Roman Norfolk

AD 61 to AD 409.

Although the invasion by Claudius in AD 43 led to the creation of the Roman province of Britannia covering most of lowland Britain, the Iceni tribe remained proudly and fiercely independent of Rome for another 18 years. Therefore the Roman period in Norfolk and the slightly larger Icenian civitas (including north Suffolk and the eastern fens) properly starts in AD 61 after the defeat of Boudica.

While this presents at least two opportunities for early military activity, there are only a few certain early forts and temporary or marching camps (Swanton Morley, NHER 17486, Saham Toney, NHER 4697, and Horstead with Stanninghall, NHER 4379). As cropmarks these are similar to a large and growing number of rectilinear enclosures with fort-like rounded corners, most of which will probably prove to be civilian.

The topography of Roman Norfolk differed in at least four important respects from that of today. A large estuary occupied the area of Halvergate and Breydon Water, with open sea as far inland as Acle. Many of the rivers would have been wider, deeper and more navigable. Some parts of the former coastline have been eroded, while accretion and reclamation mask others. The fenland to the west became dry enough in the early Roman period for it to be settled and farmed, with roads and canals for transport. Here there were numerous low-status settlements engaged in salt making, peat cutting and livestock farming, all as part of a vast Imperial Estate administered from Stonea (Cambridgeshire) and from prosperous fen-edge villas (Feltwell, NHER 4921, and Methwold, NHER 4780).

Leaving aside these physical differences, the landscape was probably viewed by its inhabitants in ways very different to and far more complex than our modern perceptions. Areas of water, rivers, streams, islands, woodland, trees, hilltops and other natural features may have had meanings and values only occasionally hinted at in the archaeological record. 

The Roman town of Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund (NHER 9786) was established in the wake of the Icenian uprising, and became the administrative, legal, judicial and financial centre for the civitas. It was laid out around AD 70, perhaps replacing an Icenian settlement and an early fort. The town grew rapidly and it soon covered an area of some 28 hectares, with a regular street grid, forum and basilica, baths, temples and town houses. A defensive wall and rampart enclosing around half of the town were built in the late 200s, leaving its sprawling suburbs and a major pagan temple complex undefended.

A second town at Brampton (NHER 1124), 20 kilometres to the north, had earthen defences enclosing six hectares of a 30-hectare settlement. An extra-mural industrial area with 132 kilns produced utilitarian greyware dishes and jars, and buff-coloured flagons and mortaria for use in kitchens across central and eastern Norfolk.

Other substantial but undefended settlements, small towns or large villages are found at fifteen other locations, two of which have recently been examined (Scole, NHER 1007, and Billingford, NHER 7206). These multi-purpose markets, industrial centres and religious sites are mainly located at river crossings or crossroads. The principal Roman roads were the Peddars Way (NHER 1289, an early military road) and the roads linking Venta Icenorum, Brampton and Denver, with a network of smaller roads and tracks between them.

Until quite recently, most known ‘villa’ sites appeared to be concentrated along the fen-edge and in northwest Norfolk, but a more widespread distribution is now starting to emerge. Other buildings such as round houses and aisled barns, few of which had previously been known, are being found in increasing numbers.

The excavation of farmsteads at Snettisham (NHER 1555), Downham Market (NHER 30228), Brettenham (NHER 5653), Kilverstone (NHER 34489) and Watlington (NHER 39458) is now providing information about the origins, character, functions and development of these ‘lower order’ settlements and the landscapes around them. In terms of their density, fieldwalking surveys suggest that it is reasonable to expect between 0.5 and 1.0 ‘sites’ per square kilometre. Overall, Roman ‘sites’ and finds are recorded at around 8000 separate locations, although the distribution pattern obviously reflects the intensity of fieldwork in some areas.

Apart from Venta Icenorum and the three late forts, very few Roman sites survive visibly in the modern landscape. However, there are settlement earthworks at Hilgay (NHER 4455) and at Hockwold-cum-Wilton (NHER 5461), with enclosures and possible building platforms.

Religious activity is represented by artefacts and placed deposits but by very few temples or shrines (Caistor St Edmund, NHER 9787, Hockwold-cum-Wilton, NHER 5367, Wicklewood, NHER 8897, Snettisham, NHER 1555, and Thetford, NHER 5853). Roman cremation and inhumation burials are in equally short supply (just over 200), which is surprising given the potential number of funerary events that should be retrievable from the archaeological record. Many cemeteries clearly await discovery.

Industrial activity is widespread in the towns and the countryside, with major pottery industries at Brampton and in the Nar Valley (Pentney, NHER 13400, Shouldham, NHER 4252, and Middleton, NHER 3391). There are also smaller groups or single pottery kilns, corn-driers, and sites engaged in salt-production, metalworking (iron and bronze), coin production and brooch manufacture. 

