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Weird Norfolk Extra: History and mystery at the capital of Roman Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 14:27 05 July 2019 | UPDATED: 15:01 05 July 2019

The sun sets behind the walls of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill Smith

The sun sets behind the walls of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill Smith

EDP pics © 2004

A ghostly town appears beneath a meadow, a thief is cursed and dogs die in suspicious circumstances.

A Roman flint wall still standing at the town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill SmithA Roman flint wall still standing at the town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill Smith

As the pilot looked down over the parched fields just south of Norwich the streets of an ancient town emerged from the yellow grass below. The ghostly outline of a grid of roads was traced across a meadow enclosed within high banks at Caistor St Edmund.

The street plan of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum was reappearing after lying hidden for 1,600 years.

People had long known there was an ancient settlement here, but it was only the combination of drought and flight, 91 years ago, which revealed the scale of what lay just beneath the soil.

There were houses, temples, public baths, government buildings, and defensive walls with gateways watch towers.

The Roman curse tablet which was found at Venta Icenorum. Picture: Sonya DuncanThe Roman curse tablet which was found at Venta Icenorum. Picture: Sonya Duncan

Venta Icenorum is one of just three major Roman towns in the whole of Britain that has not since been erased by more modern settlements. Norwich developed later, to the north, leaving Caistor, once the administrative centre for all of Norfolk plus northern Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire, abandoned and hidden in plain sight.

These fields, beside the small, slow, reed-fringed River Tas, were once thronged with people and their possessions. Thousands lived and died here over four centuries. Although they have left us only tiny fragments of their stories, they also speak through the landscape and legends of the place.

Today the grassy banks and ruined brick and flint walls enclose a flock of sheep, a clutch of bee hives, and the ghosts of long-gone streets and stories.

Underground golden gates are said to lead to tunnels between Caistor and nearby Arminghall, where there are the remains of a Stone Age ceremonial site older than the Egyptian pyramids.

A shadowy figure at the earthworks at the Roman town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill SmithA shadowy figure at the earthworks at the Roman town of Venta Icenorum near Norwich. Photo: EDP Library/Bill Smith

Caistor too was an ancient site, even in Roman times.

This had been Iceni land and although the Romans defeated brave Boudicca, her people probably continued farming here, and even moved into the newfangled town built by the conquerors from AD60.

It's not just human skeletons that have been found at Caistor - dogs were buried here too. Their bones reveal some were well-nourished and likely to have been guard dogs or pets. But others were discovered in a drain by the town's forum - could they have been part of a ritual sacrifice?

This forum was built just a couple of miles south, and almost 2,000 years earlier, than Norwich Forum. Like modern Norfolk families, Roman families kept pet dogs. Roman dogs would also have worked on farms and as hunting hounds and guard dogs, but in Roman times dogs, like many other animals, were also slaughtered as entertainment, and even sacrificed in religious rituals. Others were killed when their owner died - a letter written just a few decades after Venta Icenorum was established describes the funeral of the teenage son of a wealthy Roman family, in which the boy's pets, including dogs, two ponies and parrots, were thrown on to the funeral pyre.

Back in Caistor St Edmund a thief was operating.

Enraged by the theft of treasured possessions almost 2,000 years ago, the victim asked Neptune, god of the sea, to punish the offender. He wrote his plea on a piece of lead, and if vengeance was visited on the thief he promised to reward the great god - with a pair of leggings. The curse tablet was discovered in the banks of the River Tas and is now on show in the Boudicca Gallery of Norwich Castle Museum.

Archaeological digs from 1929-35 and then 2006-14, uncovered not just the Roman town, but traces of the lives of people who had lived here thousands of years before the Romans arrived, and of those who stayed in the area after the main town was abandoned in the early 5th century.

The church of St Edmund, at the corner of the Roman site, dates back to Saxon times, but includes Roman bricks and could be built over a much earlier place of worship. There are stories that Edmund, king and martyr and England's original patron saint, was declared king here on Christmas Day 855.

Venta Icenorum was bequeathed to the Norfolk Archaeological Trust in 1984 and the charity has since bought more of the surrounding land. It is dedicated to protecting Norfolk's history and works with local communities to look after 10 sites across Norfolk, and share them with everyone. The free-to-enter sites include Burgh Castle near Yarmouth, St Benet's Abbey near Ludham, Binham Priory, Bloodgate Hill Fort in South Creake, and Middleton Mount near King's Lynn.

It costs more than £50,000 a year to protect and conserve all 10 sites and the trust, which has just rebranded as NAT, relies on the generosity of individuals and organisations for funding. To find out more about its work, or to help by becoming a member, a volunteer or a donor, visit the newly revamped website at www.norfarchtrust.org.uk

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