The Times caused a sensation almost 80 years ago when it revealed the discovery of an extraordinary street grid of a Roman town in Norfolk. It published dramatic aerial photographs that were taken from an RAF aircraft and which showed the pattern left in parched barley fields during the exceptionally dry summer of 1928.
Today The Times can reveal that the site of Venta Icenorum, which dates primarily from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD – and which may have been home to Boadicea, the ancient British queen – is far more significant than anyone had realised.
The latest scientific technology shows that the town, which today lies at Caistor St Edmund, south of Norwich, is one of “stunning international archaeological importance”, archaeologists say.
By using a high-resolution geophysical survey and a caesium vapour magnetometer, which measures the changes caused by human activity in the magnetic field of the Earth, they can see beneath the soil without having to excavate.
For the first time, the complete plan of the buried town can be seen with an astonishing level of detail.
Across a site that is equivalent in size to more than 40 football pitches, a semicircular theatre, at least two temples, a large forum, baths and even features as intricate as the iron collars connecting wooden pipes in the town’s water supply system can be seen.
Although the upper levels of the site have been eroded by ploughing, it has escaped serious harm.
When excavations begin next year, archaeologists expect to find mosaics and wall paintings within what they are describing as a unique time capsule. Fragments of tesserae – the pieces that are used in mosaics – have already been found in the ploughed soil.
The reason that important discoveries are so likely is that, whereas most Roman towns eventually became a modern town or city, this site was not destroyed by medieval and later buildings. It was ultimately superseded by medieval Norwich and simply reverted to green fields.
Will Bowden, a lecturer in Roman archaeology at the University of Nottingham who is leading the project, said: “This is quite unlike other Roman towns that have the same long occupation sequence and which now lie buried beneath the modern towns of Britain and Europe.”
He added: “The results of the survey have far exceeded our expectations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the survey has advanced our knowledge of Caistor to the same extent that the first aerial photograph did 80 years ago. The Times was the first paper to break the story of the initial discovery of the site in 1929 . . . The new research has demonstrated that Caistor is a site of international importance.”
With the aerial photographs it was possible to see the size of the town but it was difficult to know what was in it, he added.
Before the Romans invaded Iron Age Britain in AD43, Norfolk was the territory of the Iceni people. Boadicea, the leader of the tribe, led an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation in about AD60. After her defeat, the Romans inhabited the area for more than 300 years.
The local capital became Venta Icenorum, a large, bustling market town that is mentioned in Roman sources. The Latin name of Venta Icenorum is translated as market place of the Iceni.
Although the heartland of the Iceni is thought to have been farther to the South West, a coin found at the site is contemporary with Boadicea and Dr Bowden said that this could well have been her home.
“It would make a compelling reason for the Roman administration to stick a new town directly on top of Boadicea’s home village. The Romans saw towns as ideological statements,” he said. “Now the burning questions are, was Caistor built on the site of an Iceni stronghold as retribution after Boadicea’s rebellion, or was it built to favour a faction of the Iceni who had not taken part in the revolt?”
In 1929 The Times’s coverage created such excitement that an excavation fund was set up and paid for by public subscription.
“The problem was they weren’t terribly good excavations,” Dr Bowden said. “They were never published, which is the cardinal sin in archaeology. If you dig something up and don’t tell people about it, there’s not much point in doing it. Someone put together an excavation report from various notes.
“After 1935, no excavations were ever carried out, partly because of reasons of funding.”
He joked that another reason for the delayed dig was that the Romans had never been popular in Norfolk. “The Romans are seen as the oppressors of Boadicea, a local heroine. In Norfolk, ‘AD61 is yesterday’. There is a degree of that.”
The British Academy and the University of Nottingham were among the sponsors of the latest survey. Funding is now being sought for an excavation. The area is so extensive that an excavation could take five years to complete and cost up to £1 million.
Dr Bowden said: “It would obviously be nice if a culturally minded and wealthy individual read The Times and thought, ‘That sounds like a good thing to spend my spare millions on’.”