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Last Updated 15/4/10

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The Romans in Sittingbourne
THE ROMANS

They came in 55 BC and again in 43 AD. when the invasion force included a unit of The Praetorian Guard (some members pictured on right from a relief in The Louvre), and stayed nearly 400 years.

Archaeology has revealed some 20 Roman villas and dwellings in the area around Sittingbourne. Excavations in the 19th century for brick earth uncovered a number of Roman cemeteries and many valuable artefacts. Many members will be aware of how these artefacts were offered to Sittingbourne and rejected.

OUR ROMAN DISPLAY

We have brought back something of our Roman history  as part of our museum display.

We have a display of Roman artefacts - some of them original Sittingbourne finds - against a background of a Roman Villa, designed to give a flavour of life in our area all those centuries ago.

We are grateful for the loan of artefacts from Maidstone Museum.

 

Before the Romans

The area around Sittingbourne has been lived in for at least 3000 years that is 1000 years before the Romans came.  These people were Celtic tribes moving westwards from continental Europe.  Their lifestyle is well documented in books dealing with the Stone Age and the Iron Age.  A recent dig at Iwade confirms their presence in this area and we have a display in the museum including finds from the settlement.  These people were farmers and they developed trading links with nearby continental countries, France, Belgium and Holland, inhabited by the Franks and the Belgae.  When Julius Caesar came in 55 and 54 BC he found Kent ruled by a number of tribal kings whom he left to rule on behalf of Rome. The main Roman invasion did not take place until 43 AD.

Julius Caesar

 

 

The Romans were in the Sittingbourne area for most of the 400 years of Roman presence in our island.

 

Julius Caesar came in 55 BC when he occupied most of S.E.England up to the Thames, and again in 54 B.C. after which he returned to Gaul leaving Kings to rule Kent and the rest of Britain unconquered.  In 43 A.D. the Emperor Claudius decided to launch a full scale invasion. Henceforward Britain would be a Roman Province with an occupying army and a Provincial administration.

Watling Street

 

For military reasons great importance was attached to good communications and Watling Street, on which Sittingbourne lies, was the main artery from London to Dover.  Sitttingbourne or Sedingbourne (usually translated as The Hamlet beside the Creek) was likely to have been a small tribal hamlet of just a few huts which became a staging post for travelers using Watling Street. It is known that Milton, a mile or so from Sittingbourne, and a port, became the Roman Administrative Centre for the area.  Although we have plenty of evidence of Roman life in our area there is nothing to suggest that Sedingbourne merited even the status of a hamlet.  It may have had an inn and perhaps a market for local produce.

George Payne

 

Most of what we know of Roman occupation in the Sittingbourne area stems from 19th century excavation. Between about 1850 and 1870 large areas of Sittingbourne were denuded of topsoil for brickmaking. As the workmen dug they unearthed many Roman artifacts.  George Payne of the High Street Bank Vallance and Payne took enormous trouble to prevent the finds being lost, stolen or broken and his work is published in his Collectanca Cantiana (1893)

 

The finds were all from burial sites. Evidence of buildings was not found. The position of the sites has some significance. Under Roman law, burial within the town was not allowed. We would therefore expect to find burial sites outside but close to centres of residence. The field known as Bexhill just east of Milton and close to the creek, yielded many Roman lead coffins and may well have been the main Roman cemetery. Another was East Hall, probably for a settlement in the area of Tonge.

 

The sites at Fulston and Chilton were small and contained interments on either side of the road.  It was a common Roman practice to bury their dead beside roads so that passing travellers could note the graves.  A walled Roman cemetery was found at Chalkwell.  One of the coffins was that of a child of about six years of age. The grave contained bracelets and a tiny finger ring. Clearly a family of some substance lived nearby.

 

Many burials were in cinerary urns, denoting cremation, a practice which declined after the second century A.D.  This indicates a Roman presence from quite soon after the occupation in 43 A.D.

 

The People

 

Who were these people ?  Sadly no gravestones or memorials were found so we have no names or family details.  The army of Claudius consisted of some 20,000 Roman troops and about the same number of auxilliaries who were not Roman citizens.  At the end of their service these auxilliaries could hope for Roman citizenship and a grant of land. Increasingly the army of occupation consisted of such men, many of whom settled in Britain.

Milton as a port and administrative centre would have has Roman Officials and traders.  The local oyster beds were an important local industry.

 

The Romans were very good at involving the local population in administration. Caesar described the area as inhabited by the Belgae. Although warlike, these people were not savages and had long had trading links with the continent.  Many would have seen and welcomed the benefits of Roman civilisation.

 

We thus have a population of Roman, Romano-British through intermarriage and Romanised Britons living in the local population. In addition there would have been servants, some of them being slaves.

Homes

Between Chatham and Faversham and tending to border Watling Street the sites of some 20 villas or farmsteads have been uncovered. in 1985 the site of a large Roman Villa was uncovered at Newberry farm in Tonge.  Artifacts dating from the first to the third centuries A.D. were found and indicate a luxurious residence.

 

The owner was likely to have have been a Roman official and the villa suggests a level of comfort and civilised living. Probably parts of the estate were let to smaller farmers.  Even so we should not compare these homes to the great villas to be found in Italy.  Britain was a distant outpost and the farm had to supply all the essentials of crops and livestock to provide food and clothing. We should too be wary of thinking that the residents resembled the classical Roman bust.  One male skeleton found at Milton still had a white beard reaching almost to the waist.

 
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