For 2 weeks in late August, an unassuming field on a site at Caistor St Edmund has played host to a major excavation. This has been the third annual excavation at the site by Caistor Roman Project (CRP), in a series of excavations which will bring new insight into the ever-changing understanding of the Roman town and its inhabitants.
Caistor nowadays consists predominantly of sward, which at the end of August, comes up to the knees in some places, and is pockmarked by wildflowers such as lady’s bedstraw, field scabious, common rest harrow and calamint. This is the result of centuries of drainage and dredging In the first century AD, when the Caistor settlement was founded, it would have been on much marshier land, and situated at the mouth of a vast estuary. Since archaeological work began here in 1929, NAT has uncovered a great deal about the community that used to live here. We know that, during the three and a half centuries between Boudicca’s rebellion and the Romans’ withdrawal from Britain, this settlement included an amphitheatre, a forum, and public baths. We also have a good idea of the ethnic makeup of Caistor – namely, that it was predominantly local people, including Iceni who had assimilated into Roman society. Romans appear to have been a minority, and were mostly military personnel.
Even so, when compared to other Roman sites in East Anglia, Caistor is still very sparsely excavated, and so archaeological work continues to this day. The dig site for the past three years has been in Temple Field, which gained its name from the temple complex excavated in it. It is the second largest Roman temple complex in Britain, with excavations suggesting it was at least two stories high and could have supported a tiled roof. It was probably devoted to a water god; this was possibly Neptune or a local deity, but also possibly a case of the latter being assimilated into the former, as was common across the Roman Empire. Interestingly, excavations have uncovered two temple complexes in Temple Field, with the larger complex being constructed later in Caistor’s history, and possibly being built over the earlier one. This also appears to be the case with Caistor’s walls; the so-called ‘Terminus Wall’ excavated in Temple Field appears to be of a much earlier provenance than the much larger walls seen at NAT’S Caistor Roman Town site, which were constructed around the third century AD.
Over a fortnight of excavating, Caistor Roman Project uncovered pottery, glass, sculpture, and even food that shed some fascinating new light on life in this town. The presence of Samian ware pottery, for example, indicates trade routes between East Anglia and Gaul, while a deposition of oyster shells gives us insight into the diet of the locals, as well as the saltmarsh ecosystem surrounding Roman-era Caistor. Additionally, the project uncovered pottery dating back to the Bronze Age, demonstrating how far back settlement at Caistor goes.
Another notable thing about the work at Temple Field is that it is a collaborative project. During the fortnight at Temple Field, the Caistor Roman Project excavated the temple and Terminus Wall side by side with both UEA students and members of the Loddon and District British Legion.
Excavations such as Temple Field also require just as much work after the dig as during it. The field is part of a farm, and grazed by horses. That CRP are allowed to carry out digs on this land is a great privilege, one to which we are all indebted to the local farmers. As such, CRP and associates have been very meticulous in refilling the areas excavated, as well as reseeding these areas with native grass once refilled.
Photograph (c) Caistor Roman Project