Caistor Roman Town

The Roman town of Venta Icenorum is the Romano-British predecessor of the modern county town of Norwich. Founded during the AD 60s at Caistor St Edmund in the valley of the River Tas, immediately to the south of its confluence with the Rivers Yare and Wensum, this was the largest and most important Roman centre of northern East Anglia.

The Latin name means 'market-place of the Eceni', and Venta was the Roman administrative base for the area of Norfolk, northern Suffolk and eastern Cambridgeshire. This was the area which had been controlled in the Iron Age by the Eceni (or Iceni) tribe. Along with Silchester (Hants) and Wroxeter (Shropshire), Venta Icenorum is one of only three major Romano-British towns which have not been buried or destroyed by medieval and modern towns and cities. The Trust has owned the defended area of the town since 1984, and has acquired much surrounding land since that date with the aim of protecting and conserving the monument and its setting. The interpretation scheme at the site has won major awards.

Important research and conservation work continues. Since 2009, a series of excavations conducted by the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the Trust and with South Norfolk Council, has started to provide fascinating new information about Venta. In 2011, the Trust bought an additional 55 acres across the river opposite the West Gate – a valuable addition to the large area already in its care.

Caistor bastionIron Age coin from CaistorCaistor air view from southCaistor planCaistor geophysical survey resultsCaistor wall repairCaistor north wallCaistor South Gate excavationsCaistor 1930s excavationsCaistor 2010 excavationsCaistor 1990s reconstructionCaistor reconstruction 2009Caistor new land acquired 2011

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How to get there

The site lies on the southern edge of the present-day village of Caistor St Edmund, c. 3.5 miles to the south of the centre of Norwich.

  • By car: the site lies on the minor road southward from Norwich to Stoke Holy Cross. The car park is on the right-hand side of the road as one drives south – watch out for the 'brown sign' as you draw near! SatNav: NR14 8QL. The car park entrance lies on a bend, so please take care when arriving and leaving. Drivers arriving at Norwich via the A47 Norwich Southern Bypass can turn off at the A140 (Ipswich Road) intersection and follow signs to Caistor St Edmund.

  • By bus: Caistor St Edmund is served every day of the week by service 587 (Norwich-Stoke Holy Cross-Poringland) run by Anglian Bus and Coach. For up to date timetable information, please visit http://www.travelineeastanglia.org.uk and search for this service, or telephone the service provider on 01502 711109. Buses depart from St Stephen's Street, Norwich, and set down in Caistor village centre, outside the Caistor Hall Hotel, c. 0.8km to the north of the site. From this point the site may be reached via the Stoke Road (although there is no continuous pavement and pedestrians must take care.

  • Cycling: from Norwich, the site is easily reached via City Road, Long John Hill (passing the Cock PH, Lakenham) and Stoke Road.

The site is open to visitors every day from dawn to dusk. Car parking is free. There are no toilets or other facilities. A series of interpretation panels will explain the site to you.

There are two self-guided walks around the property, one around the Roman defences and one along the River Tas. Site guidebooks by John Davies are available from Caistor Post Office, the Caistor Hall Hotel, the Wildebeest Arms at Stoke Holy Cross, and local bookshops.

More information about Venta Icenorum

Prehistory

Palaeolithic axe from Caistor

A remarkable find from the 2010 excavations. This palaeolithic hand-axe came from a layer apparently dating to the 4th century AD, but pre-dates the Roman period by thousands of years. There have been very many prehistoric finds from the area (Dave Griffiths)

Even when Venta was first founded, the surrounding area was already an ancient place. The River Tas flows into the River Yare immediately to the south of Norwich. Their valleys were important natural routeways, and the area where they meet is rich in prehistoric sites. These include the famous Arminghall Henge, a Neolithic ceremonial monument 2.5km to the north, close to the River Yare on the outskirts of modern Norwich. This may date to c. 3000 BC. The remains of many barrows or burial mounds are also known nearby. Some were excavated on the line of the Norwich Southern Bypass,  and may have been two thousand years old by the time the Romans arrived here.

