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Archaeology for everyone: the Norfolk community uncovering its own past

At first glance the Norfolk village of Caistor St Edmund looks pretty much like any other. Sheep-filled fields and cottages give no clues to the area’s exciting past. 

Volunteers, students and professional archaeologists working together, taken by Will Bowden.

But underneath those fields it’s a different story. I’ve been working there since 2006 as the village lies next to the site of a former Roman town Venta Icenorum, which would once have housed several thousand people. The imposing town wall is now the only visible trace of the vanished settlement.

The relatively undisturbed nature of the site means that it is an ideal location to research some of the key questions regarding Roman towns in Britain, which had no real urban settlement before that period. The people living in the town were probably derived from the local population - named in Roman sources as the Iceni who famously rebelled under Boudica. What sort of town did they create and what happened to the town at the end of the Roman period?

The site, now owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, is one of Norfolk’s most significant archaeological sites and from the start of the project I wanted to involve the local community in the research. This community involvement has now become one of the most significant elements of the project. Along with two local volunteers, I established a charitable trust, the Caistor Roman Project (CRP) in 2009, to facilitate this work, and more than 200 people got involved.

Following the conclusion of the initial phase of excavation in 2012, the trustees decided that Caistor Roman Project should develop as a sustainable, locally-based research organisation. Rather than being participants in research directed by university-based academics, the volunteers would play leading roles in the research, from project design to publication. As an academic I would be an equal partner helping to guide the research and advising on strategy and dissemination.

Our fund-raising strategy prioritised the training and empowering of our members in the context of archaeological research. This has proved highly successful. CRP now has over 100 paying members and since 2013, the trustees have raised over £130,000 from organizations including the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Foyle Foundation, the Headley Trust and others.

Following initial training, focused around test-pits in gardens within the village of Caistor St Edmund, CRP have progressed to running larger excavations including major investigations of the town’s defences and of a huge temple complex outside the town’s walls. This work has significantly changed our understanding of the landscape around the town, in particular identifying focal points for both pre- and post-Roman occupation.

But the Caistor project is about so much more than these important historical findings. The community archaeology element is challenging the power structures that often underpin the relationships between academia and the broader public. These structures, often unremarked, actively reinforce the barriers that restrict public access to participation in heritage.

"It is about challenging the power structures that underpin the relationships between academia and the broader public."
Will Bowden

It has led me to look at this topic in more depth in my latest research, in which I explore the power structures that underpin public access to heritage in the UK and address the challenges that are inherent in the needs of different audiences for archaeology.

In Caistor we have seen a complete shift in those power dynamics, which has enabled volunteers to become far more than just participants in a project where the agendas are set by outside agencies. They have become the drivers of the project’s development.

There are currently 110 members and they have been trained in all aspects of the archaeological process from project design to report-writing. Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds and have taken on trustee and leadership roles within the group, driving activities such as educational outreach with schools and fundraising, as well as archaeological research. One volunteer (a former builder) is now working as a professional archaeologist while another completed her PhD on Roman artefacts at Nottingham in 2018.

As one volunteer put it: “I have acquired many archaeological skills and learned a great deal about looking after and recording a large trench, but what I love most of all is the camaraderie.”

Widening participation in archaeology in this way is so important, as it has recognised societal benefits in terms of both physical and mental health. CRP are now working with ex-service personnel and Norfolk-based mental health charities to widen the reach of their activities.

The project has been described by Historic England as “an excellent example of what community archaeology can achieve”, and has also had local impacts in Nottinghamshire, influencing the work that Dr Chris King and I have been doing in Southwell in collaboration with Southwell Archaeology. Here, research has focused on the development of the medieval town and Minster in relation to a major Roman villa complex.

"An excellent example of what community archaeology can achieve."
Historic England

As at Caistor, the research has been a vehicle for training, as well as a series of excavation and building survey projects led by local volunteers.

And at both sites, it’s not just those directly involved in the excavations that have benefitted, as there has been an enhanced understanding of the areas’ heritage among the wider community. Volunteers now regularly deliver public talks for other archaeological groups, lead guided walks, offer workshops, run events for local schools and organisations, and regularly deliver activities for events such as Heritage Open Days, ensuring whole communities are inspired by the archaeological treasures around them.

Will Bowden

Will Bowden is Professor of Roman Archaeology, School of Humanities

Further reading:

Bowden, W. (2021) What is the role of the academic in community archaeology? The changing nature of volunteer participation at Caistor Roman Town , Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage, VOL. 8, NO. 2, 79-90

Bowden, W. 2017. From villa to minster at Southwell, in J. Moreland, J. Mitchell and B. Leal, Encounters, Excavations and Argosies: Essays for Richard Hodges, Oxford: 56-72

King, C. (2019) Early Fabric in Historic Towns: Timber-Framed Buildings in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, c. 1350–1650, Vernacular Architecture, 50:1, 18-39, DOI: 10.1080/03055477.2019.1665930

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