Department of Archaeology
   
   
  

Caistor Roman Town

Caistor St Edmund (Venta Icenorum) is one of only three “greenfield” Roman regional capitals in Britain that were not succeeded by medieval and modern towns. Although it is one of the country's most important Roman archaeological sites, many aspects of its history are unknown. Since 2006 researchers from The University of Nottingham have been working with the Norfolk Archaeological Trust who own the site, to investigate this important but little known site.

Mystery skeleton mystifies archaeologists - A skeleton, found at one of the most important, but least understood, Roman sites in Britain is puzzling experts from The University of Nottingham.

 

Project aims

The project is investigating the possible origins of the site in the late Iron Age and its development as a Roman town in the aftermath of Boudica's rebellion of AD 60-61. We are also examining its development during the Roman period and the extent to which the site continued to be used in the post-Roman period. We are also looking at the relationship between the town and its surrounding countryside.

The town

In comparison with Silchester and Wroxeter (the other civitas capitals of Roman Britain not succeeded by modern towns) our knowledge of Caistor is very limited. The project aimed to address four principal issues within the town and its immediate environs.

 

 

The origins of the site

Was the Roman town established on a new site or on a previously occupied Iron Age centre? Much of the evidence points to the latter, and geophysical surveys also suggested prehistoric features but results of excavations thus far have not identified Iron Age deposits. The possible presence of a military base as a precursor of the town is also under investigation.

 

 

The development of the town in the later 1st and 2nd century

Our understanding of the early Roman town was previously based on aerial photographs which demonstrated the presence of a street grid and buildings including the forum and two temples. Donald Atkinson, who excavated at Caistor from 1929-35 argued that the street grid was laid out in the later 1st century, while the forum excavated by Atkinson apparently dated to the second half of the 2nd century, although it is possible that the masonry structures revealed in the excavations replaced wooden predecessors. The nature of occupation in the other insulae (where little is apparent from the aerial photographs) is also unclear. We aimed to discover the extent to which the rest of the town was ever fully occupied or what forms that occupation took. (where little is apparent from the aerial photographs) is also unclear. We aimed to discover the extent to which the rest of the town was ever fully occupied or what forms that occupation took.

 

 

The nature of the late Roman town 

The town of the 3rd century and later is also little understood. In particular the precise date of the defensive wall has not been established, although Frere's analysis of the Atkinson archive and available parallels suggest a date of AD 275-80. Shortly after this date the forum seems to have been rebuilt, its predecessor having been completely destroyed or demolished. The presence of glass working furnaces within the earlier buildings of insula IX from c. AD 300, however, shows that the use of urban space was changing during the 4th century (as is apparent from other towns in Britain and Europe). The extent to which the walled settlement of the 4th century continued to be a monumental town and identifying the nature of late Roman occupation have been key aims of the project. 

 

 

The end of the town and the nature of occupation in the post-Roman period

Numismatic evidence shows that Caistor survived in some form into the very early 5th century, while significant quantities of supposedly unstratified late Roman material was found in the upper levels of the Atkinson trenches. Furthermore, the Early-Middle Saxon cemeteries that have been identified to the north-west, north and east suggest that occupation of the area continued until as late as the 8th century. Coin finds from the adjacent field to the west of the River Tas also indicate significant Middle Saxon occupation. The extent of this later occupation, however, is unknown, as is the question of whether occupation continued within the walled area itself. Nonetheless, there is a significant opportunity to investigate post-Roman life at the town (in an area that apparently saw significant Anglo-Saxon settlement). 

 

 

The regional context

The establishment of Venta Icenorum within the Tas valley is likely to have had a significant impact on regional patterns of settlement and land-use. The project is also investigating the Iron Age, Roman and post-Roman landscape in the vicinity of Caistor. within the Tas valley is likely to have had a significant impact on regional patterns of settlement and land-use. The project is also investigating the Iron Age, Roman and post-Roman landscape in the vicinity of Caistor.

