Extract from the Dereham Heritage Trust Newsletter of Summer 2023
June : The Roman Town at Caistor St Edmund, Andy Woodman
Andy, Vice Chair of Caistor Roman Project presented a talk, standing in for his Chair, Mike Pinner, who was unable to join us.
Caistor Roman Project is a community project, started in 2012: it is now a charity with over 100 members plus students, a main aim of which is making people feel better through involvement, while developing a fully professional approach to the work done. All the work of the Project was conducted by locally trained volunteers, with professional input only where required.
Caistor St Edmund (Venta Icenorum) is sited on the River Tas, now one of only 3 greenfield (not built on or developed) Roman regional capitals. It was noted from a 1929 aerial photograph that there seemed to be a Roman camp laid out as a standard provincial town, contained within square walls.
The first excavation was in the 1930s, by Donald Atkinson. 70 years later, Will Bowden for Nottingham University found a 7th century Saxon building, sited outside the town walls. It was also established that the town was not developed after Boudica’s time, nor was the River Tas suitable for seagoing vessels, but its early development was comparable to other towns. The buildings fell into disuse in the early 3rd century but grew again later that century and into the 4th. The town provided a significant regional focus to the 9th century.
A number of sites have been dug by the Project, all of them in the area outside the town walls but within the wider triple ditches outside. It is in this area that a Saxon settlement has been found.
From 2014 to 2019, the Project dug test pits (and provided training) at Old Hall.
In Wymer Field, the triple ditches were examined, with finds of animal bones chopped up to extract the marrow, all of a similar age. In the inner ditch, a young foal from the early 2nd century was found. A small Christian object was found from an early Saxon workshop, together with red deer antlers. And on the last day of the dig, a 4th century female skeleton was uncovered, to be reburied and left for the future.
In 2017, Old Hall was dug. A Roman pottery kiln was found, but no evidence of iron age occupation. In the area, there were signs of industry.
Temple Field had been investigated before and in 1951 a monumental gateway was discovered, which seemed to be linked to a road emerging diagonally from the town. In 1957, school teacher Sophia Mottram and a group of school students worked there. In 1989, Tony Gregory published the results of his field walking, revealing evidence of occupation earlier than in the town. Before that, in 1985, David Gurney had collated what was known at the time, after which the area was covered over again, grassed and scheduled. On the southern outer wall there was a large two storey building with a tessellated pavement inside. Later work showed this to be two temples, probably built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, the later one extending and partially replacing the earlier one. In the early part, a Trinovantes gold coin was found; there was also multicoloured painted plaster. Andy believed that the evidence indicated this was a special site before the first temple was built. 9 coins were found where the first temple was demolished, one for each emperor from AD57 to 117. Post covid geophysics indicated the extension had an apse; the building had a tessellated floor and high quality painted plaster. There was evidence of feasting and a pipeclay Venus was found, considered to be a ‘tourist souvenir’. Iron age pottery was also found, showing pre Roman habitation; there were also signs of occupation outside the walls.
A site (now scheduled) near the Caistor Hall Hotel had been investigated by Surgeon Commander Farman Mann in 1938. There was evidence of bronze making AD40 to 70.
Friston Field to the south was researched in 2022. Trenches contained demolition material, bones and pottery from the 1st and 2nd centuries and an aqueduct made of iron, lined with clay. This work also suggested that the temple could predate the town, with an earlier presence than on other parts of the site. The pottery indicated that people had a good life.
Going back to the start, it was conjectured that a religious focus might be the reason for the town being located there.