Kent Archaeological Review 1969 – The Roman Fort at Reculver Excavations 1968: Interim Report by Brian Philp

Reculver Excavation Group

The excavations at Reculver during 1968 were completed as scheduled in October (see (KAR Number 14 page 12). Altogether the work, now entering its eighteenth consecutive year, has produced a vast amount of information about this major site. Its military importance in Roman times can be seen by the strategic position on the north Kent coast, guarding as it does the inland waterways to Canterbury and the Thames Estuary leading to London.

The first Roman occupation of the site was about the time of the Claudian Conquest in AD 43 when a small fortlet was constructed. The east and south sides of this were located in 1961-63 well within the boundaries of the later stone “Shore Fort.” The “Shore Fort” at Richborough similarly covers defensive earthworks of the Claudian period. Little is known of the internal arrangements of the fortlet at Reculver owing to extensive erosion.

The same site was again selected by military engineers about 150 years later when the great eight-acre stone-fort was built. Coin and pottery evidence found in 1957 indicated that this fort was built early in the third century and in 1960 the discovery of the Reculver inscription suggested a date of circa AD 210. It must be significant that London and other Romano-British towns were receiving their defensive walls at about this time. The evidence from the site also suggests that there was an increased period of activity at the end of the third century. This probably related to the measures being taken against Saxon raids which at Reculver may have followed a period of inactivity or even abandonment.

The site appears to have been occupied extensively during the first half of the fourth century though again there may have been a lapse without military occupation. The coin evidence suggests that all military activity stopped at Reculver at about AD 360 though this pattern is not reflected at several other “Shore Forts.” The garrison of the fort is known, both from a written account (Notitia Dignitatum) and stamped titles, to have been the First Cohort of Baetasii. The excavation undertaken in August and September 1968 aimed at throwing more light on the various phases of military occupation. An area east of the Principia and immediately south of the Via Principalis was selected and a large excavation undertaken (Figure 1) It was known from earlier work that all the phases described might be represented at this particular point.

Figure 1. Reculver, 1968. Outline plan of excavations east of Principia.

The east side of the first century fortlet was picked up under later masonry buildings on a known alignment. It took the form of two parallel ditches the inner one 12 feet wide and 7 feet deep and the smaller outer ditch 5 feet wide and 3 feet deep. The inner ditch was Y-shaped in section and the outer V-shaped. The larger ditch appears to have been partially filled and then left to silt. The primary filling contained several potsherds of Iron Age date and the mud-silt above pottery of Belgic type dating to the middle of the first-century AD. This ditch also appeared to be swinging to the north-west and this suggests that the north line of the fortlet lies buried beneath existing cottages, a later Roman bath-house and part of the medieval churchyard. Certainly this would explain its absence from all earlier sections in this area!

At the time of the fort’s construction in circa AD 210 a very substantial building was planned for this area on the same axis as the cast wall of the fort. Its foundations, of consecutive layers of beach pebbles, were found in the south-west corner of the excavation. Further work in October revealed the corresponding south-east corner of this building and it now remains for the western side to be located. There was no evidence to suggest that this building was completed or that any more than the foundations were laid. This tends to confirm the suggestion, based on similar evidence elsewhere inside the fort, that the fort may have been temporarily abandoned shortly after its construction.

Plate 1. Reculver 1968. Excavations as seen from the West.

How long any such abandonment lasted is not known, but it is clear that the planned structure was completely superseded by a pair of substantial buildings the northern ends of which were uncovered during the excavations. The new buildings, aligned on a slightly different axis, extending northwards to a new frontage line and clearly overlaying the original foundations indicate a drastic change of plans and also suggest a different period of occupation. The floors and walls of the later buildings were of clay, the latter no doubt being held within a stout wooden frame resting on very substantial masonry foundations. The walls of the eastern building at least, had been plastered and painted and each probably had heavy, tiled roofs. It seems probable that these buildings were barracks and their position in the central division of the fort close to the Principia suggests some special importance.

The eastern building fell into disrepair and collapsed by degrees. The floor was covered by a thin band of carbon from small fires and in the corner, cutting through the carbon, was an infant burial. Several large pieces of iron, bronze coins and broken bronze objects were found scattered about. Part of the west wall had then collapsed across the debris and included fragments of roof-tile. Again a thin band of carbon collected and more metal fragments, to be scaled yet again by a final fall of wall and more tiles from the roof. This activity is more akin to squatters than to a military garrison and it may indicate that the fort was vacated for some time. Whatever the circumstances it is clear that despite subsequent use of the site by troops no attempt was ever made to rebuild this barrack in any form. Instead is slowly submerged beneath a thick layer of domestic rubbish.

More than 100 coins were found in association with these two buildings though until these have been cleaned precise dating is not possible. It seems, however, that all the coins scaled beneath the collapsed walls date to circa AD 270-300 and that the rubbish above includes coins of the first half of the fourth century. From this it is tempting to suggest that the conjectured withdrawal of troops, resulting in the neglect of the barracks, formed part of a re-organisation by Constantius after AD 296.

Of particular interest was a fragment of a brick stamped with the letters C I B, the sixth so far found on the site. This was sealed beneath the layers of fallen wall in the eastern barrack and, if the coin evidence is correct, the First Cohort of Baetasii must have been at Reculver during the third century AD. Whether they actually built the fort and were also the garrison at the end of the third century has not yet been determined.

It is clear that no other masonry structures were ever built on this site though it is possible and likely that there were wooden buildings here during the first half of the fourth century. Several unsealed post-holes were found above the western barrack, but they did not appear to form any coherent plan. Medieval and later pits were also found. Another interesting programme of work has been planned for 1969 and it is hoped that formal training will be continued.