Roman Lincolnshire and where to find it

The county has an astonishing array of Roman remains, some of them clearly visible, such as those on display in The Collection in Lincoln, while others are hidden unless you know where to look.

A new guidebook to all the Roman remains you can still see in Britain, Roman Britain and Where to Find It by Denise Allen and Mike Bryan, gives Lincoln a top five-star rating to reflect what survives here.

The high hill overlooking a natural lake at the widening of the River Witham, now known as Brayford Pool, was the perfect base for a legion during the push north during the AD 50s. The fortress built here, probably by the Ninth Legion Hispana, later became a Colonia, a city settled by ex-legionnaries, when the military moved north to York. The name Lincoln is most likely a contraction of Lindum (a Latinised version of a Celtic word for pool) Colonia.

The city expanded rapidly, having strategic importance at the junction of the Fosse Way and Ermine Street, spreading down the slope towards the river forming a settlement in two parts, an Upper and a Lower Town. Today the main street between them is the aptly named Steep Hill. In the late third century, the Emperor Diocletian made the city a provincial capital when he sub-divided Britain to try to ease administration; this region was probably Britannia Secunda, or perhaps Flavia Caesariensis.

The best place to start discovering Roman Lincoln is at The Collection, a truly superb museum where the lion’s share of exhibits is Roman, including fine mosaics, pottery, coins, and memorial stones. A facsimile of a tombstone from Mainz in Germany in the foyer is dedicated to Marcus Minicius Marcellinus, who was the most senior centurion of the Twentieth Legion. The inscription tells us that he was from Lincoln making him the city’s earliest named resident.

An impressive model of a legion at full strength on parade shows what a formidable fighting force 5,000 highly trained Roman soldiers must have been. The Collection run tours of Roman Lincoln during the summer months.

The jewel in Lincoln’s Roman crown is the Newport Arch, the only Roman gateway in the country still used by modern traffic. The arch has had more than a few scrapes with modern technology, having been nearly demolished in the 1960s by an errant lorry, and more recently suffering a similar threat from drivers blindly following their sat nav.

The arch was the North Gate of the Upper Town and dates from the early fourth century when the gate was enhanced to reflect the status of the city as a provincial capital. The street level has built up over the centuries, so the arch would have effectively been three metres higher than it appears today, and more impressively it would have had a second storey and flanking semi-circular towers.

A perambulation around the route of the wall from the Newport Arch will take in a Roman water cistern, the terminus of the aqueduct supplying water to the city, and the East Gate, which is now next to the Lincoln Hotel. The Cathedral nearby houses a fine geometric mosaic, which was discovered in the cloisters in 1793. The other really impressive chunk of Roman masonry is hidden in plain sight behind the Castle Hotel on West Bight. Five metres high and 20 metres long, the Mint Wall is the surviving north wall of the Roman Basilica, the equivalent of the town hall and law courts. It ranks alongside the Jewry Wall in Leicester and The Old Work in Wroxeter as one of the most substantial standing sections of a Roman civilian building in Britain.

Further south in Lincoln, the foundations of Lower West Gate can be hunted out, along with inscribed stones at the churches of St Swithin’s and St Mary le Wigford, as well as a figurative carving in the tower of St Peter at Gowts. A section of Roman road, probably the Fosse Way, is displayed under a glass floor at the Church of St Mary’s Guildhall.

Head south to find the Roman town of Ancaster, now a rural village on the line of Ermine Street, the main Roman road between London and Lincoln. The visible remains are centred around St Martin’s Church, from where the line of the town wall and ditch can be seen in the field across the road. On the wall next to the lychgate is a replica of a sculpture of three mother goddesses found in the churchyard in 1831; the middle one, like the original, having lost her head at some stage. Along with many finds from the town, the original resides in The Collection in Lincoln. Inside the church there is a small display about the Roman town including some pieces of sculpture.

Horncastle also boasts a Roman past, having been tentatively identified as the Roman town of Banovallum. The late Roman walls of the town have surviving sections hidden in unlikely places, making for an entertaining treasure hunt. Get your bearings on the south side of the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, where the wall follows the line of houses facing the churchyard in Church Walk. To the west lie big chunks of the wall in private gardens in St Mary’s Square, at the entrance to Banovallum House in Manor Street. Travelling east of Church Walk brings you to Horncastle Library, which has another length of the wall displayed within. The most surprising glimpse of wall, however, is in the back room of a bookshop in St Lawrence Street.

Roman Lincolnshire is also well represented in the wonderful Hull and East Riding Museum in the centre of Hull, just over the county border. The grand mosaics from the Roman Villa at Horkstow Hall, which were discovered when digging a vegetable garden in the 18th century, are superbly displayed. These include one scene with Orpheus calming the beasts with his music and another resembling a painted ceiling, but the most complete and vibrant depicts a chariot race. The circus is depicted with chariots racing at obvious speed, sporting their team colours, and losing wheels, all adding to the excitement.

Roman Britain and Where to Find It by Denise Allen and Mike Bryan is published by Amberley Publishing, price £19.99

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