Military supply bases or depots were built at Branodunum (Brancaster, NHER 1001) and Caister-on-Sea (NHER 8675) in the early 200s AD. With the slightly later fort at Gariannonum (Burgh Castle, NHER 10471), these became part of the chain of Roman coastal defences against barbarian raiders around the Litus Saxonicum or ‘Saxon Shore’. There were undoubtedly other smaller posts and lookouts around Norfolk’s long and exposed coastline.

Coin hoards of the 200s and 300s AD reflect the growing instability and uncertainties of the later Roman period, and perceived or actual threats to people and property. Other hoards include metal vessels (Hockwold, NHER 5587, and Crownthorpe, NHER 8897) and jewellery (Snettisham, NHER 1517).

Together all of this evidence points to a landscape that is mainly cleared and farmed, with numerous settlements and a total population of several hundred thousand people. The majority of these were of course of indigenous descent, and many no doubt continued to follow ancient customs and to speak ‘Celtic’ dialects. There are indications that some were only slightly ‘Romanised’ even towards the end of the Roman period when, in theory, all were citizens of the Empire.

Finally, we still do not know the extent to which ‘Roman’ settlements continued alongside Anglo-Saxon communities after AD 410, and the investigation of change and continuity during the 5th century AD remains high on the research agenda.  

David Gurney (NLA), 2005.


Further Reading

Ashwin, T. and Tester, A., (eds) forthcoming. A Roman Settlement in the Waveney Valley: Excavations at Scole, 1993-4. East Anglian Archaeology.

Bates, S. and Lyons, A., 2003. The Excavation of Romano-British Pottery Kilns at Ellingham, Postwick and Two Mile Bottom, Norfolk, 1995-6 East Anglian Archaeology Occasional Paper 13.

Brown, R.A., 1986. 'The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement at Woodcock Hall, Saham Toney, Norfolk'

Britannia 17, 1-58.

Cushion, B. and Davison, A., 2003. Earthworks of Norfolk East Anglian Archaeology 104.

Darling, M.J. and Gurney, D., 1993. Caister-on-Sea.  Excavations by Charles Green, 1951-55 East Anglian Archaeology 60.

Davies, J.A. 2001. Venta Icenorum. Caistor St Edmund Roman Town (Norfolk Archaeological Trust).

Davies, J.A. and Gregory, T., 1991. 'Coins from a Civitas:  A Survey of the Roman Coins found in Norfolk and their Contribution to the Archaeology of the Civitas Icenorum' Britannia 22, 65-101.

Green, C., 1977. 'Excavations in the Roman Kiln Field at Brampton, 1973-4' East Anglian Archaeology 5, 31-95.

Gregory, T., 1982. 'Romano-British settlement in west Norfolk and on the Norfolk Fen edge', in Miles, D. (ed), The Romano-British Countryside. Studies in Rural Settlement and Economy British Archaeological Report 103 (Oxford), 351-376.

Gurney, D., 1986. Settlement, Religion and Industry on the Fen-edge; Three Romano-British Sites in Norfolk

East Anglian Archaeology 31.

Gurney, D., 1995. 'Small towns and villages of Roman Norfolk. The evidence of surface and metal-detector finds' in Brown, A.E. (ed), Roman Small Towns in Eastern England and Beyond, Oxbow Monograph 52, 53-68.

Gurney, D., 1996. 'The ‘Saxon Shore’ in Norfolk', in Margeson, S., Ayers, B. and Heywood, S. (eds), A Festival of Norfolk Archaeology, 30-39.

Gurney, D., 1998. Roman Burials in Norfolk East Anglian Archaeology Occasional Paper 4.

Gurney, D., 2002. Outposts of the Roman Empire. A Guide to Norfolk’s Roman Forts at Burgh Castle, Caister-on-Sea and Brancaster (Norfolk Archaeological Trust).

Hall, D.and Coles, J., 1994. Fenland Survey.  An essay in landscape and persistence. English Heritage Archaeological Report 1 (London).

Hinchliffe, J. and Green, C.S. 1985. Excavations at Brancaster 1974 and 1977 East Anglian Archaeology 23.

Johnson, S., 1983. Burgh Castle, Excavations by Charles Green 1958-61 East Anglian Archaeology 20.

Mudd, A., 2002. Excavations at Melford Meadows, Brettenham, 1994:  Romano-British and Early Saxon Occupations

East Anglian Archaeology 99.

Robinson, B. and Gregory, T., 2003. Celtic Fire & Roman Rule (second edition) Norfolk Origins 3 (North Walsham, Poppyland Publishing).

Robinson, B. and Rose, E.J., 1983. Roads and Tracks Norfolk Origins 2 (North Walsham, Poppyland Publishing).

Wallis, H., forthcoming. The Romano-British Small Town of Billingford, central Norfolk. Excavation (1991-2 and 1997) and Watching Brief (1995-2002) East Anglian Archaeology.

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