A few hundred meters to the northeast of Venta Icenorum – Caistor Roman Town – lie the remains of an extraordinary ‘Romano-Celtic’ temple site. In 2018, the Caistor Roman Project (CRP) community group undertook their initial investigation of the site, opening up three archaeological trenches. The largest of these exposed a building of high-status construction, with tessellated floors and painted wall plaster. A ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the site revealed hitherto unknown depth and scope to some deposits, and a potentially earlier phase to the temple itself was revealed.

This season, the team returned to dig three further trenches to investigate the extent and condition of the temple, which was partly excavated in 1957 by student volunteers, supervised by Sophia Mottram, on behalf of the Norfolk Research Committee. Building on this work, there were several key questions which the CRP team was eager to answer: Was there a ‘Phase 1’ temple beneath the walls excavated by Mottram as indicated by the GPR? How did the temple relate to the large building excavated in 2018 (often called the ‘Priest’s House’, but more realistically referred to as the ‘ancillary building’)? Was there a pre-Roman shrine in the vicinity, as indicated by surface finds? And was this the impetus for the location of the temple?

The three trenches did not disappoint. Trench 5 explored the northwest corner of the ambulatory, the paved walkway enclosing the central shrine or cella, and a series of pits. Although heavily robbed in the past, the foundations were traced to a depth of 1.8m. The remains of an earlier ambulatory wall built from clay lump and flint rubble survived below the level of the walkway which may have supported a timber superstructure, similar to early buildings within the town. The pits were shallow, but appeared to contain structured deposits including animal bones, pottery and oyster shells. Most thrilling was the find of a twisted copper alloy armlet or necklet from the fill of a rectangular pit.

Trench 6, over the eastern part of the temple, immediately revealed three walls just below the ploughsoil – relating to the internal cella, the ambulatory and an external portico (pictured). The floor levels had been robbed away in antiquity, however below the redeposited sand and gravel make-up which supported them were the remains of walls for an earlier and smaller Phase 1 temple. Within these deposits were more ‘votive’ offerings – gifts to the gods – including several 1st century coins, brooches and another necklet/armlet, in this case folded up, perhaps in a ritual act of destruction.

Trench 7, to the south revealed a track or ‘hollow-way’ filled by demolition rubble including roof and floor tiles, with clusters of loose tesserae. Also from this trench came several sherds of Iron Age pottery. A fragment of a copper alloy leaf plaque links this temple precinct with those at Hockwold-cum-Wilton and Walsingham. These were nailed to posts or placed in the inner sanctum as part of devotional practice.

Initial interpretations suggest there was indeed a Late Iron Age/Early Roman presence, with a religious or depositional focus. This was systematically dismantled and reconstructed, most likely in the later 2nd century, on a grander scale. This may have occurred in tandem with construction of the large ancillary building and the temenos wall with its monumental western gateway. As always, a short season of excavation answers some questions and raises yet more. The CRP group hopes to return next year to explore further.

by Dr Nat Harlow, Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham

The author would like to pay tribute to Sophia Hankinson, née Mottram, who died in June 2019, aged 89.