A veneer of empire: decorative stonework in Roman Colchester (awarded 2022)

In summer 2022, a team of researchers (Penny Coombe, Glynn Davis, Kevin Hayward, Darrah Jones-Reddy, Molly Larkby) analysed and recorded a group of over 1600 fragments of coloured marble excavated from central Colchester, identified as late-Roman architectural veneers and paving. Veneers were cut stone or glass pieces arranged in patterns and used to ornament luxurious public and private spaces, popular in the late Roman period. The Colchester material is unusual in Britain for its variety and quantity, and allows further investigation of access to luxurious materials, aesthetic trends in the later Roman city, and impact of colour and material on constructions of space.

Stone sources were identified, tool marks and mouldings analysed, and accretions recorded to understand supply, use, and reuse of the material. A reference collection of the main stone types was assembled by petrologist, Dr Kevin Hayward, showing sources from the eastern empire (Turkey, Greece, and Egypt) as well as around half of the material deriving from more local sources (the Purbeck beds of south Dorset). Colchester Museums database will be updated and enriched with professional photography and new observations, and an online collection produced. Emerging results have been presented at an international conference and full publication and further outreach is in preparation. Two undergraduate students from the University of Reading were trained in stone identification, and it is expected that this work will form a pilot study for an expanded, post-doctoral enquiry into coloured architectural ornamentation of urban and rural spaces across the north-west provinces.

Many thanks to the Roman Research Trust for supporting this valuable work, to Hella Eckardt for advice and guidance, and to the referees who supported the application.