The local and regional environmental context of Caistor will have had considerable influence on the town and its inhabitants, yet key aspects remain little understood. Of particular importance in this respect is the extent to which the Tas was navigable during, before and after the Roman period. It was traditionally argued that the town was accessible to maritime trade during the Roman period while the concentration of Middle Saxon coins in the area to the west of the town could suggest that this continued to be the case until at least the 8th century. We have thus been working to establish the morphology of the river channel in the vicinity of the town and further afield.

 

 

The national and international context 

The creation of a common elite identity that transcended geographical and political boundaries was, in many ways, the Roman Empire's most enduring and successful achievement. The towns played an essential role in this identity. Their public spaces formed an acceptable context for displays of elite status through conspicuous expenditure on buildings, and aggrandisement of one's town or city became an essential practice for those seeking public office. The urban form, moreover, was fundamental to the Roman world view.

The expansion of Roman rule to the north of the Alps brought the Romans into contact with areas where urban life (at least in a classical Mediterranean form) was previously unknown. As a result, the introduction of towns into areas such as Britain has been seen as a key element of the much debated process that is often referred to as 'Romanization' in which it is suggested that subject populations either willingly embraced or had thrust upon them a set of cultural values and material culture that can be termed 'Roman'. The extent to which the towns were part of this process has been the subject of considerable debate.

It is intended that the Caistor project will contribute significantly to the debate regarding the expansion of Roman-style urban centres and the ideological and functional role that these towns fulfilled for their inhabitants and those who lived in their vicinity, however 'Roman' (or otherwise) they considered themselves to be. Furthermore, it has often been suggested that much of East Anglia was less 'Romanized' than the southern and central areas of Britain and it is certainly true that at least some of the settlement types and material culture associated with Roman rule in Britain are found less frequently in Norfolk and much of Suffolk than they are elsewhere. It is therefore important that this is explored within the context of the only major Roman town in the area.  

 

 

Publications

Selected publications for the Caistor Roman Town project

BOWDEN, W., 2013. The urban plan of Venta Icenorum and its relationship with the Boudican revolt, Britannia 44

BESCOBY, D and W. BOWDEN, 2013. The detection and mapping of Saxon sunken-featured buildings at Caistor St Edmund, Archaeological Prospection 20.1, 53-57.

BOWDEN, W., 2011. Architectural innovation in the land of the Iceni: a new complex near Venta Icenorum (Norfolk) Journal of Roman Archaeology 24, 382-388

BESCOBY, D., BOWDEN, W. and CHROSTON, P. N., 2009. Magnetic survey at Venta Icenorum, Caistor St Edmund: Survey strategies and initial results Archaeological Prospection 16.4, 287-291

BOWDEN, W. and BESCOBY, D., 2008. The plan of Venta Icenorum (Caistor-by-Norwich): interpreting a new geophysical survey Journal of Roman Archaeology 21, 325-33

W. BOWDEN, 2013. Townscape and identity at Caistor-by-Norwich. In: H. ECKARDT and S. RIPPON, eds., Living and Working in the Roman World.: Essays in Honour of Michael Fulford on his 65th Birthday Journal of Roman Archaeology. 47-62

 

 

Research methods

Geophysical survey

Caistor and its immediate surroundings have never been the subject of extensive geophysical survey. Therefore, following a pilot programme in 2006, the entire walled area of the site was surveyed in 2007 in a project sponsored by the British Academy. Further work, sponsored by Mr Michael Salter, has taken in the fields to the north and south of the town, while most recently further work has been carried out in Dunston Field to the west of the River Tas (partly sponsored by English Heritage and the Norfolk Archaeological Trust). In total around 50 hectares have now been surveyed.  This work revealed the street grid, numerous buildings (including a possible theatre), traces of the water system and, most recently, post-Roman occupation in the form of sunken featured buildings. Reports on the geophysics can be found in Bowden and Bescoby 2008; Bescoby, Bowden and Chroston 2009 and Bescoby and Bowden 2013

 

 

Environmental survey

As noted above, one of the aims of the project is also the recovery of data relating to the course(s) and form of the river channel itself over time.

