Outside the walls of Venta Icenorum, a Roman town and regional capital near Norwich (see CA 270), the line of an early 2nd-century road can be traced about a kilometre north-east to what today is an open paddock on the outskirts of Caistor St Edmund. There, on exceptionally dry days, parchmarks preserve the outlines of two Roman buildings within a large precinct. In the 1950s, one of these was revealed to be a temple, and in more recent years this structure has formed the focus of the Caistor Roman Project (a volunteer-led initiative with professional assistance from Professor Will Bowden of the University of Nottingham and Giles Emery of Norvic Archaeology, and including students from the Universities of Nottingham and East Anglia, and from Lowestoft Sixth Form College). When CA visited the project in 2019, the team had identified at least two – possibly three – phases of construction for the temple, which was of typical Romano-Celtic design with a square ‘cella’ building surrounded by an ‘ambulatory’ veranda (CA 356). During our visit this summer, however, the project was targeting the other structure on the site, a large building measuring some 20m by 30m, whose purpose is less immediately apparent.
Local tradition dubs this building the ‘Priest’s House’ because of its proximity to the temple, but when the Caistor Roman Project excavated some of its substantial foundations in 2018 they suggested that it could have been a corridor villa, built to take advantage of the temple’s lofty location as the religious complex went out of use (see CA 344). In this new season of excavations, however, a third possibility was taking shape: that this was some kind of ancillary building associated with the daily running of the temple site and its ceremonies.
In previous seasons, a combination of radar surveys, magnetometry, and aerial photos had helped to pick out the enigmatic building’s footprint, and further radar undertaken during the latest investigation has revealed previously unknown features including a possible apsidal structure at the back of the building. This only raised further questions for the team, as the placement of this curve was not what you might expect for a typical villa design. ‘It was unusual,’ Will Bowden said, ‘as it seemed to be leading off the back of a corridor rather than the audience chamber you might expect if this were a villa.’ Rather, Will now suggests that the building may have had a more practical function. Both the temple and the neighbouring building sit within a large and reasonably empty precinct, or temenos – an open space for crowds to gather and where festivals and outdoor ceremonies might have been held. These people would have needed facilities, and Will wonders if the ‘ancillary’ building might have been related to the functioning of the temple, ‘the equivalent of what you might expect as the toilets/café/gift shop area if visiting a modern religious site today’.
Outlining the building
CRP’s latest digging season set out to clarify the building’s layout, focusing particularly on more ephemeral areas of the radar plot, where the outline of the structure was less clear. These are thought to represent areas of wall where the remains have been more heavily robbed out in subsequent centuries, and their materials recycled in later local building projects – it was hoped that excavation would help to fill in the gaps. The team also hoped to uncover evidence that might shed more light on its date and how the structure had developed. In order to build on information gained during the 2018 dig, one of their new trenches was opened on the edge of the area excavated during this previous project. There, CRP found their first evidence for phasing, revealing the foundations of what appeared to have originally been two structures abutting each other; at a later date their cross walls had been demolished and a plain tesselated floor laid across both spaces to form a single, larger, room.
This trench also yielded the project’s first clues hinting at specific religious activities that may have taken place within the temple site, producing their first evidence of a known deity: the posterior of a broken figurine of Venus. Nothing of the goddess survives above the waist or below the knee, but her identity could still be established thanks to the figure’s design being strikingly similar to another bottom found within the walls of Venta Icenorum, Will said, as well as about a dozen other Venuses known from around Norfolk.
‘Research suggests that these Venus figurines were often broken before deposition – whole ones are more common in graves,’ Will said. ‘There might be a ritual aspect to the breakage, with certain parts having a particular significance – the heads are rarely found.’
In their analysis of the figurine, the CRP team stops short of suggesting that its discovery means that the Caistor temple was dedicated specifically to Venus, but the find does represent the first concrete clue to one of the religious rites that was being practised on the site. Previous excavations have provided evidence that the god Mercury was popular within the walls of Venta Icenorum (and within Norfolk more generally), while a curse tablet addressed to Neptune was recovered from the river just outside the Roman town. (The petitioner complains about the theft of a host of items – pewter vessels, a headdress, a pair of leggings – and offers the leggings to the god in exchange for the blood of the perpetrator.)
