Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Venta Icenorum - Roman Caistor by Norwich

Sometimes you go and attend a talk and its very nice.  Interesting.  Relaxing even.  But other times you attend a talk and come home buzzing with new ideas and desperate to re-read every book you own on the subject to immerse yourself in it.  I'm pleased to say that the talk I attended tonight was definitely in the latter camp.

It was the monthly lecture for the Society for Lincolnshire History and Archaeology (which if you're based in Lincolnshire and interested in history or archaeology there's really no excuse for not being a member of).  The speaker was Dr Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham, and the subject that he spoke so entertainingly and eloquently about was the Caistor Roman Project.

Now, there are one or two Caistors to choose from in Britain, but this one is the Caistor in Norfolk, just south of Norwich - Venta Icenorum to the Romans.  The site is a greenfield, owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, and there has been an ongoing archaeological field school there since 2005.

The name 'Venta Icenorum' translates as 'the market of the Iceni'.  I'm sure everyone know the Iceni as the tribe of Boudica and the famous revolt of AD60, but this famous connection has actually hampered the study of this important town as previous archaeologists have been desperate to link its development to the aftermath of the uprising, in the AD70s.  One of the main research goals of Dr Bowden's project has been to understand the development of the town purely from the archaeological evidence, not from famous stories.  It now appears that the main early development was slightly later, at the very end of the 1st Century and into the 2nd.  Just as interesting is the end of the Roman period, as there is evidence that the Forum underwent a refurbishment in the 4th Century.  Such investment is very rarely found, and perhaps speaks of the continued status of the town in the final years of Roman governance.

Another element of the story I found particularly fascinating is the question of just how built-up Roman towns actually were.  The traditional view is that, within their imposing walls, sizeable Roman towns were densely packed with brick and tiled buildings, interspersed with fora, temples, basilicae and colonnades.  While these classical edifices undoubtedly existed, it is becoming more and more obvious that the towns were far more hotchpotch than that, with timber and brick buildings growing up side by side, and growth happening organically rather than through large, planned urban developments.  The existence of green spaces such as orchards or even brownfield sites within the walls are harder to prove archaeologically, but shouldn't be discounted.

A few finds from the site are worthy of mention.  Firstly, on the religious front, a defixio was found in the area in 1981.  A defixio is a lead tablet inscribed with a curse - asking a deity to punish another person for wronging them.  This curse was a plea to Neptune, asking that the thief of a sizeable haul - a wreath, bracelets, a cap, a mirror, a head-dress, a pair of leggings and ten pewter vessels - be punished.  Neptune was very generously offered the leggings if he assisted...

The second find is of a palaeolithic flint handaxe.  Rather than being evidence of ancient occupation of the site, however, this was incorporated into the Forum building and seems to reflect the belief that prehistoric axes were actually the remains of lightning bolts ('fulgur' in Latin).  By having one incorporated into the building, perhaps lightning wouldn't strike twice!

This wonderful project is up for an award - Current Archaeology Research Project of the Year, so click here to go and vote for it!

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