The Corinium Museum, in the beautiful Cotswold town of Cirencester in England, has a large collection of objects found in and around the locality. The bulk of the exhibits are from the Roman town of Corinium Dobunnorum, but the museum includes material from as early as the Neolithic and all the way up to Victorian times. The museum has a very good collection of 2nd- and 4th-century Roman mosaic floors and carvings, as well many other Roman objects, large and small.
Towns were unknown in Britain before the Romans arrived. Town life formed the basis of Roman civilization. From their arrival, the Romans sought to encourage the growth of towns, establishing a series of administrative centres or civitas capitals throughout all the tribal areas. Many of these towns were established near to or on the sites of the pre-existing Iron Age tribal centres. It is likely that Corinium (Roman Cirencester) was founded to replace the Iron Age Dobunnic centre at Bagendon. Towns provided a market place for the exchange of goods, a convenient way of collecting taxes and supplies, and were used to impart Roman culture.
By 75 AD the Roman garrison at Corinium had been transferred elsewhere. This reflected the changing military situation in the southwest, the threat from Wales having been removed. The fort buildings and its ramparts were dismantled and ditches filled in. The vicus or civilian settlement that had built up around the fort was sufficiently well established to survive. It’s population increased, and it continued to act as a local market. Corinium Dobunnorum, Roman Cirencester, was the second largest town in Roman Britain. Its walls eventually enclosed 96 hectares. The town was the tribal capital and administrative centre or civitas for the Dobunni, the pre-Roman local tribe. It has been estimated that it had a population of between 10,000 and 20,000. This compares to modern day Cirencester which has a population of around 18,000.
After the departure of the army the vicus was remodelled and a street grid based around Ermin Street was laid out. The streets were laid out in straight lines at right angles to each other. These formed rectangular plots of building land, called insulae. These insulae measured on average 160 metres by 100 metres and were allocated for development. In the centre of the town, bordering Ermin Street, stood the main public buildings, the basilica and forum. Shops, private houses and public buildings such as temples and baths and a theatre were built elsewhere in the town. By the 3rd century the town was equipped with walls and monumental gateways. The roads leading out from the gates were lined with the town’s cemeteries. As the main market for the surrounding area, the town probably had many shops, bars and food stalls as well as public buildings. Corinium would have been a prosperous and bustling town just like modern day Cirencester.
In the centre of the town, at the junction of the Fosse Way and Ermin Street, stood the forum and basilica. This massive structure was 103 metres long. Originally built about 110 –130 AD, it was modified in the mid 2nd century, and again at the end of 3rd or early 4th century. The basilica consisted of an aisled hall, approximately 85 by 26 metres. A paved apse on the southwest end accommodated the tribunal or law court. The hall was divided into a nave and aisles by dwarf walls, which carried a colonnade. Beyond the southeast aisle lay a range of rooms flanked by an external veranda. Internally the basilica was decorated with mouldings of Purbeck marble and parts of the walls covered in Italian marble veneer. It contained at least one bronze statue, the eye of which was found in the apse.
Excavations show the forum consisted of a piazza 103 by 84 metres adjacent to the basilica. The piazza was floored with flagstones and surrounded on at least two sides by a range of rooms with internal and external verandas. Sometime in the 4th century the forum was modified. On the northwest and northeast the porticoes were filled in and tessellated pavements inserted. A secondary cross wall, dividing the piazza into two parts, was also added.
In the Roman world, every self-governing community would have had a forum and basilica. The basilica housed the meetings of the town council and the local courts of justice. The forum was the main public open space where assemblies or public ceremonies took place, markets were held and people conducted business or met their friends. A council, known as an ordo, administered each tribal area in Roman Britain. It was usually about 100 strong. Membership was limited to men of the landowning classes known as curiales or decurions. The minimum age for membership was thirty. The decurions were responsible for the collection of the imperial taxes. Each ordo had a number of elected magistrates the most important of which were the two duoviri iuridicundo. At Corinium they are recorded on a partial inscription from the Beeches Road town house. They were assisted by two aediles who were responsible for the maintenance of public buildings.