In the later part of the Iron Age (c. 700 BC–AD 43), Venta seems to have become a major centre for the Eceni (or Iceni) tribe. The territory of the Eceni included Norfolk, northern Suffolk and western Cambridgeshire. They followed a distinctive and independent way of life, and after the Roman conquest they defied the invaders during the rebellion of Boudica in AD 61. Many Iron Age metal objects have been recovered here, including Ecenian silver coins, decorated brooches and harness fittings. These finds have been made to the east and west of the Roman town walls as well as within them. The Eceni probably did not have just one 'capital', as we know of important tribal centres around Thetford and in west Norfolk. However, it seems that Venta was already a significant place when the Romans established the town.

Boudica, the Romans and the foundation of Venta

The Eceni seem to have remained neutral during the main period of the conquest of Britain after AD 43, and may even have been Roman allies. However, a serious dispute with the Romans erupted in AD 61 on the death of King Prasutagus. His widow, Boudica, led a major rebellion. Before they were trapped and overwhelmed by the Roman army somewhere in the Midlands, the rebels had destroyed the cities of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans).

Air view of Caistor Roman town

Air view of Venta Icenorum from the south. The defences and street plan are clearly visible, as well as the parish church in the south-east corner of the walled area (Mike Page)

The Romans then punished the Eceni severely, and tribal lands may have been redistributed. The foundation of Venta as a regional capital was probably a part of this process, although evidence for the early town is obscure. Venta might have been a military centre in the post-rebellion period, before the town was established. A series of three parallel ditches recorded to the south of the walls may be remains of a early Roman fortification, but current research suggests that they are in fact an early town defence.

Why was Venta created at Caistor rather than a few miles further to the north, on the site of medieval and modern Norwich? In some ways it seems a surprising choice – Norwich lies at the very centre of the great east Norfolk river confluence, and is also more naturally defensible and closer to deep water for shipping. However, the presence of a number of prehistoric monuments shows that the Venta area was important from the Neolithic period onwards and it may be that the new town was founded in an area of existing importance. The site they chose was still a good one in many ways, with an expanse of level, flood-free land close to the River Tas. Here, too, the Tas could easily be crossed with a bridge.

Growth of the town

The ‘gridiron’ street plan dates to the years after AD 70. First recorded from the air in the 1930s, it covered a much larger area than that enclosed by the walls that we see now, which were built about 200 years later. It seems that buildings were only erected slowly. In fact, recent excavation and survey has shown that some areas of the street plan were never built up at all. All buildings in the early period were modest ones of timber. Only in the time of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-38) did grander public buildings start to appear, with the laying out of the first forum in the town centre.

Plan of Caistor Roman town

Interpretative plan of Venta Icenorum, showing Roman built-up area (pink), roads and streets (white), and other evidence from geophysical survey. The oval remains of the amphitheatre are visible in the lower left-hand part of the plan (University of Nottingham; extra-mural cropmark data derived from the National Mapping Programme (English Heritage and Norfolk County Council)).

Venta, like all Roman towns, had forums and baths. Excavation which took place in the forum area in the 1930s showed that the Hadrianic forum had been rebuilt in the later 2nd century, and again after it burnt down. It was the town’s market place, and the basilica (town hall) and two temples lay close by. There were fine public baths in the west part of the town, which also saw some excavation in 1935. The entire town was supplied by running water, perhaps from an aqueduct on high land to the east. Wooden water pipes and drains running along the streets have been found during excavation and survey work; water and waste would both have flowed down the slope westward to the river.

Other major Roman buildings have been recorded outside the core of the town. The oval outline of an amphitheatre has been identified on aerial photographs c. 200m to the south of the defences, and more recently has been plotted by geophysical survey. We do not know if this was a public building or a military exercise and training facility. Approximately 1km to the north-east of the town lay a major 3rd-century temple complex surrounded by a temenos (boundary) wall with a monumental entrance gate. This site was excavated in the 1950s, and has produced many finds.

Building of the walls

The circuit of defensive walls and ditches is a great sight for any modern visitor. They probably date to the mid-later 3rd century AD. This was a period when many towns all over Roman Britain were walled in response to increasing problems of security, arising both from attacks by Germanic raiders and from civil war within the empire.

Until recent centuries the walls were much better preserved than they are now, but unfortunately they have been heavily ‘quarried’ for building material and roadstone. Originally, tower-like bastions were attached to the outside of the walls at regular intervals. These were used as watch towers, or to mount artillery or other weapons. Only one bastion now survives, near the site of the west gate adjacent to the River Tas, although traces of others can be seen in front of the south wall.

