Venta Icenorum: Roman town and associated prehistoric, Anglo-Saxon and medieval remains

Overview

Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1021463

Date first listed: 30-Nov-1925

Date of most recent amendment: 26-Sep-2018

Location Description: The monument lies south-west of Caistor St Edmund; between the Norwich to London railway on the west and Markshall Lane on the east.

Statutory Address: Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk, NR14 8QL

Map

Ordnance survey map of Venta Icenorum: Roman town and associated prehistoric, Anglo-Saxon and medieval remains
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Location

Statutory Address: Caistor St Edmund, Norfolk, NR14 8QL

Location Description: The monument lies south-west of Caistor St Edmund; between the Norwich to London railway on the west and Markshall Lane on the east.

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Norfolk

District: South Norfolk (District Authority)

Parish: Caistor St. Edmund

County: Norfolk

District: South Norfolk (District Authority)

Parish: Stoke Holy Cross

National Grid Reference: TG2304903249

Summary

Roman town and associated prehistoric and medieval remains, and Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

Reasons for Designation

Venta Icenorum, a Roman town and associated prehistoric and medieval remains, and Anglo-Saxon cemetery, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:

Survival:

* the circuit of the upstanding town wall provides an impressive visual feature and although none of the buildings within or beyond the walls survive above ground, the diversity of buried archaeological deposits such as masonry foundations, tessellated floors, roads and defensive ditches are known from excavation, geophysical survey and aerial photographic evidence to survive well below ground;

Diversity of features:

* the site comprises a palimpsest of multi-period settlement, from the complex road network and important public buildings such as the amphitheatre, forum, basilica and bath complex associated with the Roman town, to the crop mark evidence of the Late Iron Age settlement and Anglo-Saxon cemetery;

Potential:

* as the site was not comprehensively resettled in the post-Roman period, the extensive survival of archaeological deposits has the potential to increase understanding on the pre-Roman settlement, the foundation and development of the civitas capital and the decline of urban Roman life in the province;

Rarity:

* Venta Icenorum was the largest and most important Roman town in northern East Anglia and is one of only three civitas capitals to survive in a wholly greenfield location in England;

Documentation:

* the town is documented in the Roman period by Ptolemy the geographer. The results of limited archaeological excavation and evaluation, as well as non-intrusive investigation, provide a sound evidence base for assessing its importance.

History

Five types of Roman towns are known to have existed in Roman Britain; coloniae, municipia, civitas capitals, Roman provincial capitals and Roman small towns. The first four types can be classified as 'public towns' because each had an official status within the provincial administration system. Venta Icenorum was a civitas capital. These were towns which functioned as the principal centres of the civitatae or regions of Roman Britain. They were official creations, generally established in the later 1st century or early 2nd century AD in newly pacified areas where the process of Romanisation had been successfully inaugurated. They were typically established on the sites of earlier tribal centres or settlements and were populated largely by native Britons rather than Roman citizens.

Civitas capitals functioned as economic, cultural and administrative centres for their respective regions. In terms of civic administration, a civitas capital would either have had magistrates and a council or it may have been administered directly for a time through officials known as 'praefecti civitatis'. Defensive walls usually defined the areas of civitas capitals, these ranging in size from about 14ha to about 58ha. Within the walled area the main features included: the forum-basilica, other major public buildings, private houses, shops and workshops, piped water and sewerage systems, a planned rectangular street grid and, in some cases, waterfront installations. Beyond the walls, an area of extra-mural settlement can often be identified. This area can be extensive and may include features such as an amphitheatre, quarries, cemeteries, temples, rubbish dumps, commemorative monuments, potteries and roads. Sixteen civitas capitals are known in England showing a relatively even distribution through the southern and eastern lowland zone of Roman Britain. They were set up in the wake of the advancing army as it moved progressively north and westwards and it was in the south and east that Romanisation had the earliest and most successful impact.

In approximately AD 70 Venta Icenorum was laid out with streets and insulae on a grid pattern, probably on the site of an Iron Age and Romano-British settlement of the Iceni tribe, suggested by the survival of enclosures and round house platforms south of the walled town. The site was photographed by the RAF in 1928, revealing the parched layout of streets and buildings within the enclosure, and subsequent excavations were undertaken between 1929 and 1935. The buried remains of a triple-ditch defensive system, of uncertain date but earlier than the 3rd century town, enclosed a larger, broadly kite-shape area which may represent a defended Late Iron Age tribal centre similar to that at Colchester. The early Roman settlement covered an area approximately twice the size of the later walled town and was accessed by a number of minor and principal roads; one from the civitas capital of Camulodunum (Colchester) and others leading to small Roman towns such as Billingford (National Heritage List 1021458). The late 1st century AD buildings were constructed mostly from timber with wattle and daub walling.

