Roman Canterbury, in theory


  • Jake Weekes (Canterbury Archaeological Trust)

Remnants of the place we call Roman Canterbury have been, and continue to be, amassed and recorded, piecemeal. Beyond the pretence of a tacit agreement about Durovernum, however, it seems there are as many versions of Roman Canterbury in theory as archaeologists who are interested in it. The history of the place is still read by some through the old fashioned lens of basic comparison with Rome and Romans, or very “Roman” places, or Roman history; by others it rather analysed as a provincial backwater making up its own, more Gallo- Roman version of an urban place. It is typically over simplified: in published maps the entirety of its existence is traditionally conflated into a single form based on the reconstructed outline of its late Antique walls, despite the fact that it had at least two very different topographies in the preceding 250 years. What became a town may have begun as a water inspired, then tectonised, ritual sanctuary, in Gallic form, only subsequently becoming a capital of the Civitas, whatever we mean by that. It certainly contracted in the late third or early fourth century, when the rampart and walls were built, but, for example, had the now “excommunicated” suburb of St Dunstans ever been infilled with anything town like? There are many more questions about the overall layout (by design?) of the town, but equally many other narratives that are under explored, and less emphasised, especially particular findings that upset the more conventional accounts of longue durée and centralised town planning, like public buildings becoming industrial areas, houses built across roads, and strange intra-mural burials. There is a growing sense that such evidential anomalies point the way to a much more detailed and interesting history.

The aim of this session is to inform future research into Roman Canterbury through emphasising not just the synthesis of data and comparison of data types, but also questioning of received wisdoms and grand narratives, and further applications of today’s theoretical frameworks rather than merely responding to new data in an unproblematic way. The latter also applies to the narratives we present to the wider public. Extraordinary new data from recent excavations will inform the discussions.

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