear that important archaeological evidence was about to be destroyed and that some expert and practical assistance was urgently required. As the contractors were scheduled to pour the concrete on Tuesday, 7th August a final rescue-excavation was carried out with the help of Brian Philp of the CIB (Kent) Archaeological Rescue Corps from Dover Castle. This was done on Monday 6th in pouring rain and in flooded trenches. In that one day it was possible to record a complete vertical section and to recover related stratified Roman and medieval pottery, which form the subject of this Report. I am very much indebted to Michael Dack for his permission, help and support, to Brian Philp for his instant response and notes below and to Misses Wendy Dolphin and Alison Borthwick for the various drawings.

DRAWING: Plan of the Canterbury Site.

Plan of the Canterbury Site.
Site plan: The Big Picture. (154k).

DRAWING: Section of the Canterbury Site.

Section of the Canterbury Site.
Section plan: The Big Picture. (60k).


The main area of interest was in Trench A where it was possible to record, in unusual conditions, an important north-south section (Section A). This showed a largely undisturbed sequence of deposits immediately at the rear of Number 68 Northgate Street at a point about 31 feet west of the centre of Northgate Street itself. Groundwater flooded the trench throughout the excavation and undisturbed natural soil was not seen. A few inches beneath the water was a hard layer of clay, perhaps baked. More certain was the layer above which consisted of 11 inches of grey brown clay-loam (layer 9). This contained 131 Romano-British potsherds including native combed wares, flagons and samian (Form 18) all dating from about AD 50-80. Another 85 potsherds recovered by the workmen, almost certainly from this layer largely matched the first group (Numbers 1-5) and again included samian (Forms 15, 18, 21, 27, 29, 33 and 35).

This layer was sealed by three successive layers of gravel having a total depth of 18 inches (layers 6-8). This represents a massive dump of material which in section resembles a metalled area, perhaps a road or yard relaid at least twice. The dump was cut by a small gully (layer 5) of uncertain length and containing grey-brown loam, but no finds.

The gravel deposits were covered by a 10-inch layer of sterile brown clay-loam (layer 4), probably an alluvial deposit from the nearby river. The surface of this layer was baked hard in one place by a localized fire or hearth, whilst the overlying deposit (layer 3) of black-brown loam contained potsherds and domestic rubbish of the 13-15th centuries. One cooking-pot rim (Number 7) was found at the bottom of this layer. The sealing layers (layers 1 and 2) beneath the shop floor contained a mixture of 17-18th century debris which were cut in turn by a small flint and brick wall probably relating to the shop.

Although the very difficult circumstances prevented a large-scale excavation the work did produce a considerable amount of important information which warrants publication. Judging from the few published accounts very little archaeological excavation had previously been carried out in the Northgate area, particularly outside the walls of the town. Hence the discovery of a deposit containing quantities of Romano-British pottery dating to about AD 50-80 about 120 feet outside the supposed line of the third century town-wall is particularly noteworthy. The evidence, if representative, clearly implies activity in the close proximity during the first century AD. Exactly what the nature of this activity was is difficult to say, but both military and domestic possibilities should be considered.

Equally important are the successive dumps of gravel. These lie on or very dose to the line of the Roman road from Canterbury to Reculver and the probability is that the gravel actually formed part of the road itself. If so this could help fix the site of any Roman gate on this side of the town. The Reculver end of this road was located by the writer in 1953. See Footnote [2]

What is very interesting is that the gravel (road?) is sealed by a sterile layer of clay which may represent an alluvial deposit forming over many years and suggesting a lack of human activity in the immediate area in the post-Roman period. The succeeding layer of black loam, with its medieval pottery, may represent domestic gardens forming part of the expansion of Canterbury beyond the City walls in medieval times. See Footnote [3] Several of the present buildings on the line of the present Northgate Street probably date from the late-16th century.


Footnote 1.

Frere, S S Roman Canterbury: The City of Durovernum, (1965, 4th edition), pages 23-24. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 2.

Philp, B J Discoveries at Reculver, 1955-7, Arch. Cant., LXXII (1958), page 164. Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 3.

Urry, W. Canterbury under the Angevin Kings, (1967, Maps 1B (sheet 2) and 2B (sheet 2). Return to the paragraph.

Footnote 4.

Hull, M R, Roman Colchester (1958) and The Roman Potters' Kilns of Colchester (1963).

Footnote 5.

Philp, B J Excavations at Faversham, 1965, (1968), pages 79-80.

Footnote 6.

Frere, S S Arch. Cant., LXVIII (1954), page 101.
PHOTO: Drawings of Canterbury Pottery.

Drawings of Canterbury Pottery.

Description of the Illustrated Pottery.

  1. Ring-necked flagon of coarse sandy ware. Grey paste and pink-buff surface. Trace of two-ribbed handle (layer 9). Similar to pre-Flavian flagons from Colchester. See Footnote [4]
  2. Carinated beaker of fine ware. Grey paste, grey-black surface and zone of rouletting (layer 9). A common form in deposits dated AD 50-80.
  3. Storage jar with outcurved rim of soft ware. Mottled blue-grey paste and orange-black surface. Bold combed pattern on shoulder and cordons on neck (layer 9). A native vessel similar to those from Faversham See Footnote [5] and Canterbury See Footnote [6] . Mid-first century.
  4. Storage jar with outcurved rim similar to Number 3 (layer 9). Mid-first century.
  5. Jar with outcurved rim of hard sandy ware. Red paste and black surface (layer 9).
  6. Mortarium with hammer-head type rim in smooth ware. Cream paste and surface (unstratified). Probably late-second or early-third century.
  7. Cooking-pot with flanged rim of shell-loaded ware. Black paste and pink-black surface (layer 3). 13th century.
Close Window
Accessed this page via search engine or bookmark? Full K A R Index here.