Dover has always been strategically important due to its proximity to mainland Europe, and this was very much the case in Roman times. To serve the 'Classic Britannica' (or Roman fleet) a substantial civilian settlement became established to the north of the great naval fort, and a single building from that period has survived. This 'Roman Painted House' is believed to have been constructed cAD200 and was either the private dwelling of an important individual, or perhaps a mansio - a Roman hotel for travelling dignitaries. What makes this site unique in northern Europe is the large amount of finely painted wall plaster, which in some areas still survives to a height of 5-6ft (approx 1.8m).
Originally discovered in 1970 when some test pits were dug on a derelict area of land scheduled for redevelopment, the site was subsequently excavated on a much larger scale over several years. During 1976 work commenced on the provision of a protective building for the site, and this was officially opened on 12th May 1977. The site is known to have had a long history of human settlement, and the excavation work revealed quantities of worked flint indicating activity here since the late Neolithic period. Evidence of a smaller property, constructed cAD150, was also found beneath the present Roman Painted House. In AD270 a new fort was constructed across part of the civilian settlement, resulting in much of the Roman Painted House being demolished. After the Roman period the site continued to be occupied, and remains of a Saxon hut were found running through one of the rooms as well as three medieval cess pits which caused damage in two other rooms of the Roman Painted House.
In its surviving state today, the Roman Painted House comprises six rooms and a passageway. Once flanking a Roman road, Room one is the most easterly room in the house and is also the one that suffered most damage in the post Roman period. Surviving wall plaster here is much less in evidence than in the adjacent rooms, and this is probably as a result of continued use after the building of the second fort. Room two is the most complete of all the rooms, and it is here where the richly painted wall plaster can be best appreciated. This room, together with rooms one and three, had the benefit of a heating system supplied by means of an under-floor hypocaust and wall flues. The furnace would have been to the south, and three arched entry flues can still be seen.
Rooms three and four were effectively combined into a single room, one being an extension of the other. Room four (the extension) didn't benefit from a hypocaust, and appears to have had no heat source other than that circulating through from room three. Room five, and its extension room six, suffered greatly from the construction of the later Roman fort and very little has survived, but a reasonable section of the fort's western wall can be seen. This Roman wall survives to a height of some 7ft (2.1m), and is adjoined to a large semi-circular bastion that was added some decades later. The passageway to the north has remained largely intact but its exact function is unclear. A doorway from room one still survives, and it is possible that there was a similar doorway in room three.
The remains of the Roman Painted House allow us a fascinating insight into the exceptional skills of Roman craftsman, and for those interested in Roman archaeology the 'painted house' at Dover is a must. Over 400sq ft (122sq m) of painted plaster survives in situ, along with many more fragments that were carefully lifted during excavations.