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How the A11 work uncovered secrets of Norfolk and Suffolk’s past

PUBLISHED: 09:24 12 December 2014 | UPDATED: 09:25 12 December 2014

Archaeology pix

Archaeology pix

Archant

In the Breckland soil once ruled over by warrior queen Boudica, archaeologists working ahead of the heavy plant in operation across the Elveden bypass have uncovered new evidence about the Roman occupation that questions long-established theories. TONY WENHAM reports.

Archaeology pixArchaeology pix

Two thousand years ago, the Romans in Britain set a template for armies of occupation.

In the inhospitable Breckland home of the war-like Iceni tribe, they fostered a pastoral community from the local warrior families that would contribute significantly to providing food for the farmworkers’ former enemy – the Roman army.

It was a political and economic finesse that would serve the Romans until their sudden departure in the fifth century AD – and one largely ignored by modern Western governments, from Vietnam to Iraq.

But 20th and 21st century leaders might be forgiven for failing to embrace the Roman model for the simple reason that no one knew about it until quite recently.

Archaeology pixArchaeology pix

Archaeological excavations on the Elveden estate in 2011, before road building started in that sector, seem to contradict the long-held belief that the Romans subdued hostile tribesmen, including Boudica’s Iceni, with extreme violence.

Instead, the dig undertaken by Cambridge-based Pre-Construct Archaeology suggests a working partnership between occupiers and natives to the mutual prosperity of both parties.

Regional project manager Mark Hinman said: “It may be that the Romans were not as hard on the tribesmen as they, the occupiers, made out. They had an army to feed, after all.

“Our work uncovered what looks like a successful farm with livestock and cereals, managed by skilful workers living on site. It’s striking that there is not really any evidence of conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, but these people were busy and successful, and it’s making us look again at these populations.

Archaeologist Nick Pankhurst explains about the dig on the site at Elvedon on the route of the new Elvedon bypass. Photograph Simon ParkerArchaeologist Nick Pankhurst explains about the dig on the site at Elvedon on the route of the new Elvedon bypass. Photograph Simon Parker

“The Elveden findings are contributing to a genuine revision of our understanding of Roman archaeology.”

Among the Elveden discoveries were the remains of an elderly woman buried at the boundary of the late Roman farming settlement, close to Centre Parcs.

Dubbed “the 2,000 year old farmer”, she was almost certainly a resident of the farm, buried with care in a coffin but with no accompanying grave goods or other indicators of her likely status in the local community. She had clearly been used to hard manual labour, hence the “farmer” tag.

There were other traces of human remains: a human skull placed centrally in an Iron Age “deposits” pit and some 18 earlier cremation burials, all without urns and thought to represent evidence for the earlier Romano-British population of the farm.

Mr Hinman said recent advances in aerial mapping were supporting new archaeological theories about the lives of people in the late Iron Age. “What we’re finding is that anything we thought we knew about the period was wrong,” he said. “We’re still not quite sure what was going on, but archaeologists are now looking to review all the work of the last 20 years to make sense of new data, such as that found at Elveden.”

The dig, sanctioned and funded by the Highways Agency, was some 15 years in the planning, with work undertaken by a range of agencies before Pre-Construct arrived on site in 2011.

Jude Plouviez, an archaeological officer with Suffolk County Council, said, although a treasure hoard had been found in the area by a private individual some years earlier, the latest excavations had not revealed anything sensational to the layman.

“Life is about cooking and eating, so most excavations reveal cooking pots and bones,” she said. “It’s about people’s lives, and the Elveden work has shown us an interesting view of how the landscape was used and developed in later prehistoric times and during the Roman occupation.

“There were some surprises, including the discovery of corn-drying ovens, which was not expected in Breckland because of the light soil. It’s possible some of the grain might have been used for malting and brewing.

“We also know that this was an area populated by Boudica’s Iceni tribe. But the only physical evidence we have of her is in places that she destroyed, such as Colchester, and so outside the Breckland area.”

Nor is there evidence of a major road running through the area. “There are roads everywhere in the landscape,” said Ms Plouviez. “The countryside did not need big roads at that time. Cart tracks would have been enough.”

The agricultural findings uncovered by Mr Hinman’s team confirm a self-contained rural community, but also overturn assumptions about the unique Breckland landscape.

Mr Hinman said: “You would think there were a lot of problems for farmers trying to make a living in this dry and dusty environment.

“We’re still working on the results, but the Romans invested in fixing water supplies and bringing in cattle to fertilise the sandy soil to a level sufficient for arable production. These farmers were very adaptable and the site may have prospered for up to 500 years.

“In the end, I believe the A11 excavation will have given us a new benchmark to revise our views of smaller sites in the area. It’s been fascinating – dry and dusty it isn’t.”


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