Two metres beneath the Kent countryside, archaeologists have found the beginning of British history. Excavations at Richborough in east Kent have uncovered the original beach – now two and a half miles from the sea – where the Roman legions started their conquest of Britain almost 2,000 years ago. The site represents the moment Britain's prehistory ended and its history began.
The archaeologists from English Heritage have only exposed four square metres of the beach, but the discovery is already shedding new light on the earliest events of the conquest.
Until now, scholars had been divided as to what orders the Romancommander, Aulus Plautius, first gave on landing in Britain in 43 AD. Some academics had interpreted a set of earthworks exposed by the latest excavation as a fort built to accommodate all or some of the 20,000 legionnaires in the invasion force. Other scholars believed those earthworks were a bridgehead defensive structure, designed to protect the boats of the Roman invasion fleet once they had been hauled on to the beach.
Now the discovery and excavation of the beach itself has pinpointed its geographical relationship to the earthworks, proving that the earthworks were a beachhead defence, protecting around 700 metres of coast. The site is now two and half miles inland because the bay that the Roman fleet sailed into has long been silted up.
Tony Wilmott, an English Heritage archaeologist who has been directing the excavations, believes the site was also a strategic transit point from which some ships set sail again, bound for Chichester, further to the west.
He argues that the Romans sailed first to Richborough (Rutupiae, a name of Celtic origin probably meaning "Muddy Waters") to establish a beachhead, and then waited for a change of wind so at least some could sail safely on to Chichester, where the local tribal ruler was enthusiastically pro-Roman.
For at least a century, the place was the main port of Roman Britain, linking the province to the rest of the empire. In the late first century AD, the Romans built a 25-metre high marble and bronze triumphal arch at Richborough to commemorate their invasion.