Diya Gupta

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Roman remains in Cambridge

Written by Diya Gupta
Date of Publication: Monday, 15th November, 2010
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For most residents, Castle Hill is just an especially uphill cycle ride in Cambridge, occasionally tempered with a visit to the Castle pub or perhaps to the Maharajah curry house.

But many hundreds of years ago, Castle Hill formed the city centre of Cambridge, part of the upper town where settlements were based, and separated from the lower town by the river. In Iron Age times, the upper town was the seat of power and commerce, and human dwelling around it was widespread. The development went further with the Roman occupation of the upper town from the late 1st century CE onwards.

Unassuming Castle Hill bears testimony to these centuries of human habitation. As Christopher Evans, Executive Director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit explains, St Peter’s Church, next to Kettle’s Yard, today possesses the only visible signs of the long gone days of Roman Cambridge.

Long, flat, reddish roof tiles or tegulae can still clearly be seen on the outer walls of the church. Together with curved imbrices, they once formed overlapping roof tiles that served as a waterproof and durable covering for buildings. While the tegulae would be laid flat on the roof, the imbrices would arch over the joints between their vertical edges, thus enabling rainwater to flow along the surface of the tiles, finally descending into the gutters below.

In ancient Rome, tegulae were made mainly of fired clay, but sometimes also of marble, bronze or gilt. These tiles formed an intrinsic part of Roman architecture, from humble outbuildings to magnificent temples and public facilities.

In Roman Cambridge of the 2nd century CE, however, it is unlikely that they were part of any grand design. The hilly upper town of Cambridge might have formed a good location for a fortified Roman town, with a defensive position over a major river crossing, a confluence of many roads and an interface of a variety of agricultural regions. But it wasn’t a site of Roman grandeur.

In fact, Roman Cambridge has been designated as a town today largely by virtue of its defences. Evidence of these defences can be still be traced along the steep banks of Mount Pleasant, in the gardens of houses along the top of the slope which formed part of the town’s walls more than 17 centuries ago. How then did these tiles or tegulae make their way on to the walls of St Peter’s Church? Christopher Evans believes that the reason is purely functional. In the 12th century, stone was at a premium, and church builders would have made pragmatic use of available Roman ruins as quarries.

This was a fairly common occurrence in England; in Colchester too, for example, evidence has been found of Roman masonry being reused in medieval times. And with substantial Roman foundations being excavated during the creation of the disabled access at Kettle’s Yard in 1992, we can assume that such building material must have been available in medieval Cambridge as well.

The tegulae on St Peter’s wall had humble origins, yet they have remained witness to vast changes in topography and human development in Cambridge. In the 2nd century CE, the slope of Castle Hill would have been much steeper, and Evans says we still don’t fully know how the Romans would have accessed the hill.

Today, the landscape is far more gradual and terraced, and the human inhabitants less concerned with building defences. Supporting the walls of St Peter’s, the tegulae have seen the growth of the University town and the evolution of a gentler Cambridge. More than twice as old as the University itself, they seem ready to quietly weather further passages of time.

With thanks to Christopher Evans of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Other sources: Alison Taylor, Cambridge: The Hidden History (NPI Media Group).
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