In 2007, a series of cores were taken across the Tas valley, allowing the profiling of deposits across the river channel. This has been followed up with further coring and Electrical Resistance Tomography (ERT) survey. This work has suggested that the river may, in fact, never have been navigable in antiquity.

Geochemical analysis has also been employed on core samples, coupled with AMS radiocarbon dating of organic material encountered within the cores. This has indicated that the late (and possibly post-) Roman period was one of intense industrial activity at the site.

 

 

GIS-based desktop assessment
All spatially definable archaeological data from the field survey area (see below) is being collated within a GIS (Geographical Information System) platform. This includes all HER data and aerial photograph data which is currently being digitised within the context of the National Mapping Programme. The GIS platform will also be used for analysis of field survey data.
 

 

Field survey

Research within the town is being accompanied by a programme of field survey. The survey covers an area of more than 100 km² encompassing 25 parishes. To the west it includes the line of the Roman road that runs south to Colchester (approximately along the line of the present A140), on the north and east by the River Yare, and on the south by the River Chet.

Although the research aims of the project as a whole are focused on the late Iron Age, Roman and Early - Middle Saxon periods, the field survey is diachronic in order to maximise the archaeological information generated and the benefit to the wider archaeological community. Results thus far have identified a number of new sites within the vicinity of Caistor. Trial excavations on a villa site (in collaboration with the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological and Historical Research Group) have also provided important data relating to occupation within the hinterland (see Bowden 2011)

 

 

Excavation

A number of the key issues relating to the site's occupation history can only be resolved through excavation. The first phase of the project has therefore involved limited excavation to test hypotheses generated by the geophysical survey. To date the excavations have investigated possible prehistoric features within the walled area and in the south field, two of the intra-mural streets and adjacent areas, a cemetery to the south of the town and the forum. We have also excavated a sunken featured building in Dunston Field to the west of the town and carried out excavations in the graveyard of St Edmund’s church in advance of construction work. Further information can be found on the project website www.caistorromanproject.org, on the annual excavation blogs and in Bowden 2013.   

 

 

Public engagement

Events, productions and collaborations with and for the general public

The project has always placed importance on the involvement of the public in the research, both as participants and visitors. Over 100 people have been involved with the project as volunteers and more than 12,000 visits to the excavations have been recorded over the four excavation seasons.  The volunteer involvement is now supported through a separate charitable organization (Caistor Roman Project Ltd). The involvement of external partners is also a key aspect of the project.

As well as the more traditional routes of archaeological publication (see below), given the significant local and regional interest that the project has generated, the results are also being disseminated via local press and the Caistor Roman Project website. The project featured in a 2011 Time Team special and in BBC television’s The Flying Archaeologist.

The project also has significant implications for the future presentation and interpretation at the site itself. The new project is being used to drive new interpretative initiatives, and thus enhance public enjoyment of what is one of East Anglia's most important ancient monuments. 

 

 

Open educational resources

Caistor podcast

Octocopter footage of Caistor dig

 

 

Summary of Venta Icenorum 
Area of Caistor field survey in relation to Roman
Venta Icenorum, Norfolk 
 

The Roman town of Venta Icenorum (literally market-place of the Iceni) is situated to the south of the city of Norwich, close to the confluence of the Tas, Yare and Wensum rivers. It has been traditionally thought that the town was established in the aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt of AD 61, as the Roman provincial government took full control of the land of the Iceni, who had previously been a client-tribe of Rome. The name Venta Icenorum is preserved in the 3rd-century document known as the Antonine Itinerary although Ptolemy also refers to Venta in the 2nd century AD. (literally market-place of the Iceni) is situated to the south of the city of Norwich, close to the confluence of the Tas, Yare and Wensum rivers. It has been traditionally thought that the town was established in the aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt of AD 61, as the Roman provincial government took full control of the land of the Iceni, who had previously been a client-tribe of Rome. The name is preserved in the 3rd-century document known as the Antonine Itinerary although Ptolemy also refers to Venta in the 2nd century AD.

