In December 2007 a team of experts, led by The University of Nottingham, unveiled an extraordinary set of high-resolution images that gave an insight into the plan of the Roman town of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk. New research has demonstrated that Caistor is a site of international importance.
The high-resolution geophysical survey used a Caesium Vapour magnetometer to map buried remains across the entire walled area of the Roman town. It produced the clearest plan of the town yet seen confirming the street plan, the town’s water supply system, and the series of public buildings including the baths, temples and forum, know from earlier excavations.
The survey also showed that earlier interpretations of the town as a densely occupied urban area — given by reconstruction paintings — may be totally wrong. Buildings were clustered along the main streets of the town, but other areas within the street grid seem to have been empty and were perhaps used for grazing or cultivation.
The research at Caistor is being directed by Dr Will Bowden, an Associate Professor of Roman Archaeology at The University of Nottingham. He worked with Dr David Bescoby and Dr Neil Chroston of the University of East Anglia on the survey which was sponsored by the British Academy with subsequent phases sponsored by a major private donation.
The site was discovered by the crew of an RAF aircraft. They took photographs over the site which now lies in open fields to the south of Norwich. The exceptionally dry summer meant that details of the Roman town were clearly revealed as parched lines in the barley. The pictures appeared on the front page of The Times on March 4 1929 and caused a sensation.
The new investigations, by Dr Bowden and his team, have shown that rather than simply being a provincial Roman town, Caistor may represent the development of a major settlement from the Iron Age until the 9th century AD. Crucially, however, the site was ultimately superseded by medieval Norwich and reverted to green fields.
This is quite unlike other Roman towns that have the same long occupation sequence which now lie buried beneath the modern towns of Britain and Europe.
This fortunate change of settlement location means that these same green fields at Caistor are a unique time-capsule that could give us vital clues to the complex processes through which our towns and cities developed.
One of the most exciting new discoveries from the survey is what looks like a Roman theatre. Clear traces of a large semi-circular building have been found next to the town's temples — the typical location for a theatre in Roman Britain.
Caistor lies in the territory of the Iceni, the tribe of Boudica who famously rebelled against Roman rule in AD 60/61. The survey revealed numerous circular features that apparently predate the Roman town.
These are probably of prehistoric date, and suggest that Caistor was the site of a large settlement before the Roman town was built
Now the burning questions are: was Caistor built on the site of an Iceni stronghold as retribution after Boudica's rebellion, or was it built to favour a faction of the Iceni who had not taken part in the revolt?
Life at Roman Caistor was thought to have ended in the 5th century AD, when Britain was abandoned by the emperor of the struggling Western Roman Empire. However, the new survey clearly shows a large ditched enclosure that cuts the surface of the Roman Street in the north-west corner of the site. Possible structures are visible within this enclosure.
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