Caistor St Edmund Dig Update

A very nice report from the Evening News … note the link at the end to the project’s blog:

They have been excavating for just a week, but already members of an archaeological team at a Roman town on the outskirts of Norwich have found “huge quantities” of artefacts.

A thousand visitors have been to see the dig at Caistor St Edmund in its first week and the excavation, the first inside the walls for 75 years, is uncovering more about how people in the town lived and worked.

The volume of writing implements being discovered shows that it was a thriving administrative centre, while the range of remains of animals unearthed makes archaeologists think that animals were being butchered within the town walls.

That would mark out the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, as it was called, as a very rural and agricultural place, as in many of the Roman urban centres animals were slaughtered outside the walls and then brought into the town.

Dr Will Bowden, the project director from the University of Nottingham, said the voluntary finds washing team were struggling to keep up, such was the volume of coins, pottery and bone being found dating back to the second, third and fourth centuries.

He said: “We are finding all the different parts of an animal you could want, which shows they were butchering on site.

“That’s been quite a nice discovery because you start to get an idea of how people were living and to build up a picture of what the town was like.

“Various things are emerging quite strongly and one is the amount of writing going on here.

“We are getting lots of styli, the pens used for writing on wax tablets. On a dig in the late 20s they found a lot of them too so it is one of the things that keeps turning up at Caistor.

“It really is a centre of administration, and people are writing a lot of things down, probably about taxation.

“We might talk about the Romans, but this was a local population who were living here.

“This would have been the Iceni population. By 200 years after the Roman invasion everyone would have thought of themselves as being a Roman.”

Visitors to the dig will also get the chance to see the full scale of the Roman site as the streets of the town have been painstakingly painted in 14km of white lines on the grass, courtesy of former Norwich High School for Girls groundsman Fred Marsham.

The dig has uncovered a part of one of the Roman roads and jaw bones of cattle or horses and parts of antlers can be seen embedded in the road, and dark strips show where wheel ruts were made by travelling vehicles.

But over the next couple of weeks the team is planning to dig deeper and see if they can discover evidence linking the settlement to East Anglia’s Iceni queen Boudica.

Archaeologists will also be searching for clues to discover the exact date when the Roman streets were originally laid out and if the town continued to be occupied beyond the Roman period.

Parts of the site were originally excavated between 1929 and 1935 following the publication of dramatic aerial photographs showing evidence of streets and public buildings.

Since then, the site has been undisturbed, until last year, when Dr Bowden and his team began excavating the field to the south of the town, which is a scheduled ancient monument owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust and managed in partnership with South Norfolk Council.

On that occasion the remains of a fourth-century Roman buried in a shallow grave were uncovered.

Dr Bowden, who also worked on the archaeological dig during the building of Castle Mall, said: “I did my PhD at the University of East Anglia and I used to pass this on the train and I could see what a brilliant site it was and how you could answer so many questions by digging here.

“This sort of site it very rare in Europe, as there are very few Roman towns that don’t have modern settlement build on top of them.

“Roman towns were often built in good locations, but this wasn’t the case there. The better location for the town was Norwich, because it has much better access by river, and that’s a good result for us.”

The dig will continue until Saturday, September 11, with people welcome to visit for free to watch the archaeologists in action.

Visitors to the site could also bump into Time Team’s Tony Robinson, who has been to the dig and will be visiting again as part of filming for a special for the Channel 4 programme, due to be aired next year.

Follow the dig team’s blog at http://caistordig2010.wordpress.com/.

We first heard of this dig back in 2007 (and even before, I guess), when there was much excitement over what might be found. Some high tech equipment was used last year (and this year too … check out the blog) to find promising dig sites. Whatever the case, what I find most interesting is that they keep finding styli all over the place and are making the reasonable connection that this is an administrative centre of some sort. Compare that to that much-more-publicized ‘brothel’/infanticide site from Buckinghamshire, whence one report suggests they’ve found over 70 styluses … again we wonder about the quantities of styluses found at other sites.  A preliminary scan of the interwebs a while back  brought back to me:

  • Pearce John. Archaeology, writing tablets and literacy in Roman Britain. In: Gallia. Tome 61, 2004. pp. 43-51.

… which is available online. It is a preliminary survey and concentrates more on writing tablets than styli, but there are passing mentions of such finds (although not quantities). An interesting extract:

The presence of writing tablets (admittedly in small numbers) on a variety of rural sites is more surprising. Inscriptions on stone in a rural context are very scarce, but rural temples and settlements account for a high proportion of the 35 settlements on which lead curse tablets have been found (Ingemarck, 2001) and writing equipment has been found during the excavation of many rural settlements. We may tentatively suggest on this basis that the use of documents in a rural milieu in the north-west provinces has been significantly underestimated, even if it is unlikely to have ever approached the intensity of document use attested, for example, in rural Roman Egypt.

… but what about these apparently large quantities of styli?