Iron Age echoes
There may have been earlier ceremonies performed on the site before the temple was built – possibly informing its location, and that of Venta Icenorum. Will suggests that the temple might have been deliberately constructed on a spot that had been significant to local Iron Age communities. ‘There is clear evidence of an Iron Age presence here, giving us the idea of a local cult site continuing into the Roman period,’ he said. ‘The temple at Caistor St Edmund was built early in the town’s history, beginning in the 1st century, and the Roman road from our site to Venta Icenorum terminates inside the town at two more temples. We think this might explain why the town was built where it was, to be near one of the region’s major cult foci – and given the scale of the temple buildings that were constructed there, compared to the relatively small public buildings within the town, this could have been a cult centre of quite major significance.’
No trace of the earlier cult activities has been found during the temple field excavations (though rites could have been centred on a natural feature such as a tree, leaving no structural remains), and similarly there is still no sign of any settlement associated with Iceni tribe, in whose territory Venta Icenorum was built. However, the CRP excavations have revealed clear traces of Iron Age activity on what would become the temple site. Their excavations have recovered more Iron Age pottery than was found in all 13 trenches that the project had excavated within the walls of Venta Icenorum since 2006; the latest dig was no different in its results. A small trench opened within one of the rooms of the ‘ancillary’ building, in the hope of uncovering a floor surface, was in fact producing quantities of Iron Age pottery fragments at the time of our visit. These had probably not been redeposited, Will said, as ‘the pottery is quite soft and crumbly, so it abrades if it moves through the soil too much, but we have got some quite decent chunks.’
Outside the walls
Moving away from the building, the scale of the temple precinct could be fully appreciated as we walked to a trench that had been opened some distance from the others, in a field that was also being used as the project’s car park. This area lay downslope from the temple field, and when looking back uphill it was easy to imagine what an unmistakeable landmark the temple would have been in the landscape, its white walls forming a 20m by 20m square. Might the ‘ancillary’ building have been equally visible?
The precinct trench had been opened over the north-west corner of the wall that once surrounded the complex. Its well-built foundations speak of an impressive boundary, and CRP is now working to establish whether the temenos walls are contemporary with the early 1st-century temple phase, or whether they were built later in the temple’s history. Outside this wall the team found spreads of gravel that may have represented a road running around the outside of the temple grounds, or alternatively could have formed part of an open area in front of the complex, perhaps offering an additional area for gathering ahead of ceremonies, or a place where stalls could have been set up to sell votives and other items.
Some of the people who had flocked to the site during the Roman period had left their own traces behind them, including a scattering of coins, fragments of fine glass drinking vessels, and a nearly intact 1st-century brooch preserving traces of silvering. As CA arrived on site, the excavation team was excitedly examining a broken intaglio – an engraved gemstone that would have originally been set into a ring – which had just that moment emerged from the precinct trench. The small, flat reddish stone had traces of an image still visible on its surface, and while it was not immediately obvious what it depicted, enough of the design survives that the team plans to send photos of the object to experts on such finds to see if they can identify the motif. Tantalisingly, the same trench had already produced half of a man’s finger-ring, which was itself missing an intaglio, but the red stone did not fit the gap. It may be that a second such decorative stone might yet emerge from this part of the site.
Keeping up appearances
Back inside the precinct, another trench had been opened to explore evidence for the possible apse observed in the team’s recent radar surveys. This picture was still developing, but a possible curve was just starting to appear at the time CA visited, and we could also see substantial wall foundations forming a sharp corner. This latter angle was particularly robbed out, something that had been observed during previous excavations of the temple, too – presumably because the nicest, best-shaped building materials had been used to form the corners, Will suggested, making them most appealing to later visitors to the site seeking high-quality masonry that they could reuse.
This trench yielded clues to how the ‘ancillary’ building may have looked, including fragments of fallen wall plaster and chunks of plain tesselated floor. Here the team recovered pieces of what are thought to be painted veneers that may have been intended as a low-cost alternative to represent marble, creating the illusion of a grander appearance than resources may have permitted. Just as interpretations of this structure’s role within the temple site have shifted as excavations have progressed, so it appears that, in the Roman period, this enigmatic building was not always all it seemed.
For more information about the Caistor Roman Project, see www.caistorromanproject.org. You can find insights from the latest investigations on the team’s excavation blog at www.templefield2021.wordpress.com.
Will Bowden is Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Nottingham. Caistor Roman Project’s 2021 excavations were supported by the Roman Research Trust, the Headley Trust, the University of Nottingham, the University of East Anglia, the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, and High Ash Farm.
Photos: Geoff Lunn, unless otherwise stated.