Caistor South Gate excavated

The south gate of the town, as revealed by excavations by Donald Atkinson in the 1930s.

Only about a half of the area covered by Venta Icenorum’s original street grid was enclosed by the defences. Although the 'extra-mural' areas could have remained in use into the 4th century AD, some of these may never have been densely inhabited, even before the walls were built. The best preserved section of the wall is the eastern half of the north face, where it is exposed to its full height of c. 7m and parts of the original wall-top walkway survive.

A single gate lay in the centre of each side. The south gate was temporarily exposed during Professor Donald Atkinson's excavation campaign of the 1930s. We have some remarkable photographs of the excavation, although the results have never been fully published.

The end of Roman Caistor and the Anglo-Saxon period

Fourth century burial from Caistor

One of two unusual burials dating to the 4th or early 5th centuries found in the northern part of the town during excavations in 2009. This body seems to have been placed in a pit, rather than in a specially dug grave (Will Bowden)

Although Roman forces were withdrawn from Britain by the emperor Honorius in AD 410, the breakdown of Roman authority probably began in the 340s AD. Little is known of the fate of Venta and of its inhabitants, although coins of Honorius show that activity continued here after AD 400. However, this remained an important place during the Anglo-Saxon period which followed. Two large Early Saxon (5th–6th century) cemeteries have been located very close by.

There is little Anglo-Saxon evidence from the walled area itself. However, the techniques used by excavations in the 1930s – which targeted major Roman buildings, and would have dealt only summarily with later layers above them – might have failed to detect more subtle remains. One possibility is that the Roman defences were used to enclose an early church or monastic community, and that the walled area was somehow set apart from secular life. The medieval parish church of St Edmund is sited neatly in the south-east corner of the town. Might this perpetuate the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church, or even of a late Roman one? We do not know.

Many coins, metal items and pottery of the 7th and 8th centuries have been found in the area across the River Tas, opposite the Roman west gate. Perhaps Venta Icenorum was once again an important regional centre in the Middle Saxon period. In 1990, the A47 Norwich Southern Bypass was under construction nearby. Excavations then at Harford Farm – a hill which dominates the north-western skyline from Venta – revealed 46 burials of the period. A small number of these were interred with jewellery and other valuable items which are now on permanent display at Norwich Castle Museum. Was this cemetery used by an Anglo-Saxon community who lived or traded at Caistor?

Acquisition by the Trust

The defended area of the Roman town has been owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust since 1984, when it was vested in the Trust following the death of Mrs E.H. Hawkins the previous year. Much of the site, however, lay outside this area, and there was no provision for vehicular access to the monument. The Trust's subsequent purchase in 1992 of land around the walled area gained wide support – from the public and local news media as well as from conservation and other bodies concerned with archaeology and cultural heritage.

The purchase was funded with the aid of a package of grants from English Heritage, Norfolk County Council and South Norfolk Council. A programme of site management was established, both to permit public access and presentation and to ensure the highest possible standards of conservation of the monument from the standpoints of both archaeology and wildlife.

Recent survey and excavation

Caistor excavations 2010

Excavations in the northern area of the town during 2010 (Will Bowden)

We are now gaining very important new information about Venta Icenorum. Starting in 2006, the University of Nottingham, in partnership with the Trust and with South Norfolk Council, has undertaken major geophysical surveys of the land owned by the Trust and carried out small-scale excavations in the walled town and the field to the south. To date, these excavations have looked at the northern section of the walled area of the town, possible prehistoric features and a late Roman cemetery in the field to the south, and the forum complex previously excavated by Atkinson in the 1930s. The results are teaching us much more about the layout and character of the settlement. To download a summary report on the results of the 2012 excavation season, please click here.

Some of the early excavation results seem surprising. In particular, it appears that Venta’s life as an urban centre may actually have been quite short, and that much of the area occupied by the street plan was never densely occupied at any time in the Roman period. In contrast with many towns in Roman Britain, the period of most intensive activity at Venta occurred in the late 3rd and 4th centuries. This raises important new questions about the town, and about Roman Norfolk. For more information about the ongoing project, please visit www.caistorromanproject.org.

