Uncovering the secrets of a lost Roman fortlet
PUBLISHED: 10:25 24 February 2018 | UPDATED: 16:53 25 February 2018
A Norfolk church may have begun life as a Roman fortlet protecting supplies on their way to Hadrian's Wall. Trevor Heaton hears how 'keyhole archaeology' is solving the riddle of Reedham.
Sometimes things can hide in plain sight. But that doesn’t it make any easier to tell their story.
For centuries, researchers and historians have realised that there is something rather special about St John the Baptist Church in Reedham.
For this 15th-century Broadland gem clearly has Roman roots, as can be seen in the large amounts of material in its walls, the thin tiles particularly distinctive. That impression was only strengthened after a disastrous 1981 fire which gutted the church – and revealed yet more ancient masonry inside.
Now new research may finally be helping to solve the riddle of one of East Anglia’s most mysterious sites.
But first, let’s scroll back the best part of two millennia to Reedham in the Roman age. These days the village is several miles inland, and the nearest it gets to water is the familiar chain ferry across the Yare which saves grateful drivers a long detour.
In Roman times the landscape was completely different. What is now the Yare Valley was then a vast expanse of water, the ‘Great Estuary’, a very different coastline in which Great Yarmouth did not exist, and the sea stretched into east Norfolk like a three-fingered hand.
In this world, the site of Reedham suddenly takes on a much more important significance, being on a promontory guarding the approach to our Roman ‘capital’, Venta Icenorum – the modern-day Caistor St Edmund.
It’s this position which has led to speculation that the mysterious lost Roman building here could have been a pharos – lighthouse – similar to the one which survives in the grounds of Dover Castle.
But now research led by Professor Mike Fulford of Reading University is hinting at a story which may prove even more fascinating. Prof Fulford is one of this country’s leading experts on the Roman period and has excavated at such iconic sites as Pompeii and Carthage, as well as Silchester near Reading. He is also a big supporter of Caistor Roman Project, which is uncovering the story of Venta.
Prof Fulford, who came to Norfolk a few weeks ago to talk about his latest research, explained that it had long been established that the building at Reedham had an obvious connection with the fort of Branodunum (Brancaster). Both were built out of a grey ‘sparkly’ sandstone called Leziate Quartzite.
The stone would have been excavated a few miles to the west of King’s Lynn and taken by boat around the coast to Brancaster, and then to Reedham. “I can’t think of any other example in Roman Britain where stone has been brought so far,” he said. “It’s 100km as the crow flies, by sea 130km or so. This would have been a terrific undertaking.”
Research has shown this material turns up in other Broads churches, but nothing like the quantities of Reedham. It’s clear that this is where the original building must have been.
Prof Fulford said investigating the church site offered considerable challenges. Forget about digging large trenches everywhere – this is a consecrated site with hundreds of burials in the churchyard. Researchers first had to win support from the parochial church council and the Diocese of Norwich for their investigation.
First, the site was surveyed – inside and outside the church - by ground-penetrating radar, one of the famous ‘geophys’ tools so beloved by Channel 4’s Time Team. Burials showed up as black lines, with white areas showing masonry. “It produced some really promising results,” the professor added.
There was a very strong 20-metre-long signal along the north side of the church, with more interesting results inside in the nave and the chancel too (‘but of course we can’t excavate there’.)
Then came a series of very small, very targeted, test trenches. In 2016 three were dug, with one proving a complete blank but the other two revealed as ‘robber trenches’ where later builders had removed the Roman material for reuse. “I felt we were getting ‘warmer’ but there was still no hard-and-fast [Roman] foundation,” he said.
The breakthrough came the following year when three more trenches were dug, producing ‘really encouraging results’.
One was empty, one was a robber trench – but the third revealed a spread of rough Roman blocks. These were not just of the grey west Norfolk stone but also of limestone from Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire. “They seemed to be really indicative of something substantial, something clearly Roman.”
He added that the 20-metre wall lying under the church’s north wall showed it was ‘something more than a lighthouse’.
