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Survey Of Caistor Roman Town

January 2008 - A survey of Caistor Roman town near Norwich sponsored by the British Academy has given dramatic new insights into the nature of this settlement and confirms it as a site of international importance.

Researchers explain that the settlement was discovered during the exceptionally dry summer of 1928, when the crew of an RAF aircraft photographed the site of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk. Details of the Roman town were clearly revealed as parched lines in barley fields. The sensational images were subsequently published on the front page of The Times.

New research by Dr Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham together with Dr David Bescoby and Dr Neil Chroston of the University of East Anglia assisted by about 30 local volunteers from the Caistor Roman Town Project involved an innovative high-resolution geophysical survey using a Caesium Vapour magnetometer to map buried remains across the entire area within the walls.

Will Bowden, a lecturer in Roman archaeology, commented:

"The results of the survey have far exceeded our expectations. It's not an exaggeration to say that the survey has advanced our knowledge of Caistor to the same extent that the first aerial photograph did 80 years ago. 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 questions we want to. For an archaeologist it's a dream opportunity to really examine how European towns developed."

Researchers explain that the survey produced the clearest plan of the town to date confirming the street pattern (shown by previous aerial photographs), the water supply system (detecting iron collars connecting wooden water pipes), and public buildings including the baths, temples and forum explored in earlier excavations. Results suggest that earlier interpretations of the town as a densely occupied settlement may be incorrect. The survey found buildings clustered along main streets, but other areas within the grid pattern appeared empty. Researchers speculate they may have been used for grazing or cultivation.

One of the most significant new discoveries is what appears to be a Roman theatre. Clear traces of a large semi-circular building have been found next to the town's temples in what would have been a typical location for such a building in Roman Britain.

David Gurney, principal archaeologist of Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service, said:

"This is a fantastic discovery, and it goes to show that Caistor Roman town still has a great number of secrets to be disclosed in the years ahead through surveys or excavations. The town is already well-established as the most important Roman site in northern East Anglia, but the presence of a theatre is a significant indicator of the town's status, and of the cultural facilities available to its inhabitants. It is brilliant that the project has located such an important feature so early on, and this is probably just the first of many discoveries that will completely change our understanding of the town as a result of the Caistor Project."

Researchers explain that Caistor lies in the territory of the Iceni, the tribe of Boudica who rebelled against Roman rule in AD 60/61. The survey revealed numerous circular features apparently predating the Roman town suggesting a pre-existing settlement. This has long been suspected because of numerous late Iron Age coin and metalwork finds, but evidence of buildings previously was lacking. Researchers are keen to investigate whether Caistor may have been built on the site of an Iceni stronghold to punish the rebellion or to reward Iceni who had not taken part.

The new survey also throws light on the on-going development of Caistor. Life at the Roman town was thought to have ended in the 5th century AD as part of the general abandonment of Britain. However, discovery of a large ditched enclosure containing possible structures transecting the surface of the Roman street in the north-west corner of the site, together with earlier discoveries of middle Saxon coins and metalwork outside the west wall, and two early Saxon cemeteries in the vicinity suggests that these enclosures may be associated with continued life in the town after the Roman period.

The survey suggests a major settlement from the Iron Age until the 9th century AD. Crucially, however, when superseded by medieval Norwich the site reverted to green fields making it quite distinct from other Roman towns with long occupation sequences which tend to be buried beneath modern urban development. This significantly aids research and funding is being sought to test the survey results through excavation.

Matthew Martin, chairman of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, concluded:

"We are delighted with all the work which Dr Bowden and his team are carrying out at Caistor. We are very excited not only by what has been discovered so far by the use of this new technology but by the possibilities for more discoveries as further work is done. I think that all this is of immense interest to not only archaeologists but to a much wider public."

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