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The Romano-british period (43 - 440 AD)

Roman javelin

The military activity associated with the Roman invasion has left little trace in south Essex. There are stray finds of a Roman catapult bolt from Orsett, and the head of a javelin from Wakering, but their significance is uncertain.

The classic features that we tend to associate with the Romans, roads and villas, are also largely absent from south Essex. The main Roman roads through the county ran further north. A minor road ran south from the roman town at Chelmsford to Canvey via a settlement at Wickford. Parish and field boundaries appear to preserve the line of an east west Roman road running from the Benfleet area to Wakering. Other tracks will have existed, but the Thames and its associated creeks and estuaries would have remained the major transport routes.

Roman features discovered at Mucking - click for a bigger image of the digs.

The only definite villa in south Essex is one known from aerial photography and surface finds at Thundersley. However, settlement in south Essex was widespread and the whole area was part of a thriving rural economy, no doubt in part supplying the major Roman town at London. Once again some of the best evidence comes from Mucking (above), where soon after the conquest the land was parcelled out into a series of ditched enclosures. A farmstead was set within a double ditched enclosure, with an imposing two leaf gateway and a range of internal buildings including a granary, central well and an associated cemetery. Similar, although more fragmentary, settlement evidence has been recorded all over south east Essex.

Agricultural production was clearly the key to the economy of south Essex, but there is considerable evidence that something still dear to the hearts of south Essex people was extensively exploited at this time. Mussels, cockles and whelk shells have all been recovered from Roman settlements.

Roman ditch full of oyster shell

There is also evidence that for the first time oysters were actively cultivated, no doubt to supply the markets in the Roman towns of Colchester and London as well as places further afield in the Roman Empire.

Redhills show as distinctive red patches when ploughed out.

The earlier Roman period saw a major upsurge in the salt industry with numerous Red Hills being created around the coast. These distinctive features are mounds of debris, fire reddened soil and broken coarse pottery, known as 'briquetage', in south Essex they are particularly concentrated around Foulness and Canvey islands. Canvey seems to have operated as a small port facility, perhaps for transhipment of goods, the island has produced a remarkable range of finds including pottery imports of a kind which can only be matched elsewhere by excavations at port facilities.

Platter, glass flask and samian bowl.

Pottery manufacture was widespread throughout south Essex, pottery kilns have been excavated at Shoebury, Rawreth and elsewhere. The excavations at Mucking alone produced the remains of 23 kilns. Several kilns were also dicovered at Orsett (below). The market provided by the Roman Empire increased the range of goods available in south Essex.

Kilns from Orsett.

Glass perfume bottle and eye make-up jars.

These included objects made in materials not available in earlier periods like these small glass vessels probably for perfume and unguents. These examples were included as grave goods in the burial of a young woman at Billericay where there was a thriving rural settlement; the grave was also furnished with a bronze mirror.

The landscape of south Essex underwent major changes in the later Roman period. The farmstead at Mucking was deserted and the whole area seems to have been converted to fields perhaps as pasture for sheep and cattle. The coastal salt industry also ceased, salt was presumably supplied from inland sources, like Cheshire, or imported from elsewhere in the Roman Empire. There is some evidence to suggest that the Red Hills themselves may have been used as convenient raised areas for campsites for shepherds pasturing sheep on the marshes.

The extent of South Essex - click for a bigger image.

To the north at Bradwell a major fort was built, part of a chain of naval bases designed to protect the east coast against Saxon raiders from across the North Sea. Across the Thames estuary in Kent similar forts were built at Reculver and Richborough. A rectangular cropmark on a high ridge overlooking the estuary at Hadleigh may be the site of a signal station located in the gap between the Kent forts and the one at Bradwell. Formidable as these defences were, in the long run they could not prevent the collapse of Roman authority and the settlement of the area by the Saxons.

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