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Venta Icenorum Roman Town

In AD61, an East Anglian tribe in England called the Iceni (pronounced ik-ken-nee) revolted against their Roman oppressors. Their revolt was led by the Iceni queen, Boudicca, and saw the complete devastation of the towns of Colchester, St. Albans and London. Even today, stratigraphic layers in the ground below these towns and cities bare the scorch marks left behind by the Iceni's wrath.

Ultimately the tribe was defeated through tactics and weight of numbers. The subjugated tribe was returned to East Anglia and rounded up into a new settlement just south of Norwich which the Romans called Venta Icenorum, the marketplace of the Iceni. We may not have known about this site had it not been for aerial photographs of the area taken in 1928. These pictures gave archaeologists a detailed map of the town, caused by shadows on the ground and the varying shades of soil that picked out the lines of roads and buildings. Venta Icenorum - bastion tower

The main method in which buildings of Venta Icenorum were found was by direct excavation of the ground. Using the archaeological excavation methods of the time, the digs of 1929-1935 still provide most of our information about the town. The aerial photographs may have been used as an aid in mapping out the town on the ground, providing clues on where to dig and locate buildings such as the bath house, the temples, the guard house and so on that were found there. Knowledge of typical layouts of similar town sites may have provided a useful point of cross-referencing for locating these buildings. For example, features that regularly crop up on similar Roman sites are buildings such as the Forum, the civic centre and market place, centrally placed at the intersection of a town's principal roads, or the Basilica, the covered meeting hall that usually stood to the right of the Forum. The site remains mostly buried since the digs. Crop marks and geophysical surveys would provide much of the information on building location today.

Field walking, aerial photography and geophysical surveys may well provide important clues to the nature of Venta Icenorum, but it is only by direct excavation of the earth that the true physical make-up of the town can be discovered. Revealing the foundations of the site, exposing walls, roads and buildings is the only certain way to accurately record the way in which elements of a building were constructed, the materials used and the way in which elements of a building were connected and related to each other.

Furthermore, physical finds of pottery, coins, military equipment and so on may be found, revealing further data about areas of the site that may not be picked up using any other method. For example, a coin found in a layer can only give a date after which the layer in which it is found was formed. Other objects found in layers around or above it may help to narrow the timescale of the coin if features on the artefact do not already date it. This is termed terminus post quem. Layers cut by ditches or some other feature will have a date earlier than artefacts found in the actual layers around or above it. This is termed terminus ante quem. Another reason for the importance of actual excavation is that of discovering the stratigraphy of the land. No other method of archaeology can reveal the information that digging and exposing layers of the earth can. Stratigraphy is like cutting through the layers of a sponge cake to reveal the cream and jam layers within. Through the make up of the soil, the original, natural base can be ascertained and the layers of human occupation, construction and abandonment can be seen.

Venta's geographical location shows the importance of the local river network as a source of water, a transport route and as a line of defence. By following the relatively straight roads that cross the site, we can project them further to establish the links between Venta and other major Roman centres and fortifications. By doing so, an archaeologist can appreciate Venta's position, not only as a self-sustaining centre, but as part of a network of centres and national defences. Venta Icenorum provided a good vantage point to watch over the expanse of flattish land surrounding it, negating the effect of any surprise attack. Anyone approaching would have been spotted long before they made it close to the town. The high walls and bastions added further to this advantage and aided not only the defence of the town from without, but the containment of any insurrection from within. The gateways around the sites provided defensive positions from which entry and exit to Venta could be checked and regulated. Anyone and anything could be checked before either entering or leaving thus maximising the security of the town.

The walls and bastion towers formed a defensive enclosure around Venta Icenorum through which passage could be checked and regulated either way by the Roman authorities. Civil unrest from within may also have been controlled in this way and may have been on Roman minds following the revolt by the native Iceni early on in the occupation. The tower would have provided an additional vantage point from which to repel any unwanted visitors. Throughout Roman occupation of Britain, incursion by other tribes and cultures constantly threatened the empire. One of the earliest revolts against Roman rule came from the Iceni tribe in East Anglia. St. Albans, Colchester and London were burnt to the ground in the revolt. Town and city dwellers may well have felt that additional defences were necessary. Trouble also came from the Scottish tribes and led to the construction of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall (AD's 122 and 142 respectively). In AD 196, the governor Clodius Albinus made an attempt to gain the Imperial throne in Rome. He took many troops from Britain to aid his cause leaving Britain largely ungoverned and undefended. In AD 286, Carausius made himself Emperor of Britain and was usurped by Allectus before Constantius arrived to recapture Britain and restore Roman rule. It was around the mid to third Century, the AD 200's, that many of the walls and fortifications of Roman rule were put up, and probably around the time that the walls of Caistor St. Edmund were erected. Such fortifications, particularly around the south and east coats of Britain became vital defensive positions when the Saxons from the north began sending marauding parties to Britain. Despite this, there is no actual evidence that Caistor St. Edmund itself was ever attacked in this way. Time, decay and looting of wall materials are responsible for the destruction of its defences since its oocupation.
Venta Icenorum - wall

The section of wall examined and shown in the image (pictured) measured approximately 14 ft high, although the information board nearby claims that the wall originally stood 3 ft higher at 23 ft. If this is the case, then the wall was originally 6 ft lower down and has since been filled over by the present earth banks. The bastion tower (above right) currently stands at 12 ft on the western side and is 10 ft wide through its diameter. Red brick Roman tile is more evident in the wall than in the tower whose original surfaces seem considerably more worn away. The lower parts of the wall still show clearly the three rows of tile topped by flints cut flat forming the exterior surface of the wall. Above that, the wall has been largely worn away or its stones looted for other buildings by later peoples. Mortar and rubble seem to have been used to fill in the tower and upper heights of the wall.

It is known that the Romans used a form of concrete or possolanic cement made from lime and silica or aluminium oxide. Later they used crushed pumice or aggregate. The tiles, as well as serving a decorative purpose, also aided the stability of the walls and tower by providing a levelling out along various sections of their heights. It would seem that the sheer weight of the walls helped hold the entire construction together. The 3.4 metre wide walls were further supported by the purpose-made earth banks that surround them, providing a solid foundation. Signs of modern conservation appear more evident at the base of the walls where large blocks of stone and mortar, at odds with the sizes of other stones, seem to be providing a solid base for an overhang in the base of the wall. A narrow stepped ridge has been cut along the lower area of the walls preventing the upper parts from weighing down too heavily. Flint tended to be available in the outer areas of Norfolk and may have been shipped in especially using the network of Roman roads or the trade route along the River Tas. It may also have been looted from earlier buildings which were demolished to make way for the construction of the walls.

cutaway image of bastion tower

Today, most of Venta Icenorum lies buried under the ground, awaiting the day when local funds and resources become available to make a more up-to-date study of the site. Nevertheless, the remaining walls, tower and mounds still provide a breathtaking example of the size and complexity of a small Roman town in Iron Age Britain.