The Roman water feature in Colchester. (c) Patrick Denney

Colchester secretly disposed of a 2,000-year-old Roman water feature

Patrick Steel, 12.09.2018
Decision in 2006 taken due to lack of resources and size of object
Colchester Borough Council secretly disposed of a 2,000-year-old Roman water feature in 2006.

Patrick Denney, a historian and the chairman of the Friends of Colchester Museums and Art Galleries, who photographed the water feature when it was moved to Colchester Museum’s storage site in 2000, told Museums Journal the fate of the archaeological find had only come to light following an enquiry by the former MP for Colchester, Bob Russell, earlier this year.

Situated behind a Roman house, the water feature was the only one of its kind ever located in Colchester and revealed a lot about what the Romans thought about their gardens, said Denney.

It was moved during a development to turn the site from a post office into an Odeon cinema.

It was “in poor condition, cracking a bit,” when it was excavated, he added, but archaeologists thought it was too valuable to dispose of, so a group of local historians raised around £3,000 to buy a steel cradle to lift it to the storage site.

But rather than being housed indoors at the site it was kept under a tarpaulin in an outside yard, and when the museum service moved in 2006 staff found that the weather had caused it to deteriorate.

“There was a decision to get rid of it,” said Denney. “We don’t know what they did with it.”

“It is outrageous that such a unique part of our Roman heritage has been lost, particularly after the efforts made to save it,” Russell told the East Anglian Daily Times

“The garden water feature should have been put somewhere safe, and a covered location found where it could have been put on display as a rare example – certainly the only example in Colchester – of how Roman civilisation clearly involved people having a love of gardens almost 2,000 years ago.”

But a source close to the museum said the decision to move the water feature was, in fact, taken against the advice of archaeologists and the museum service. 

"The original planning condition was that the developer was required to maintain the water feature in situ, but the planning department removed the condition after archaeologists said it was not viable to preserve it," the source told Museums Journal. "Then a campaign began to have it preserved. It was a political decision to lift it."

According to the source, it would have cost "tens of thousands" to lift and preserve the water feature properly. 

"The item was lifted in fragments," they said. "It was just lumps of rubble, not a coherent structure.

"The museum was asked to take charge of it, but it was never accessioned to the collections, because it was not considered appropriate.

"In retrospect, the planning condition should have been preserved [and the water feature left in situ] if the intention was to preserve it."

A spokesman for the council said: “The artefact was discovered during the excavation of the old post office site by the Colchester Archaeological Trust in 1998. Sadly, due to its fragile state, the water feature suffered significant damage while it was being lifted from the ground.

“This presented a significant conservation challenge when it arrived at the former museum stores at Jarmin Road. As there was insufficient space inside the building, the water feature had to be stored outside.

“We did look at relocating the water feature in the garden behind the Roman Theatre, in Maidenburgh Street, but it soon became clear that its poor condition meant the project to preserve it would be technically unfeasible.

“It would also, and just as importantly in archaeological terms, involve the introduction of considerable amounts of new material which would have significantly compromised the authenticity of the original artefact.

“We are extremely proud of our heritage and efforts were made to preserve the remains outside the museum stores at Jarmin Road. However, sadly it proved impossible to adequately protect the artefact from the weather.

“By the time the council’s museum service moved from the site in 2006, it was in a very poor state. A decision was taken not to transfer the water feature to the new store in Heckworth Close, but to dispose of it except for a small number of tesserae retained for research.

“This decision was not made lightly. Protecting and promoting our heritage is a key commitment of this council. Since this incident occurred we have changed our policies and procedures to ensure similar situations do not happen again in the future.”

But for Denney, the council’s policy-change is too little, too late. “The people of Colchester paid to have the water feature protected and entrusted it to the museum,” he said. “Money-wise it may not have been worth much, but in historical terms it was unique.”

Image depicts the Roman water feature in Colchester. (c) Patrick Denney


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19.09.2018, 16:06
As someone who worked for a local authority museums service for many years, this scenario is painfully familiar: the council ignores their experts to pander to a perceived 'public demand' (probably actually a bullying councillor) and then blames the experts when things go wrong. The second familiar part to this story is the 'with Museum Friends like these, who needs enemies?' Amateur historians who think they know best and, again, ignore the expertise of the people qualified and paid to make the decisions. I can only thank god that I got out of the toxic local authority atmosphere that I was in for so long and commiserate with those who remain in one. I am yet to escape the torture of dealing with a Friends Group though.