Ptolemy, the geographer writing in the 2nd century AD, describes Venta Icenorum as the one noteworthy town of the Iceni, suggesting, perhaps, an increase in prosperity and architectural prowess; certainly the town became an important hub for river and land-borne trade. This is confirmed by the excavation of early 2nd century masonry houses with painted wall plaster, and major public buildings including the forum and basilica complex and public baths. The first forum lay near to the centre of the later walled town in insula X, but was rebuilt probably in the Antonine period. This later phase was constructed of flint and brick on layered chalk foundations. It provided a large open space, or piazza, of approximately 30m square for public meetings and markets, surrounded by an internal colonnade on three sides. Beyond the colonnade on the north and south sides were long halls and a range of eight rooms lay behind the east side. The basilica with one aisle lay on the fourth, west, side approached by three flights of steps from the piazza. The baths in insula XVII, not far from the west gate, were probably contemporary with the forum. The eastern end of the building was excavated, revealing that it had a partly covered palaestra (a public place for athletics or wrestling) with a single entrance from the street to the east. From here, three doors gave access to the frigidarium (cold bath), with a tessellated floor, which ran the full width of the building. Beyond lay the tepidarium (the warm room) and, on the south side of the building, a circular laconium (dry heat treatment or sauna) was located at the junction of the tepidarium and frigidarium. The baths were supplied with water from the river which also facilitated the town’s water and sewerage system. It is unknown whether the water supply system incorporated an aqueduct. No other public buildings are known, but the buried remains of two temples of the late 2nd century are located in insula IX immediately north of the forum.

Occupation at the site continued well into the 4th century AD but a number of the buildings appear to have been burnt down at the end of the 4th century or beginning of the 5th century, which may mark the end of occupation of the town in any substantial way. It is clear that settlement in some form did continue as there is an Anglo-Saxon cremation and inhumation cemetery in the extra-mural zone to the east. The cemetery was discovered in the C16 and was partially excavated by Surgeon-Commander F R Mann between 1932 and 1937 when over 500 cremations and 57 inhumations were uncovered. At the time of excavation the site was wooded and none of the trees were cut down during the excavation so that the cemetery has not been completely excavated. Recent finds are indicative of Roman settlement remains but also provide evidence for earlier Iron-Age activity. A geophysical survey of part of this area, undertaken in 2016 helps to substantiate the interpretation by revealing an intensity of features including roads, the triple-ditch system and building remains which clearly relate to the walled town.

Details

Roman town and associated prehistoric and medieval remains, and Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

PRINCIPAL ELEMENTS

The monument includes the Roman civitas capital of Venta Icenorum together with associated prehistoric and medieval deposits within or in the vicinity of the town, surviving as earthworks and buried archaeological deposits over an area of around 100ha. The extra-mural settlement continues further eastwards to Markshall Lane and includes an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

DESCRIPTION

The monument lies five miles south of Norwich on rising ground to the east and west of the River Tas. It is defined to the west by the Norwich to London railway and to the east by Markshall Lane. Despite frequent cultivation in the past, partial excavation during the 1930s within the walled town has demonstrated good survival of archaeological structures and deposits beneath the ploughsoil. The scheduled area was extended by a strip to the south of the walled enclosure in 1971 and then to the north of the enclosure when the scheduling was revised under the Monuments Protection Programme (SM 11502) in 1990. It was further extended to the north and west in 2011, and to the east in 2018.

In the northern area of the monument, the enclosing ramparts, ditches and masonry walls of the shrunken 3rd century town, mentioned in the Antonine Itinerary of that date, survive well for most of the circuit; much of the north wall and fragments of the west and east walls are exposed. The contracted town of the 3rd century was enclosed with walls built of flint and stone with tile coursing which are probably contemporary with the rebuilt forum and basilica complex. Each side had a central gateway and additional semi-circular or rectangular bastions. Internally, they were supported by an earthen bank, and crop mark and earthwork evidence suggests the presence of a deep external ditch breached at the position of the gates.

