For the last few summers, CA has paid a visit to the Caistor Roman Project, which has been investigating the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple and associated structures located around 800m outside the walls of Venta Icenorum, a Roman regional capital near modern Norwich. (See CA 344, 356, and 380 for more on findings from these excavations, and CA 270 to read more about the walled town itself.) This year, when CA travelled to the site, the team had moved to the other side of the modern road bordering the temple paddock, to explore archaeological traces in a neighbouring field.
This land lies just outside the temple precinct, and an initial geophysical survey revealed evidence of a concentrated area of activity preserved beneath the surface, including suggestions of an enclosure with a strikingly busy interior scattered with pits and ditches. There was also an intriguing dog-legged line formed from a series of ‘dots’ on the survey plot. To explore these anomalies in more detail, the CRP (working in partnership with the University of Nottingham and supported by Norvic Archaeology) opened four trenches within this area – one of which revealed that the curved line in fact represented the remains of an aqueduct. The ‘dots’ proved to be iron collars that had once encircled a long-decayed wooden pipe, which had been laid in a clay-lined channel to help prevent leakage. The team have not yet identified the aqueduct’s water source (and have only excavated a section of the pipeline), but it will have been upslope from their trenches, possibly in the nearby woods, where it may have tapped into a local spring that, they suggest, could have been considered sacred.
As the line of the aqueduct can be seen turning down towards the temple field, Professor Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham, who collaborated with CRP on the recent excavations and also led investigations within the walled town, suggested that it might have been intended to supply the religious site.
‘During our work in the temple field, we did not find any sign of a channel or stream in the valley bottom, so this could have been an important water source,’ he said. ‘I would be interested to see if it was associated with the temple remains, or with the “auxiliary building” that we have been investigating close-by. If the latter proved to have had a water supply, that could influence our interpretation of this structure.’
Will added that aqueducts had previously been identified inside Venta Icenorum, which had a well-developed water-supply system, but that they are seldom found in association with temples in Britain. ‘This could be because of how people have historically investigated temples, though – focusing on structures rather than their hinterland,’ he said.
Echoes of activity
The project’s trenches have also yielded a wealth of evidence for what people were doing on the site in the early Roman period. From a mass of intercutting pits and ditches, the team have recovered large quantities of material including quern stones, animal bones, and pottery. This last category includes a number of very large pieces of ceramic which appear to have been deliberately chosen and placed in the ground as some kind of structured deposit. The animal remains might also hint at some kind of ritual activity: comprising mainly horse, sheep, and cow bones, they are characterised by frequent fragments of skull and jaw, which might indicate intentional selection rather than the debris of food-processing.
Most of the finds from the pits date to the 1st century AD, which is contemporary with the earliest buildings being constructed at Venta Icenorum, and the first phase of temple-building in the nearby field. The aqueduct is thought to be slightly later in date, though precise chronologies are still being pinned down. There is a notable presence of higher-status items, including considerable amounts of fineware and imported ceramics within the pottery, and glass vessels including a fragment of a distinctive kind of 1st-century Gallo-Roman glass bowl. Meanwhile, the team have also recovered evidence that at least some of the people using the site were literate, in the form of a well-preserved stylus with its flat ‘eraser’ end still intact.
What is striking about the finds, Will said, is that there is not a lot of evidence for everyday activities such as cooking or butchering animals taking place in this area. Likewise, while the team have found building debris in the form of fragments of brick, tile, and flue-tile, they have not identified the footprints of any structures on the site. ‘If people were living in this area, we are not yet on top of them,’ he said.
While this year’s excavations have not found any sign of dwellings or other buildings, the people visiting the site during the Roman period have left copious more personal traces behind to testify to their presence, including a bone gaming-counter, a ceramic spindle-whorl, a bone comb, a number of brooches – some decorated with enamel – and part of an adjustable necklace with two metal knots that could be slid closer or further apart to change its length. Another form of personal adornment, albeit one that is thought to have been modified during the early medieval period, was a Roman coin bearing an image of the twins Romulus and Remus and the wolf that fostered them – a representation of the city of Rome’s foundation myth. This had been carefully drilled through so that it could be worn as a pendant.
Other highlights included a small, folded piece of lead, which the team hope might prove to be a defixio, or curse tablet. One such item is already known from the immediate area: addressed to the god Neptune, it was recovered from the river just outside the walls of Venta Icenorum. Finally, just before my visit, the team had uncovered a fragment of mortarium bearing a beautifully clear maker’s mark identifying the potter as an individual called ‘Crispus’. This figure seems to have been fairly prolific, with similar discoveries from other sites indicating that he had been operating in East Anglia c.AD 80-120 – and at least one other example of the stamp has been found in the immediate area, within the walls of Venta Icenorum.
Post-excavation analysis of the finds is now under way, and the team plan to return to the site next year – watch this space for further updates. In the meantime, see https://caistorromanproject.org for more information about the investigation.