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Fresh excavations to reveal more about temple at Roman town of Caistor St Edmund

Aerial photographs taken by the RAF in 1928 revealed Venta Icenorum's street plan. 
Pic: Archant Library.

Aerial photographs taken by the RAF in 1928 revealed Venta Icenorum's street plan. Pic: Archant Library.

It was on New Year's Day, 1929, that Donald Atkinson staked out a plot of about an acre and a half and began to unearth the secrets of one of the most remarkable Roman sites in Norfolk.

The 2009 excavations revealed a 4th Century AD skeleton. Prof Will Bowden with the find.
 Pic: Antony Kelly.The 2009 excavations revealed a 4th Century AD skeleton. Prof Will Bowden with the find. Pic: Antony Kelly.

Ninety years later and this landmark anniversary year will be marked by fresh excavations at Caistor St Edmund - known as Venta Icenorum by the Romans.

The modern-day studies of the town were triggered after a remarkable series of aerial photographs were taken by the RAF.

Those photographs of the parched field, which were published in The Times, revealed the Roman town's layout of streets and buildings.

That led the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society to make a call for public subscriptions to fund excavations at the site.

The site of Venta Icenorum from the air. Pic: Mike Page.The site of Venta Icenorum from the air. Pic: Mike Page.

The appeal raised £820, with Atkinson, from Manchester University, appointed to direct the work.

The initial methods were crude by today's standards - they drove stakes into the ground to sound out how deep the 'pavements' below were.

Digging started on Monday, March 18 for five weeks, but ended up continuing through all of June and July two, with two square Romano-Celtic temples uncovered, as well as early wattle-and-daub buildings.

Nine decades on and the work he started continues, now on a much larger area than he could have envisaged.

Excavations at Caistor St Edmund in the 1920s. Picture: EDP Library.Excavations at Caistor St Edmund in the 1920s. Picture: EDP Library.

The second large-scale excavation of the town began a decade ago, led by Professor Will Bowden from the University of Nottingham,

That work started after the foundation of Caistor Roman Project, a community archaeology group which is now celebrating its own anniversary.

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For 10 years its members - now over 90 in total, and all volunteers - have undertaken increasingly ambitious excavations as well as training in the skills required to record their work to high professional standards.

Excavations at Caistor St Edmund in  the 1920s. Picture: EDP LibraryExcavations at Caistor St Edmund in the 1920s. Picture: EDP Library

After the main Caistor excavation ended in 2012, the volunteers continued with behind-the-scenes tasks and digging small test pits in local people's gardens.

The project then obtained an £84,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to extend the excavations beyond the confines of the original Roman town.

Recent excavations beyond the town walls have proved without doubt that the Roman settlement was much larger than originally thought, the walls having been built very likely as a defence towards the end of the settlement period.

Evidence of Saxon settlement has also been found, with the discovery last year on private land of kilns and metal-working sites and a possible Saxon sunken-featured building.

For 10 years teams of volunteers from Caistor Roman Project have been doing excavations. Photo: Steve AdamsFor 10 years teams of volunteers from Caistor Roman Project have been doing excavations. Photo: Steve Adams

It was the move to a site 700 metres to the north-east of the town last year that produced the most exciting find of recent years - a high status Roman dwelling with a tessellated floor and painted wall plaster.

Artefacts recovered from the three trenches dug in 2018 on what the project now refers to as Temple Field range across 10 historic periods from prehistoric through to modern.

And this year's excavations, which get under way today (Saturday, August 17) and continue until Sunday, September 1, will focus on a temple which was worked on in 1957 by local schoolteacher Susannah Mottram, as a training exercise for her students.

Despite being undertaken in the depths of winter, a considerable amount of information exists about her work, and Caistor Roman Project will be building on this in its attempt to establish the size and importance of this temple now that permission has been obtained from Heritage England to re-investigate the site.

Mike Pinner, project manager. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYMike Pinner, project manager. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Some of the previous finds suggest that activity at the temple may stretch back into the pre-Roman period and thus be earlier than the town itself.

Mike Pinner, the project manager, said: "This year's excavation follows on from our very successful operation last year, and further confirms the development of Caistor Roman Project as an independent community archaeology group.

"We shall again be working on private land but visitors will be welcome on Sunday, August 25 and Sunday, September 1, when tours of the site will take place at 11am and 2pm.

Parking will be available at the Boudicca Hotel in Stoke Road and visitors are asked to take every care in walking along Caistor Lane to the site, which is to the left beyond Old Church Close. Refreshments will be available at the hotel.

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