A recent geophysical survey has revealed the plan of the Roman town at Caistor St Edmund in astonishing detail, including circular features that apparently predate the Roman town and others that could indicate Saxon settlement.
The survey was carried out by a team from the University of Nottingham, led by Will Bowden, lecturer in Roman archaeology, with Dr David Bescoby and Dr Neil Chroston of the University of East Anglia and 30 volunteer members of the Caistor Roman Town Project. Dr Bowden said that the site provided a rare opportunity to look at a Roman town with a long occupation sequence in its entirety, as most Roman towns now lie beneath their medieval and modern successors.
First spotted in parch marks in barley in the exceptionally dry spring of 1929, the town was partially excavated before 1935, but the results were never fully published. This survey has produced the first complete plan of the town, including evidence of the water supply (detected in the iron collars connecting the wooden water pipes) and a series of public buildings, including a semicircular theatre, at least two temples, a large forum and baths.
Known in the Antonine Itinerary as Venta Icenorum — ‘the market place of the Iceni’ — the town is named after the powerful and independent Iceni, who earned immortality when Boudicca led them in a rebellion against Roman occupation in AD 61. The numerous circular structures found by the survey suggest that Caistor was the site of a large settlement before the Roman town was built. Chance finds of Late Iron Age coins and metalwork have been recovered from the site but this is the first evidence for pre-Roman buildings.
As with a number of other towns in the Roman world, the area within the walls might not have been as densely built up or occupied as earlier interpretations have suggested. The survey found that large areas peripheral to the main streets were empty of buildings, and might have been used as gardens or smallholdings.
The new survey also shows a large ditched enclosure, with possible structures, cutting the surface of the Roman street in the north-west corner of the site. The earlier discovery of Middle Saxon coins and metalwork outside the west wall of the site, combined with the presence of two early Saxon cemeteries in the vicinity, suggests that these enclosures may be associated with continued life in the town after the Roman period.
Dr Bowden said that ‘the presence of possible Iron Age and Saxon features suggests that the town had a much longer life than we previously thought and the fact that it’s just sitting there in open fields, instead of being under a modern town, means we can ask the research questions we want to. For an archaeologist, it’s a dream opportunity to really examine how European towns developed.’ Funding is now being sought to test the results of the survey through excavation.
From CA 216