Corinium had one of the largest amphitheatres in Roman Britain. It was a centre for entertainments and events, which could hold the entire free adult population of the town. Its impressive remains are still visible to the southwest of the modern town centre. The amphitheatre was constructed in the early 2nd century AD and was probably planned as part of the civic building programme of Corinium. It was oval with two entrances on the long axis, one in the northeast and one in the southwest. The original walls may have been made of timber or stone and were plastered and painted. Sometime after the mid 2nd century it was substantially rebuilt in stone. The seating banks, originally rising to 10 metres, had tiers of wooden seats laid on low dry stonewalls. It is assumed that the rear terraces were for standing spectators. It is estimated that it could accommodate 8,000 people. By the early 4th century it had fallen into disuse. Favourite attractions probably included gladiatorial combat, bear-baiting, animal hunts, boxing and wrestling.
A timeline of the museum shows us the development of this fascinating and educational collection. Following the discovery and lifting of the Four Seasons and Hunting Dogs mosaics in 1849, archaeological interest in the town mushroomed. James Buckman was a professor of geology and botany at the Royal Agricultural College and an enthusiastic student of Roman archeaology, writing a paper with Charles Newmarch on 'Remains of Roman Art in Ancient Cirencester’ in 1850. He immediately saw that these pavements were of unusual quality and size and deserved preservation. James Buckman found ready support for his view in Canon Powell, vicar of Cirencester, Charles H. Newmarch, T.B. Brown, J. Brown, T. Cox and other leading residents. When representations were made that the pavements might be placed in a suitable building for exhibition, Henry George, fourth Earl Bathurst most generously came forward and said he would at his own expense provide a museum for their reception and for the deposit of other Roman remains found in the town and district.
For various reasons the erection of the museum was postponed for some time but was eventually built from deigns and plans of J. Parrish F.S.A., architect on the site of an ancient inn known as the Barley Mow. This stood adjacent to the Tetbury road and immediately opposite the entrance to the Great Western Railway Station. On the Bathurst estate. The Museum opened in August 1856 and James Buckman became the first curator until he left Cirencester in 1863. "Besides the noble tessellated pavements, the best of their class, which form the floor of the building, there are already displayed five handsomely made cases filled with antiques, which as much as fifteen to eighteen centuries since formed the household furniture of the highly civilised and advanced people who help possession of our ancient city at that remote period…..These with sculptures, tombstones and portions of architecture are here brought under our view, and may truly be said to teach us more of the history of Roman occupation in Britain than all the histories that have ever been written." Extract from Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Standard.
Captain Charles Compton Abbot had been captain in the 47th regiment of Infantry, and in January 1862 was appointed adjutant of the Royal North Gloucestershire Militia whose headquarters were in Cirencester. He at once took great interest in antiquarian pursuits and on Buckman's departure in 1863 was appointed by Earl Bathurst to be curator, and continued as such till 1869 when he retired from militia. Most notable discovery in this time was the acrostic palindrome scratched on wall plaster. 1869-1879. Arthur Herbert Church, Curator. Church came to Cirencester in 1863 when he was appointed professor of chemistry at the Royal Agricultural College. He took a leading part in the work of archaeological research in Cirencester and assisted Capt. Abbot in securing many museum objects. In 1868 he brought out the first printed guide to the contents of the museum. During his Curatorship he also succeeded in acquiring a Roman cinerary urn of glass, the statuette of Diana and five gold Roman coins in fine condition. 1870-1881. John & Thomas Bravender. Work on the town sewage system during the 1870s led to extensive tunnelling through the foundations of the older buildings of the town. The surveyors responsible for much of the work were John and Thomas Bravender who recorded the Roman remains as they were found. The artefacts they collected were donated to the Bathurst Museum in 1881.
1890-1930 Cripps Collection. Shortly after Bathurst opened The Corinium Museum, Wilfred and Helena Cripps built an extension ‘The Mead’ onto their private residence in Thomas Street to house their own collections. The development of the Cripps collection and the circumstances of archaeological discoveries in the town between 1890 and 1930, including excavations funded by the Cripps (the basilica excavations 1897-8, and Union Workhouse excavations in 1922 ), are faithfully documented in a series of Helena Cripps’ letters written to Professor Haverfield at Oxford University. The Cripps museum at The Mead was open on request to visitors and students, and on one day every year the gardens of The Mead and the museum were opened to all the towns people of Cirencester free of charge. Figures of over 1000 visitors in this day were recorded several times in the 1920s. Mr Priestly became the 6th Curator in 1932. He had a wide knowledge of Romano-British antiquities and was well-known as an excavator. It was during his term of office that the new museum was conceived and the collections of the Bathurst and Cripps families given to the town.