It is possible that the town was built on the site of an earlier Iron Age settlement, and/or a military camp, although neither has been confirmed by archaeology thus far. It now appears that the street grid was laid out in the 2nd century and public buildings including a masonry forum and basilica were added around the mid 2nd century (replacing timber buildings that were destroyed by fire in the first half of the 2nd century). The wall circuit, which remains the site's most visible feature, was probably built in the late 3rd century, and enclosed a much smaller area than that which was covered by the original street plan. The forum was rebuilt in the 4th century (following a century of disuse) although whether it retained its original purpose in the new form is not clear.

The fate of Venta Icenorum following the end of formal Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century is unclear, although the discovery of significant Anglo-Saxon cemeteries to the north, south-east and west of the town, together with concentrations of 7th and 8th century material to the west of the Tas, is certainly indicative of continued occupation of the area. Geophysics revealed probable sunken-featured buildings to the west of the Tas and the presence of one of these was confirmed by excavation in 2012. It is possible that the site of Venta Icenorum continued to function as a centre of trade and exchange into the 8th century. following the end of formal Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century is unclear, although the discovery of significant Anglo-Saxon cemeteries to the north, south-east and west of the town, together with concentrations of 7th and 8th century material to the west of the Tas, is certainly indicative of continued occupation of the area. Geophysics revealed probable sunken-featured buildings to the west of the Tas and the presence of one of these was confirmed by excavation in 2012. It is possible that the site of continued to function as a centre of trade and exchange into the 8th century. 

 

 

Research history

The site of Caistor has been identified with the Venta Icenorum of the Antonine Itineraries since the 16th century. Archaeological interest in the site, however, really began in 1928, when a remarkable vertical air photograph was taken that clearly showed the outlines of streets and buildings as a series of parch marks against the darker grass that covered the site. Donald Atkinson subsequently carried out excavations of the forum, a bath complex, the south gate, some pottery kilns, and two temples between 1929 and 1935. The 1930s excavations also resulted in the discovery of an important early Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the high ground to the south east. Excavations have also been conducted on other outlying sites, in particularly that of a major temple some 1km to the north-east. of the Antonine Itineraries since the 16th century. Archaeological interest in the site, however, really began in 1928, when a remarkable vertical air photograph was taken that clearly showed the outlines of streets and buildings as a series of parch marks against the darker grass that covered the site. Donald Atkinson subsequently carried out excavations of the forum, a bath complex, the south gate, some pottery kilns, and two temples between 1929 and 1935. The 1930s excavations also resulted in the discovery of an important early Anglo-Saxon cemetery on the high ground to the south east. Excavations have also been conducted on other outlying sites, in particularly that of a major temple some 1km to the north-east.

The street plan of the Roman town was further clarified by subsequent campaigns of aerial photography by the University of Cambridge in 1959 and 1960, which also resulted in the discovery of the amphitheatre. This record has been augmented by further campaigns of aerial photography by Norfolk Museums and Archaeological Service. More recent work to the north of the town, in advance of the A47 Southern Bypass, revealed two Iron Age settlements and a significant Middle Saxon cemetery at Harford Farm.

Following the acquisition of the extra-mural area of the site by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, metal detector surveys and field walking were carried out to the north, south and west of the site. Notably this work revealed concentrations of Iron Age material around the north-west corner of the town and Middle Saxon material to the west of the Tas.

The present project is led by The University of Nottingham, working in collaboration with the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and South Norfolk Council. The project is sponsored by the British Academy, The University of Nottingham, South Norfolk Council, the South Norfolk Alliance, the Foyle Foundation, the Roman Research Trust, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, May Gurney Ltd, the John Jarrold Trust, Mr Michael Salter and Anglian Home Improvements.

Further information and recent results of the research can be obtained from the project's website at www.caistorromanproject.org  

 

Project team

Sponsors:

  • The British Academy
  • South Norfolk Council
  • The University of Nottingham
  • The South Norfolk Alliance
  • Foyle Foundation
  • Roman Research Trust
  • Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies
  • John Jarrold Trust
  • May Gurney Ltd 
  • A-Plant.

 

Dig blogs:

Main website: Caistor Roman Project

 

 

 

 

Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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