Where can you find Roman treasures and temple remains in Norfolk?
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2016
What did the Romans do for us? Famously, Norfolk people rebelled against Rome, led by brave Boudicca. But 2,000 years after her death we live surrounded by reminders of the Roman conquest.
One of the main Roman routes into Norfolk from the south would have been along the Peddars Way, which was already ancient in Roman times and still stretches across the county from Thetford Forest to Holme-next-the-Sea near Hunstanton.
Much of the modern A140 south of Norwich follows the route of Roman armies and administrators marching between Colchester and Caistor St Edmund. There are many more traces of Roman roads across the county, often still running arrow-straight across the map as modern-day roads, lanes, tracks and paths. Several are focussed on a Roman settlement at Toftrees, near Fakenham, and another runs east-west just south of Worstead, through the old Coltishall airfield to cross the river Bure at Brampton, near Aylsham.
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Tiny Brampton was once an important Roman industrial centre. It was probably Norfolk’s second biggest Roman settlement, after Caistor St Edmund, and had more than 100 pottery kilns producing plates, bowls, jugs and jars. The fortified town also had a metalwork industry and a river wharf. Today Roman bricks and tiles can still be seen, reused in the medieval parish churches of Brampton and nearby Oxnead.
At Reedham the parish church also has the tell-tale Roman bricks - and the foundations of a substantial building in the churchyard. Reedham was a Roman fort and port, and possibly a lighthouse too as the open sea washed as far inland as Acle and Reedham, along today’s Yare valley.
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Caistor St Edmund, south of Norwich, is one of just three regional Roman centres in Britain which have not been built over. Called Venta Icenorum by the Romans it had a forum, temples, baths, an amphitheatre, running water and defensive walls and ramparts. Suburbs, including a big temple complex, grew up outside the enclosed town.
Temples once stood where sheep now graze at Caistor St Edmund, and have been identified in Norfolk communities including Hockwold, Snettisham and Thetford.
At Great Walsingham, close to the important Christian centre of pilgrimage which sprang up in Little Walsingham 1,000 years later, a Roman temple was revealed by the discovery of images of the Roman gods Minerva, Cupid and Mercury. Inscribed rings suggest the temple was dedicated to Mercury, the Roman god of travellers, traders, shopkeepers, money, trickery and thieves.
In Wicklewood, near Wymondham, a temple was discovered 60 years ago, when aerial photography revealed the outline of a rectangular building with a square inner chamber, in crop marks just south east of St James Church. Crops growing in the fields were still affected by its foundations. A pestle, to grind cosmetics, with a handle in the shape of a duck, was found here, along with so many tiny coloured tiles that archaeologists believe the floors must have been covered in mosaics.
Visit the coast at Brancaster, Caister on Sea or Burgh Castle and, almost 2,000 years ago, you would have met Roman soldiers manning forts at the edge of their vast empire.
A chain of coastal forts was built to protect against raids from the sea, including the pair at Caister on Sea and Burgh Castle which guarded the entrance to the estuary where Yarmouth now stands. The outlines of smaller Roman forts and camps have been seen in crop marks close to villages Swanton Morley on the banks of the Wensum, Thornham on the north coast and Horstead, north of Norwich.
A line of grand Roman houses once stretched along Peddars Way. The remains of a villa, complete with a bathhouse and under-floor heating, lie beneath farmland in Feltwell. Others have been found at nearby Weeting and Methwold, and northwards to Gayton Thorpe, Grimston and Snettisham. Each would have had baths, mosaics and wall paintings. Another villa once stood at Tivetshall St Mary, near Diss, on the main Roman route between Caistor St Edmund and Colchester.
A community archaeological dig has revealed Roman remains beneath the fertile soil of Woodgate Nursery, Aylsham. Amateur archaeologists, led by experts, have unearthed evidence of a villa and pottery kilns. Finds include tiles with paw prints made by wild boar, wild cats and pine marten as the clay dried almost 2,000 years ago.
Roman treasure in Norfolk museums
In the 3rd and 4th centuries the wealthy citizens of Roman Norfolk buried coins and jewellery to keep it safe. The vast Roman empire was becoming unstable and its citizens feared for their future. Hockwold, Crownthorpe and Snettisham are some of Norfolk's Roman settlements where hoards of coins and jewellery have been unearthed.
A spectacular gold and copper helmet, decorated with Roman gods, an eagle and sea dragons was dredged from the river Wensum, near Swanton Morley, in 1947 and is now in Norwich Castle Museum.
At Lynn museum a Roman pendant in the shape of a golden phallus is believed to have been a symbol of fertility and a good luck charm against curses.
But not all Norfolk's Roman treasures have been here for 2,000 years. It was only 300 years ago that Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, toured Italy, and returned to Holkham with souvenirs including ancient Roman statues. He built Holkham partly to house his collection and today the Statue Gallery is described as perhaps the most complete collection of classical statuary in a private house in Britain. Tourists have been impressed by the statues since the 18th century although the Victorians draped them in cloth to spare visitors’ blushes.