It was in March 1935 at a meeting of the Cirencester YMCA that the possibility of turning part of their premises at Abberley House, Park Street, into a museum was first discussed; with the intention of bring together the Cripps and Bathurst Collections. In June that year this was proposed to a meeting of the Cirencester Urban District Council and agreed upon. Abberley House was bought from the YMCA with money put up by the Seventh Earl and Lady Bathurst and Sir Frederick Crisp. The YMCA continued to occupy the house and a new Corinium Museum was built between 1937 - 1938 in the garden behind at a cost of over £5,000. An appeal raised over £1000 of which £500 was a grant from the Carnegie Trust towards fittings and the installation of the Jupiter column capital. In August 1938 Miss H.E. Donovan was appointed part-time curator of the new Corinium Museum on a salary of £2 per week. She arranged the new displays with advice from Miss M.V. Taylor of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The new building, which is the rear part of the present Corinium Museum, was opened to the public on October 28th 1938 by Professor G.M. Trevelyan.
In addition to the permanent displays there are a number of temporary exhibitions including the Medieval Manuscripts of Cirencester Abbey. This is a rare opportunity to see manuscripts which were in Cirencester Abbey Library at its Dissolution in 1539, brought back and displayed in Cirencester. Loaned by the Bodleian Library and Jesus College Oxford, all are connected to Abbot Alexander Nequam – a fitting commemoration of the 800th anniversary of his death. Nequam’s writings are important, being early in the development of scientific attitudes. He lectured in Paris and Oxford before coming to Cirencester Abbey. There is a dropped kerb outside the museum for easy access. The reception and ticket area is located on the ground floor with step free, level access, throughout. There are several bench seats in the reception area. The area is evenly and well lit with overhead lighting. There is a lowered section at the welcome/ticketing desk. There is a hearing loop system installed at the counter. Wheelchair loan is available, free of charge, on request. There is also an entrance to the Cirencester Visitor Information Centre and Shop. Entrance to this and the temporary exhibition space is free.
There are interactive touch screen activities throughout the museum; all can be accessed from a sitting or standing position. Interpretation boards are all in large text, and have pictorial representation where applicable. Large print and braille guides are available from reception. The Corinium Museum is very hands on with tactile interactives some of which have braille, mosaics and sculpture on open display which visitors are welcome to touch and smell. There is a returnable laminated floor plan available from reception which highlights new Roman displays and the ten treasures of the collection. There is an audio visual area sited in the Iron Age gallery providing background to the Iron Age in the Cotswolds with clear audio commentary. Some galleries have background sounds and music playing representing the period in history. There is seating throughout the galleries. Early Years zones are placed strategically around the Museum with toy boxes and books for their engagement. There is lift access to the mezzanine level. Toilets are located on the ground floor with level access from the reception area (opposite the temporary exhibition gallery). There are also two toilets by the Lifelong Learning Centre, all fully accessible. There are hand rails either side of the toilet. There are lever taps on the sinks. Assistance dogs are welcome. Jacks Café is adjacent to the Museum and offers a wide range of drinks, hot meals and snacks. Please let the café know if you have any dietary requirements or allergies.
Location : Corinium Museum, Park Street, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 2BX
Transport: Kemble (National Rail) then bus or taxi. Bus Routes : 50, 51, 54, 128 and X54 stop nearby.
Opening Times : November to March, Monday to Saturday, 10:00 - 16:00; Sunday 14:00 - 16:00
Opening Times : April to October, Monday to Saturday, 10:00 - 17:00; Sunday 14:00 - 17:00
Tickets : Adult £5.20; Senior £4.40; Student (16+) £3.40; Children (5 - 16) £2.50
Tel: 01285 655611