Race against time to save remains of Roman town: A historic site in Essex looks set to be buried forever beneath a new housing estate. David Keys reports

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Archaeologists in Essex have begun excavating a previously unexplored Roman town - but more than 85 per cent of it is to be destroyed or permanently buried.

It could have been the first Roman town in Britain to be excavated comprehensively this century - but lack of resources is now threatening much of the site with destruction.

So far, over 250 metres of streets and more than 15 buildings, including a temple, have been unearthed at the site - near Maldon in Essex. But due to lack of time and finance, less than 15 per cent of the site as a whole will now be excavated.

Under present plans, around 43,000 cubic metres of archaeological remains (a third of the total) will be destroyed by the construction of a housing estate without any archaeological excavation whatsoever. A further 53 per cent of the remains will then be permanently buried - again without any archaeological excavation - under the estate, due to be built by Bovis.

The archaeologists need at least an extra year - plus additional funds from English Heritage to excavate the site properly. They have been given seven months and pounds 1m.

The most significant structure unearthed so far is a temple. Located at the centre of the town, it is of particular importance because it appears to overlie an Iron Age religious building. The Romano-British temple - a double- fenced enclosure with a diameter of 15 metres - had within it a hexagonal timber shrine.

Other remains unearthed by the excavation team - directed by Mark Atkinson of Essex County Council's archaeology section - include those of domestic dwellings, possible workshops, kilns and wells.

Most of the buildings are of timber construction, and are arranged along the sides of streets metalled with gravel and mortar. The roads were maintained and regularly refurbished.

Excavations - together with surveys using remote sensing equipment - have now revealed part of the town's street plan. Several of the roads are ranged around the temple and one major route swerves to avoid it. This suggests that the religious centre preceded urbanisation of the site.

So far the excavators have found no clue as to the name of the town. It is not referred to on any surviving Roman documents.

However, it is possible to speculate. As the later, and still surviving medieval name Heybridge showed, it was in the Middle Ages noted for its heagh bregge (high bridge) over the river Blackwater.

Travelling upstream, it is the first point on the Blackwater where a bridge was possible, and it is likely that the Roman town was built in just such a place. Some evidence suggests that the Romano-British name for the Blackwater was the Penta, and it is conceivable therefore that Heybridge's old Roman name would have been something like Pentabrivae, meaning bridge (or bridges) over the Penta.

Excavations of Heybridge's Roman town have so far yielded thousands of archaeological finds - evidence of ordinary everyday life 1,800 years ago.

Large quantities of pottery have been unearthed including beautiful red-glazed bowls and cups made by craftsmen from what is now central France and the Rhineland. Decorated with animal themes and floral designs, they were luxury items - no doubt used for dinner parties and family celebrations.

One example of the Gallic potters' art found at Heybridge would probably not have been suitable for family occasions, however, for it is decorated with a scene in which two people are locked in a sexual act.

The names of some of the potters have survived as makers' marks - Miccio, Ruffio and Minutuks. It is known that Miccio was a Rhineland potter who emigrated to Britain in the second century AD and set up shop in Colchester.

Other finds include a bronze stag (possibly the emblem of a Celtic woodland god), a tiny animal (probably a bear) used as a toy or gaming piece, several bronze bangles, a Roman horseshoe, and more than 30 bronze brooches, one of which still has its blue enamel inlay.

(Photograph omitted)