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Thursday, April 15, 2010
For centuries Norwich has been the undisputed capital of Norfolk. But in Roman times you would have to travel a little further south to find the region’s most important settlement. Caistor St Edmund is the site where the Iceni of Roman Britain flourished for more than three centuries.
In 60AD the Iceni rocked Roman Britain to its foundations when they rose in revolt. At the height of the rebellion the Romans even considered abandoning the colony, but Boudicas eventual defeat steadied them. For the Iceni it was the end of an era. Their tribal centre, probably at Thetford, was destroyed; from now on they would be properly Romanised. For the ordinary country people it might not have made much diference. Unless a Roman villa was built on their land, as at Brancaster or whats now Castle Rising, they would have carried on farming as before. For those who gravitated to the town, life changed. Venta Icenorum, the marketplace of the Iceni, was founded about 10 years after Boudicas rebellion. Within a century it was a flourishing centre of trade, religion and politics.
Sadly, virtually nothing remains of the town, only some fragments of the once imposing wall and ramparts. But painstaking archaeology enables us to picture the scene as it was although it takes a little imagination when you visit this forgotten town. Built on the banks of the River Tas, the founders made best use of the situation for trade and communications. Some of the roads built to link Venta with the rest of Roman Britain have formed the foundations of current highways, such as the A140, while mainline trains can be seen from the site. The river would also have been useful for sanitation. Trade with continental Europe flourished, with luxury imports such as wine and pottery coming in at the port near modern Yarmouth, ferried inland by river and unloaded at a quay next to the town. Exports included corn. Sheltering under the peace and order of the empire, the town grew and had a basilica (equivalent of a town hall), two temples within the walls (and it seems one outside) public baths and an ampitheatre for the citizens to enjoy sophisitcated Roman entertainments.
In 1929 aerial photography during a drought showed up the outlines of the town. Extensive excavation followed, showing plenty of evidence of the development of Venta. The main building materials used in the town were flint, red tile, unfired clay and wood. A bronze saucepan handle, decorated with a figure of the god Mercury, may have been associated with one of the pagan temples, while the town was an industrial centre. Evidence to date has been found for production of glass, bronze brooches, woollen yarn and pottery. A blue glass cup, decorated with a chariot race scene, may reflect the kind of sports people enjoyed at the large oval arena on the outskirts of town. Meanwhile river-dredging uncovered a curse scratched in lead asking for the help of the river god to catch a thief and return some stolen items. Roman and British cultures eventually merged as the plan to Romanise the Iceni began to work.
For more than 100 years, defences were not necessary, and this was probably Ventas golden age. But from about 200AD, raiders from northern Europe, themselves pressurised by land-hungry peoples from the east, began attacking the coast of Britain. Wealthy Venta would have been a prime target for seaborne attackers and the townspeople had to protect themselves. Their defences were impressive, with walls 23 feet (7m) high, taller than the remains seen today. At the base the walls are 14 feet (4m) thick. A walkway protected by a parapet ran along the top of the wall. A large ditch 80 feet (24.4m) wide by 17 feet (5m) deep was dug around the outside of the walls on three sides. This joined with the river to form a ring of defence around the town. Impressions have been found, left by the studs of a hobnailed boot embedded in mortar, and probably belonged to one of the workers. Four large guarded gateways commanded entrance to the town. At the same time sea defences were beefed up at Caistor (on the east coast) and Brancaster to the north-west.
Overstretched, and threatened at home, imperial rule faltered. It seems likely that mercenaries were hired from among the very Saxon, Angles and Jute peoples who were attacking the colony, many of whom stayed. Early in the fifth century the legions were withdrawn, the invaders moved in and Britannia became England. Historians are divided as to how it happened, some claiming the assimilation was much more peaceful than hitherto thought. What is certain is that towns like Venta and Brancaster were abandoned. From the middle of the fifth century Venta began its long decay. Buildings and walls alike were dismantled and used for local construction. The Saxons who settled in East Anglia knew the site as Caistor based on the Latin word for camp castra and the name stuck. Several hundred years later a church was founded within the original walls (was there an original Roman church there?) dedicated to Saint Edmund and using tiles from the Roman town. It has been in use for 900 years.
In 1984 the site passsed to Norfolk Archaeology Trust. Conservation work began and it was opened to the public in 1993. Today it is managed in partnership with South Norfolk Council. Recently a bid to open an interpretive centre were abandoned on cost grounds. Well just have to go on using our imaginations...
Caistor Roman town is four miles south of Norwich, near Stoke Holy Cross. Entry is free.