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Foundations of Roman fortlet discovered beneath Reedham church

PUBLISHED: 08:32 13 July 2017 | UPDATED: 08:32 13 July 2017

Prof Michael Fulford from Reading University with church warden Kati Cowen next to the North wall of St John the Baptist church in Reedham which shows signs of Roman remains in the brickwork.

Picture: James Bass

Prof Michael Fulford from Reading University with church warden Kati Cowen next to the North wall of St John the Baptist church in Reedham which shows signs of Roman remains in the brickwork. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2013

Five years of work have finally unearthed a secret of Norfolk’s Roman past with the discovery of fort foundations that had laid beneath the ground for centuries.

It had been known the village of Reedham was one of great significance to Roman Norfolk, however, it was not clear just what this was.

However, after five years of excavations and geophysical studies, archeologists from the University of Reading believe they have solved the mystery by discovering foundations of a fort buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist Church.

Known as a fortlet, the long vanished structure may have been used by soldiers to guard the east coast from marauding tribesmen.

It is thought the fort was built in the early third century, given its similarity in materials to the one that stood in Brancaster, understood to have been built between 225 and 250 AD.

Being partially built from recycled Roman building materials the church’s link to the Romans was no secret, but it could never be said with great certainty what previously stood there.

However, with the discovery of a bed of mortar, archaeologists have unearthed the evidencethey first set out to look for in 2013.

Mike Fulford, professor of archaeology at the university, said: “The discovery comes with a great sense of satisfaction, for both myself and the team. It’s a very significant discovery for our understanding of not only Roman Norfolk, but Roman Britain.”

The team began its investigations in 2013, working with the church in hopes of solving the mystery of the village’s Roman heritage.

Prof Fulford added: “Archaeologists looking at the tell-tale Roman stone in the church walls have wondered for years where the original building could have been located.

“We can deduce from our dig that the church is sitting right where an important Roman fortlet once stood, guarding Britain’s east coast from invaders like the Saxons.”

“There is still plenty of room for speculation around exactly what the structure looked like, and how it was used.

“It could have been a lynchpin in communication between the other Roman structures and settlements. I think it must have been used to watch over the Great Estuary for invaders coming in from overseas.”

Brancaster

Professor Fulford said the existing fort at Reedham is likely to be closest related to is the Branodunum fort.

Located in the modern village of Brancaster, Branodunum was the furthest north of the Saxon Shore forts.

Prof Fulford said both forts were built from similar material and were likely to have been structurally very alike as well.

He said: “The discovery displays a remarkable link between Reedham and Brancaster.”

The original stone walls of the fort were demolished in the 18th century, however cropmarks indicate the location of internal buildings.

It is thought the Branodunum fort was built during the third century, between 225 and 250AD to replace an earlier fort on the same site.

In 2012, the site was subject of geophysical surveys and excavations by Channel Four’s Time Team, in the 200th episode of the series.

Burgh Castle and Caister

Prior to this discovery, the borough of Great Yarmouth was already known to have great significance in understanding Roman Norfolk.

Burgh Castle, near Great Yarmouth, is home to the best preserved Roman monument in the East of England - and one of the most well kept in Britain.

During the third and fourth centuries, the fort was part of a chain known as the Saxon Shore, a network of forts erected around the south-east coast to protect from invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes.

While we now know it as Burgh Castle, its Roman name is thought to have been Gariannonum, and was later the site of a Norman castle.

Caister-on-sea also provides an insight into how our region looked in the times of the Roman Empire, with its own fort remains.

Believed to have been built around AD 200, the fort was also part of the Saxon Shore and was occupied until the end of the fourth century by a unit of the Roman army.

Caistor St Edmund

While much of our knowledge of the Romans in Norfolk comes from coastal regions, a greatly significant settlement laid closer to Norwich.

What we now call Caistor St Edmund, was once the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, the Romano-British predecessor of Norwich.

The town’s Latin name means ‘market-place of the Eceni’, and it was the Roman administrative base for the Norfolk area.

Over the past decade a number of further excavations into the site, carried out in partnership with the Norfolk Archaelogical Trust, have taught us more about the site, including the discovery in December 2016 that the town was almost 89 acres in area.

It was initially thought to be just a third of this size, with remains of its defences still in tact and in the care of the Trust.

A community archeological team - the Caistor Roman Project - was formed in 2009 to explore the site’s history.

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