Leading Norfolk archaeologist John Davies has just published a new book on the perennial favourite rebel queen, Boudica. We asked him to explain what recent archaeological discoveries have revealed about the homeland of the Roman Empire’s most famous British enemy.
Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service receive enquiries about Boudica and the world she inhabited almost every month of the year. Letters and emails come from fascinated media, public, and researchers from as far away as the USA and Australia. Boudica, queen of the Iceni, the tribe that inhabited northern East Anglia in the Late Iron Age, is almost an object of myth. That she was a real person is sometimes lost in 19th and 20th century depictions of her as a national heroine and symbol of British courage in adversity – reflecting that peculiarly British fascination with ‘glorious’ defeat.
Most people, when questioned, associate Boudica with Colchester in Essex, though the connection was fleeting, as she rampaged south, at the head of her warriors, intent on the destruction of early Romano-British civilisation. Her homeland, however, was 50 miles to the north, and it is in Norfolk that new archaeological discoveries are shedding fresh light on the life and times of Boudica.
Horses and chariots
Norfolk is archaeologically very rich, but only now, through the county’s well-established programme of liaison between metal-detectorists and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, are we realising just how rich – particularly in the Bronze Age, the Late Iron Age and the Late Roman periods. Why is this? Is it a true reflection of the peoples who once lived there, or merely a result of intensive archaeological scrutiny? Norfolk’s geography may partly account for it. For, if Norfolk is rich, it is also rather peculiar.
Increasing numbers of artefact discoveries are changing our perceptions. Metal-detecting is presenting us with a whole range of everyday objects, of all periods, not previously available for study. We are seeing, for example, that Late Iron Age Norfolk exhibited exceptional wealth, particularly across the west, where many gold, silver, and electrum artefacts were consigned to the ground. But far more common are horse and chariot fittings of copper-alloy, such as terret rings, linch pins, and bridle bits. These form a higher proportion of Iron Age material in Norfolk than in other areas. Was chariot warfare a particular feature of Boudica’s kingdom? More generally, despite being a close ally of Rome in the years immediately after AD 43, the region appears to have been less Romanised than southern Britain. Indeed, the rarity of Romanised objects within the rapidly expanding artefact record may imply that Roman goods were being actively rejected.
Several recent discoveries provide a window directly into Boudica’s world, perhaps even into the dramatic events at the end of her reign documented by Roman historians Tacitus and Dio Cassius. In 1982, the Norfolk Archaeological Unit undertook a survey at a site now considered to have been a Romano-British small town at Crownthorpe, in the parish of Wicklewood, south-west of Norwich. The metal-detectorist working with the team received a loud signal, and as he investigated the source, a large bowl-like vessel was revealed, which looked as if it might be Roman. Careful excavation revealed a hoard of six more vessels buried tightly together inside the first bowl. Subsequent study showed that some of them had originated in Southern Italy, while others exhibit native Celtic-style decoration. Together they comprise a complete Roman-type drinking set, but exhibiting a fusion of Roman and Celtic forms. The assemblage dates from the mid-1st century AD, and had been deliberately hidden in the ground at about this time. Were they buried for safety by an Icenian noble who was then a casualty of the revolt? Or was this a ritual deposit at a time of acute crisis?
A decade later in 1992, another metal-detectorist was walking a field at Saham Toney, near Watton in central Norfolk, when he revealed a series of small decorated bronzes, later identified as a group of Late Iron Age horse-harness fittings, comprising harness rings, worn horse-bits, and a complete set of five terret-rings. This exceptional group of objects was accompanied by some beautifully enamelled harness decorations, all of the early 1st century AD. They came from an area of known Late Iron Age settlement which had been yielding horse-harness items since the mid 19th century.
Eight years further on, in 2000, a magnificent Late Iron Age bridle-bit came to light at a farm to the north of East Dereham, in the northern part of Breckland. Its appearance was so perfect that it was initially thought to be modern, if not brand new. But its end loops betray its antiquity. They are decorated with elaborate but asymmetrical Celtic-style enamelled mouldings, which make this an exceptionally rare piece, again dating to the final decades of the Iron Age, and probably belonging to an Icenian of the highest rank.
For the full article, see CA 235