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Now dig this for a dream project

PUBLISHED: 07:13 26 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:05 22 October 2010

To the untrained eye they look like fields being grazed by sheep, with trains on the Norwich-London line and traffic on the A140 road to Ipswich rumbling along nearby.

To the untrained eye they look like fields being grazed by sheep, with trains on the Norwich-London line and traffic on the A140 road to Ipswich rumbling along nearby.

But beneath them are the remains of one of the most important Roman towns in the UK.

For years the streets of Caistor Roman town have remained rela-tively undisturbed, but a major archaeological project hopes to unearth its origins and development for the first time.

Leading the research is Will Bowden, a lecturer in Roman archae-ology at Nottingham University who used to work at UEA in Norwich.

For him, uncovering what went on in the walled community of Venta Icenorum - now the village of Caistor St Edmund - is a "dream" project, particularly as settlements assoc-iated with Roman rule in Britain are found less frequently in Norfolk and Suffolk than anywhere else.

The site was once the regional centre for East Anglia and the market town for the Iceni tribe led by Queen Boudicca. A series of excavations by Donald Atkinson between 1929 and 1935 uncovered the forum, a bath complex, the south gate and two temples.

While aerial photography and metal detector surveys have revealed the amphitheatre, Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and other remains over the years, relatively little is known about the area.

"It's one of the more interesting Roman towns," said Dr Bowden, who has worked on such archaeological projects as the excavations at the Castle Mall site in the 1980s.

"I've always been familiar with it because I lived in Norfolk for years. But when you think of archaeological sites in Norfolk you don't tend to think of Caistor. You think of Seahenge and Castle Acre. It has been a dream project for me."

The site has been owned since the 1980s by Norfolk Archaeological Trust. It is managed by South Norfolk Council, and both are members of an advisory board set up in 1995 to look at how to develop the site - which is open to the public.

It was last year, when options for its future were being discussed, that Dr Bowden approached the board with his proposals for a research project.

Some preliminary geophysics work has already been done with help from Dr Neil Chroston, a lecturer at UEA's School of Environmental Sciences. This revealed more buildings and the wooden drains that ran alongside the roads, as well as lumps of iron - the clasps that held the drains together.

What is not known is how the town developed, its history before and after the Roman period and that of the surrounding area.

"We don't know if any of these buildings date to the first century AD or the fourth. We don't know whether they were standing for 10 years or 400 years. These are the sort of things we need to know," said Dr Bowden.

Caistor is one of only three major Roman towns in the UK that have remained undeveloped, the others being at Silchester and Wroxeter.

"This is one of the great unknowns of Roman Britain. Because it is virtually untouched, it means we have an opportunity to apply a whole range of modern techniques to it which simply weren't available when a lot of the Roman sites were excavated," explained Dr Bowden.

"Because you have got the town and the landscape here, it's not quite unique, but it's pretty close to it, certainly in Britain."

Over the next eight to 10 years a full geophysical survey will be carried out, along with field and environ-mental surveys and some excav-ations. Overall, about 100 sq km will be covered, with funding being sought through research grants.

It is hoped to involve local schools and volunteers in the work, and people will be able to receive updates via a dedicated website and interpretation boards at the site.


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