Caistor Roman town air photographic survey

National Mapping Programme plot of all features visible on aerial photographs. Green - remains of ditches and pits showing as either earthworks or cropmarks. Red - earthworks or cropmarks relating to either banks or compacted surfaces (roads, floors etc.). (c) English Heritage & Norfolk County Council.

Air photographs of Caistor Roman town were studied by the Norfolk County Council team undertaking the National Mapping Programme (NMP) in Norfolk. NMP is an English Heritage initiative that aims to identify, map and interpret all archaeological sites visible on aerial photographs. One significant discovery at Caistor was the identification of elements of the well-known triple-ditched defences in two places to the north of the town. This suggests that the triple-ditch enclosure was perhaps once kite-shaped. Perhaps they formed part of a civil defence of the 2nd century or later, rather than of an early fort as is more usually suggested. Traces of further possible extra-mural streets and traces of pre-Roman activity have also been seen.

Norfolk Heritage Explorer

For more information about Caistor Roman Town, visit the Norfolk Heritage Explorer website. www.heritage.norfolk.gov.uk/SingleResult.aspx?uid=MNF9786.


Further reading

An illustrated colour guide published by the Trust is available from local booksellers.
Davies, J.A., 2001. Venta Icenorum: Caistor St Edmund Roman Town (Norfolk Archaeological Trust)

For overviews of Roman Norfolk, and of Roman towns, please see the following.
Davies, J.A., 2009. The Land of Boudica: prehistoric and Roman Norfolk (Norwich: Heritage/Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service)
Gurney, D., 2005. ‘Roman Norfolk’, in T. Ashwin and A. Davison (eds), An Historical Atlas of Norfolk, 3rd edition (Chichester, Phillimore), 28–9
Wacher, J.S. 1995. The Towns of Roman Britain, 2nd edn (Batsford, London)

Other publications. Venta Icenorum is one of Norfolk’s outstanding and most-discussed archaeological sites, and is mentioned in many other reports and publications.
Ashwin, T.M. and Bates, S.J., 2000. Excavations on the Norwich Southern Bypass 1989-91. Part I: Excavations at Bixley, Caistor St Edmund and Trowse, East Anglian Archaeology 91. (For further information on the EAA series, visit www.eaareports.org.uk.).
Atkinson, D., 1929. ‘Caistor excavations 1929’, Norfolk Archaeology 24, 93-139
Bellinger, R. and Sims, J., 1996. ‘Caistor St Edmund Fieldwalking Project 1992-1994', The Annual (Bulletin of the Norfolk Archaeological and Historical Research Group) 5, 11-20
Clark, J.D.G., 1936. ‘The Timber Monument at Arminghall and its Affinities’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 2, 1-51
Davies, J.A., 1992. ‘Excavations at the North Wall, Caistor St Edmund, 1987-89’, Norfolk Archaeology 41, 325-37
Davies, J.A., 1996. ‘Where Eagles Dare: The Iron Age of Norfolk’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 62, 63-94
de la Bedoyère, G., 1992. Roman Towns in Britain (English Heritage)
Esmonde Cleary, S.E., 1989. The Ending of Roman Britain (Batsford, London)
Frere, S.S., 1971. ‘The Forum and baths at Caistor by Norwich’, Britannia 2, 1-26
Gurney, D.A., 1986. ‘A Romano-Celtic Temple Site at Caistor St Edmund’, in Gregory, A.K. and Gurney, D.A., Excavations at Thornham, Warham, Wighton and Caistor St Edmund, East Anglian Archaeology 30, 37-58
Kent, E.A., 1929. ‘The Roman Fortified Town of Caistor-next-Norwich’, Norfolk Archaeology 23, 269-84
Myres, J.N.L., and Green, E.B., 1973. The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Norwich and Markshall, Norfolk, Report of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries 30 (London, Society of Antiquaries)
Penn, K.J., 2000. Excavations on the Norwich Southern Bypass 1989-91. Part II: The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Harford Farm, East Anglian Archaeology 92
Percival, S.A., 1996. ‘Caistor St Edmund Metal Detector Survey 1993’, The Annual (Bulletin of the Norfolk Archaeological and Historical Research Group) 5, 21-3
Wade-Martins, P. (ed.), 1999. Norfolk from the Air II (Norfolk Museums Service)