Experts hold summit to unravel mystery of rebel Roman fortress in Norfolk

By Ben Miller | 02 July 2009
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A picture of a man rolling a sprawling measurement contraption across a green field

Experts have made imaginative use of technology (above) to reveal secrets of the buried Roman tribal town in Caistor St Edmund

Last week (June 25 2009) a summit was held at the University of Nottingham to discuss new revelations on the mysterious Norfolk town of Caistor St Edmund.

A buried Roman province which caused sensation when RAF pictures of the site appeared on the front page of The Times in 1929, Caistor was adjudged to have been a densely-occupied urban area, abandoned by the Emperor of the struggling empire in 5AD.

A picture of a black and white newspaper front page showing an aerial view of an archaeological site

RAF photographs of the site caused a stir when they appeared on the front page of The Times (above) 80 years ago

New research, though, suggests such theories could be flimsily inaccurate. Using a Caesium Vapour magnetometer – a virtual grid survey device which resembles a cross between a calculator and an iPod – an expert team discovered a theatre, traces of Queen Boudicca's rebel Iceni tribe and strong signs of activity in the area through the Iron Age and up to 900AD.

A picture of an aerial shot of farmland

Local bodies including South Norfolk Council, Norfolk Archaeological Trust and Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service are investigating the province. Picture © Mike Page

"The town was probably founded by the Romans after Boudicca was defeated, which raises some interesting questions about the settlement which preceded it," explains Will Bowden, a Professor in Roman Archaeology at the University who led the showcase seminar on the findings.

"Was it Boudicca's tribal capital, levelled by the Romans for the construction of a new town as a graphic illustration of power after the revolt? Or was it the settlement of a faction that stayed loyal to Rome and was rewarded with the status of regional capital?"

A picture of two plans of an area, one in black and white, the other in colour

The geophysical interpretation of the site reveals the streets, water supply methods, churches, forums and baths built by the Romans who thrived there

Like us, Bowden admits he probably won't ever known. "But it's fun to speculate," he adds. "We really need to dig to date some of our pre-Roman features, so I'm fundraising now."

The site was eventually taken over by Medieval Norwich, reverting to green fields in a "unique time capsule", according to analysts. Among the survey results are outlines of a large semi-circular building next to the town's temples, a trademark imprint of a Roman theatre.

A picture of an aerial shot of farmland

A Caesium Vapour magnetometer has allowed academics from the University of Nottingham to draw bold new conclusions about the settlement

"The key thing about the new survey is it does seem to show that beneath the Roman town lies a very extensive prehistoric settlement," says Bowden. "This is pretty interesting as one of the mysteries about Caistor has always been why the Romans founded a town there when the site of modern Norwich has rather more going for it."

A picture of a grass field in woodland

Will Bowden says the challenge of public presentation lies in "making a flat green field seem exciting"

The five-hour series of presentations, labelled The Knowledge Exchange Showcase, united Norfolk museums, archaeologists and councils with academics, highlighting their latest breakthroughs.

"The University can bring some really exciting cutting edge technologies to the project, while the partners have extraordinary resources in terms of archaeology and detailed knowledge," says Bowden. "It's a winning combination for all concerned, really."

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