So what was it? Prof Fulford thinks the answer can be found not in this country, but in Germany. There is a fortlet at Bürgle, near Gundremmingen in Bavaria, then on the borders of the empire. Built on a cramped site – like Reedham - it was long and narrow in shape with a tower at both ends. In fact it looks more like a medieval castle than a classic Roman fort (“A good parallel is with one of the milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall”).
Nothing has been found that gives a firm date to the fortlet, but we can speculate it must have been started its life around AD200-230, the same as its ‘parent site’ in Brancaster. Reedham was part of a chain of coastal forts which began at Reculver in Kent and included Caister north of Yarmouth, Brancaster, Skegness (possibly), Brough-on-Humber and finally South Shields. They may have acted as safe staging posts for supplies for Rome’s northern frontier and Hadrian’s Wall.
By 300 the military situation had subtly changed. A rebel ‘British Empire’ had - briefly - broken away from central Roman control and there were growing problems caused by incursions from tribes outside the empire, in northern Germany and southern Denmark.
A post was created known as the ‘Count of the Saxon Shore’ and more forts were added, such as at Burgh Castle, the now-vanished Walton in Suffolk and (fast-vanishing) Bradwell in Essex.
It wasn’t all war and strife. There is growing evidence that the Great Estuary was an important trading crossroads too. Will Bowden, Associate Professor in Roman Archaeology at Nottingham University and a director of the Caistor project, said: “Grain, instead of going northwards, also went eastwards [to the Rhine frontier].” The pottery shows there were links too, and the number of hoards which turn up in later Roman Norfolk show how well people were doing. “People in Norfolk were getting pretty rich on the back of it,” he added.
But what about the old idea of Reedham being a lighthouse? There is no reason why it couldn’t have been a fort AND a lighthouse – all they had to do was heighten one tower. That might also imply that there was some sort of relay signal station sited somewhere near Brundall where the merchants of Venta Icenorum could be alerted that a ship was on its way.
And what about those ships? Where were they being built? Some must surely have come to grief – are they waiting to be discovered under metres of silt in a Broadland field? All that waterlogging could preserve some amazing finds. It seems the best may be yet to come.
Back at Reedham, research continues. The fortlet discovery was unveiled in July 2017 but work is still needed to establish more of the layout of the building, and to try to find its date.
Prof Fulford believes there would have been a garrison of around 50 troops – and where there are troops, there would have been some sort of shanty settlement nearby. The wine shops, the drinking dens, the food stalls… they had to go somewhere (as did all the rubbish). Perhaps a villager will uncover evidence in their garden.
And there’s more.
One of the test trenches had a surprise in it. Underneath a spread of mortar were some fragments of charcoal. These were sent away for tests to find what tree species they were and, crucially, what date. Using the technique known as carbon-14 dating, the tests showed that the charcoal wasn’t Roman at all, but Anglo-Saxon.
The two samples, with a 95 per cent certainty, are dated to AD 650-770 and the other AD 647-778. These are the decades immediately after the death of St Felix, the first Bishop of East Anglia. We are talking about the dawn of the second Christian era in these islands.
Prof Fulford believes that a mass of the Leziate stone on the north wall may show a blocked-up arch of what was the first Anglo-Saxon stone-built church on the site. It may have looked something like the (still existing) St Peter’s-on-the-Wall at Bradwell, another Roman Saxon Shore fort.
And all this has been revealed by a total of just 12 square metres of digging.
The work goes on this spring. Somewhere on the site must be evidence of the equally substantial Roman south wall. And what about that elusive date – and more evidence about how the Anglo-Saxons took the site over?
Find the answers to one question… and along come a dozen others crowding to be answered too. But that’s the fascination of archaeology.
The riddle of Reedham still has plenty of twists and turns ahead.
Norfolk Archaeological Trust is looking for volunteers to help at Caistor Roman Town – more details via 01603 462987 or email@example.com. More information about CRP on