Recent archaeological evaluation to the south of the walled town, a programme of geophysical survey and mapping of the accumulated aerial photographic evidence under the National Mapping Programme (NMP), have revealed extensive survival of buried archaeological remains, visible as crop marks. The crop marks represent prehistoric field boundaries, enclosures and possible Iron Age settlement remains overlain by Roman buildings and townscape features within the town walls and to the south, east and west of them. To the south of the walled area, crop mark evidence of the town grid, buildings, roads and ditches is apparent. Immediately south of the wall, the ditch is flanked by a roadway with evidence of roadside buildings and enclosures. Approximately 90m to the south-west of the walls are the buried remains of the oval amphitheatre which is visible as a slight rise in the ground surface. Geophysical survey has revealed that it measures 40m x 33m and is constructed in stone or brick with an opening to the south. The outlines of rooms beneath the tiered seating banks surrounding the arena have been discerned. A late-Roman cemetery of the 4th or 5th century, established after the contraction of the town into the walled area, has been discovered to the east and north-east of the amphitheatre.

Crop mark evidence west of the River Tas strongly indicates that the Roman settlement extended into this area. The buried remains of trackways, rectilinear enclosures, buildings and boundary ditches aligned with the town's grid and Roman roads to the west, east and south, attest to a significant survival of Roman deposits. The roads apparently converge at a fording point over the river which appears to respect the location of the western gate into the walled town. Further to the south of the settlement are the buried remains of ditches and enclosures, probably of Roman and earlier date, which represent the land use adjacent to the settlement, important for its economic prosperity. Icenian and Roman finds further indicate long-lived occupation particularly near to the roads. Overlying the Roman archaeological deposits are possible sunken-floored buildings of the early medieval period (5th to 6th century). Further finds attest to occupation of parts of the monument until the 8th century.

The area to the east comprises two fields. Extensive cropmark evidence recorded by the National Mapping Programme reveals a very intense distribution of features including a complex network of roads and streets leading out from the town, a number of which are characteristically sinuous. Major axial routes approach from the east, the most prominent of which leads directly to the east entrance of the enclosure. Another route, further to the south, appears to head directly for the south-east corner of the enclosure and may well have extended along its southern flank. Part of the prominent triple-ditch system lies to the east of the enclosure. The intensity of features lessens with distance from the enclosure, but evidence shows that the pattern of rectilinear ditched divisions continued to the south and east. These may be the remnants of fields and paddocks as well as other areas of settlement, such as the small enclosed complex close to the road junction, north-east of Notre Dame Wood. This tightly clustered array of buildings and their yards is surrounded by the partial remains of enclosed fields and paddocks, and is likely to be of Roman origin. The Norfolk Historic Environment Record also records crop marks of a fragmentary field system and trackways of probable later prehistoric or Iron Age date, boundaries and a trackway of Roman or medieval to post-medieval date, crop marks of two possible prehistoric mortuary enclosures or barrows, at least two small ring ditches and a semi-circular ditch – possibly the remains of a prehistoric enclosure or barrow. The geophysical survey of the northern field undertaken in 2016 revealed evidence for industrial activity in the southern part, and a number of sunken featured buildings. The scheduled Anglo-Saxon cemetery in the southern part of the north field is approximately centred at TG 23510 03266. The site is now partly down to pasture and partly under tree cover within a rectangular fenced field.

In addition to the buried remains, the monument has yielded evidence pertaining to a range of activities from the Late Iron Age, throughout the Roman and early medieval periods.

EXTENT OF SCHEDULING

The Church of St Edmund, a Grade II* listed building, and its surrounding churchyard in south-east corner of the walled town are not included in the scheduling. The sewerage disposal works (centred at grid reference TG2290702975) and the terraced housing at 1 to 4 Stoke Road and their gardens (centred at grid reference TG2315002970) are also not included in the scheduling. All track surfaces, fences, fence posts, hedges, field ditches, signage boards and telegraph poles are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

Legacy

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 35641

Legacy System: RSM

Sources

Books and journals
Davies, J, Venta Icenorum, (2001)
Green, B, Myres, J N L, The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries of Caistor-by-Norwich and Markshall, Norfolk, (1973)
Wacher, J, The Towns of Roman Britain, (1974)
Other
The Archaeology of Norwich ‘Growth Point’ and Environs Results of the Norwich Growth Point National Mapping Programme (NMP) English Heritage Project No 5313: NMP for Thetford, Norwich and the A11 corridor Ellen Bales, Alice Cattermole and Sarah Horlock with Sophie Tremlett December 2010

End of official listing