A Druid at Colchester

Location: Colchester
Museum: Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service
Era: Roman
Status: Active Project
Tradition: Druid

  • Reburial
  • Display Improvement


Between 1987 and 2003 Colchester Archaeological Trust excavated a set of unusual graves at Stanway, near Colchester in Essex. Although few in number, they were unusual in the high proportion of high status, chamber burials. One was of a warrior, with the typically associated grave goods. Another, however, contained artefacts that suggest the owner could have been a Druid.

Dubbed ‘the doctor’ the person buried at Stanway is speculated to have been a Druid. This is because, as well as a well preserved and extensive kit of medical instruments, their possessions included metal divining rods, a jet bead, a strainer bowl containing traces of Artemisia and a board game. This person, whether male or female – we do not know – is believed to have lived around the time of the invasion of Claudius circa CE 43.

HAD has been in contact with Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service who have told us that the finds include 158 grams of cremated human remains. These are currently held at Colchester Castle Museum.

Regardless of whether or not this person was a Druid, and that all we have of their person are cremated remains (which we view as just as sacred as other human remains), HAD believes this person who was celebrated in their lifetime deserves recognition now. HAD has initiated a project to campaign for honourable treatment of the remains as well as providing input to the display of the artefacts. HAD will be looking to form a local Pagan based consultation group to take this forward. We will seek to take the opportunity to raise the general issue of the display and treatment of human remains, using this case as a way of raising debate with the Essex/Suffolk museums service and beyond.

HAD met with Colchester and Ipswich Museum earlier this summer to begin dicussions about a possible display. The meeting was very fruitful and we now have an invitation to input to not only the Druid’s display but also the refurbishment of other early British displays. A consultation group of local Pagans is being formed and is expected to meet with Colchester Museum later this autumn. Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service have kindly supplied a summary of the story, which follows below.

Mike Fletcher – September 2008

Stanway Summary – supplied by Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service

The ‘Doctor’s Burial, Stanway, Essex.

Between 1987 and 2003, an area of Stanway, near Colchester, Essex, was excavated in advance of sand and gravel extraction that would completely destroy the site and its underlying archaeology. Before this destruction finally took place, archaeologists were able to recover important information about a high-status native burial place. It had been used by the Catuvellauni tribe, who had called Camulodunum (or Colchester as it became), home.

In total four funerary enclosures were unearthed, each with a single wooden burial chamber. One of these graves was unearthed in 1996 and was dated to between AD 40 – AD 50, a span of time that witnessed the Roman Invasion of Britain and its immediate aftermath.

Buried within were a set of medical instruments, giving the grave its popular name of the ‘Doctor’s burial’. The instruments are British in manufacture (based on Roman examples) and along with native style brooches in the grave, point to the fact that the ‘Doctor’ was a Briton. Whether this person was a man or woman is still open to speculation.

As well as the medical instruments, this person was also buried with a strainer bowl (to sieve fluids) that had traces of Artemisia, a drink that was prepared to treat a range of ailments. A jet bead in the burial may also have been placed for its healing properties and both of these items lend weight to the theory that the deceased was a healer. A board game and counters and a range of ceramic vessels certainly point towards this individual’s high status in local society.

The most enigmatic objects in the grave were a set of eight rods, which came in two sizes, between 35 and 40cm long, with four of copper and four of iron accompanied by eight copper alloy rings, approximately 3cm in diameter. It is these mysterious rods that have led some people to believe that the ‘doctor’ may also have been a ‘druid’ who was using the rods to practice the art of divination.

It is impossible to state with any certainty whether the grave held the mortal remains of a Late Iron Age druid. There have been no other discoveries of rods such as those from Stanway and it is not known what they were used for or why. There is also no contemporary literature explaining any rituals, divination or otherwise, using such objects.

What we can infer from the burial evidence is that this individual was involved with surgery and healing and it is clear following their death that they were paid the highest of honours.

Following the transfer of ownership of the finds from the landowners, Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service are now guardians of this important material. This includes 158g of surviving cremated remains of the Stanway ‘doctor’. Over the next five years Colchester Castle Museum will under go a major redisplay and the Stanway burials will form a major part of the story of Iron Age Colchester. Whilst artefacts from the ‘doctors’ grave will go on display, it is not the current intention to display the human remains alongside them.

A detailed explanation of the Stanway burials can be found in Crummy et al, 2007, Stanway: An elite burial site at Camulodunum, Britannia Monograph Series No. 24, London.

A shorter discussion can be found in Crummy, P. Druid or Romaised Briton? In The Colchester Archaeologist, issue 21, 2008, Colchester


On 15th October HAD and representatives of local Pagans met with Colchester & Ipswich Museums to discuss ideas for the planned presentation of the ‘Doctor’s’ finds.  Colchester & Ipswich will be submitting for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to help put on the display of the finds from Stanway.  At present there are no plans to display the Doctor’s cremated remains.  Ideas put forward included story telling and enactment, with Voices of the ancestors – as best as can be reproduced.  Everyone felt the meeting was a positive contribution.  As a result, a follow up meeting will be scheduled for January 2009, well before the lottery funding application is prepared.  As a gesture of involvement, Colchester & Ipswich have offered a guided tour of the local site at Gosbecks and the Castle Museum to local Pagans.   This will be held on 12th December 2008.  Anyone interested in taking part sould contact HAD at the usual email address.

News update

The tour of Gosbecks and the castle museum was much appreciated by the local Pagans who braved the crisp December weather.  Gosbecks, in particular, is a facinating site of pre-Roman and Roman worship – well worth a visit.

HAD will now be planning its written proposal for submission to the museum in January 2009.

Mike Fletcher, December 2008

Contact: Mike Fletcher