In the Footsteps of Caesar: the archaeology of the first Roman invasions of Britain

Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain are the first chapter of the written history of these islands, but the last comprehensive study of them was in 1907. For many reasons, the time is now ripe to revisit the invasions and the long-term changes they caused.

Bridge Helmet
Roman helmet from a mid-first century BC burial at Bridge. Kent. Was this helmet worn by one of Julius Caesar’s soldiers?Photograph By Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum
When Caesar set out in 57BC to expand Roman control over what is now northern France, Britain was drawn inexorably into the conflict. In 55 and 54 BC, the general invaded Britain, writing a vivid account not only of his victories, but also of the disaster that threatened his army when storms wrecked the fleet. This conquest of an island beyond the known world caused a sensation in Rome. And therein lies the problem. Caesar was not only a brilliant general, but also an astute politician and formidable self-publicist. As a result, his excursions to Britain were long dismissed as a sideshow to the main battle for Gaul, the significance of which he exaggerated, which left few, if any, tangible archaeological traces on the island and changed very little.

Now new discoveries in southern England have put the invasions of 55 and 54 BC back on the research agenda. Burials and forts identified through fieldwork, and Iron Age coins and other objects reported by the public to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) can be plausibly related to two campaigns and their aftermath. It is now understood that because of coastal change Caesar’s landing sites could now lie well inland. A better understanding of these new finds is, however, hindered by the lack of an interpretative framework. This new four-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust sets out to address this gap and to ask such key questions as: what would the archaeological footprint of Caesar's invasions look like? How can changes linked to the campaigns be identified? What, if anything, was their lasting significance?

GBE coin
Gallo-Belgic E gold stater. These gold coins were used to pay soldiers fighting against Caesar and are found regularly in northern France, Belgium and south-east Britain. Courtesy Portable Antiquities Scheme
We will seek to answer these question by working across disciplines using a range of techniques and types of evidence: historical criticism, field survey and excavation, study of both old and new finds, numismatics, and modelling landscape change. The scale of analysis will range from tiny differences between dies used to mint coins to airborne LIDAR survey of entire landscapes. It is not, however, our aim to retrace the invasions in every detail, but rather to contextualise the campaigns and their long-term repercussions for Iron Age societies in southern England and northern Gaul. Nor is the project just for the research community: the field surveys will involve community groups and Operation Nightingale, which is successfully using archaeology as a recovery method for injured military personnel. In this way, we hope to revive interest in events whose significance has long been neglected and to bring to life for a wider audience the drama that was the first chapter of Britain's written history.

Principal Investigator: Professor Colin Haselgrove, University of Leicester
Lead Research Associate: Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick, University of Leicester

 


Project Partners

Vicki Score and University of Leicester Archaeological Services; Dr Julia Farley and Dr Ian Leins, The British Museum; Al Oswald, University of York; Simon Mason, Kent County Council; Dr Derek Hamilton, University of Leicester/SUERC.

Project Sponsor

In the footsteps of Caesar is funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2014-141).

Mid-first century BC burial at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. This is one of a small group of high status graves north of the Thames that contain rare types of Roman imports such as silver cups. Were these diplomatic gifts received as part of the peace agreement of 54 BC? Photograph By Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

 

Mid-first century BC burial at Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. This is one of a small group of high status graves north of the Thames that contain rare types of Roman imports such as silver cups. Were these diplomatic gifts received as part of the peace agreement of 54 BC?Photograph By Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

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