Caister on Sea Roman Fort

Saxon Shore Fort

The remains of Caister Roman Fort, which has also been interpreted as a Roman Saxon Shore Fort, are located in Caister-on-Sea, Norfolk. It was built in the early 3rd century and occupied until around 370-390 AD. The fort was nearly 3.5 hectares in size and roughly square in shape.

Today, 90% of its area is built over. A small section of the south wall has been preserved and made accessible to visitors. The fort and the neighboring camp at Burgh Castle are nonetheless of particular interest to science in relation to the history and development of the Roman coastal defense in southeastern Britain. Their military function was probably changed several times over the course of time or had to be adapted again and again to the respective threats from invaders, pirates and looters. Since the Caister camp was probably expanded into a monastery in the 7th century, the ground monument is of additional importance in terms of post-military use.

Location of Caister on Sea Roman Fort

Though it is now well inland, the fort originally occupied a small island in the middle of a wide river estuary at the confluence of the rivers Waveney, Yare, Ant, and Bure. The estuary gradually silted up over the following centuries, and the town of Great Yarmouth stands where the Roman estuary once flowed.

Timeline of Caister on Sea Fort

1st century – 120 years after their invasion, 55 AD, the Romans built the first fortification in Caister-on-See. It consisted of a wooden palisade with a trench in front of it.

Fort 2nd century – The defensive trenches were redeveloped under Septimius Severus , around 196-197.

3rd & 4th centuries – The fort appears to have been built around 200 AD and was occupied by the military until between 370 and 390. Caister remained occupied during the 4th century, and may have been used as a predecessor to the more elaborate fort at Burgh Castle. We know that Burgh Castle was begun around AD 260 on the far shore of the estuary, and for a time both forts acted to protect shipping and as military bases. One of the forts, though we do not know which one, was called Gariannonum by the Romans.

Abandoned 5th century – The site was abandoned following the departure of the Romans in the early 5th century, but it was later reoccupied in the 7th and 8th centuries as a Saxon settlement. Caister Roman Fort is under the care of English Heritage but is actually managed by Great Yarmouth Borough Council. Note:

Excavations 1951-1955

In 1951-1955 a section of the fort was excavated with the main structures left exposed, including part of the south gate and defences and a main road.

One of the largest exposed buildings is called simply Building I a name given by the first archaeologists to investigate the site. Building I was a stone structure erected on the site of earlier timber buildings around AD 300. It burned down around AD 340, though whether by accident or because of an attack we do not know. It is quite possible that the building burned under an attack, as we know that the fort had to deal with the constant threat of attack by Anglo-Saxon tribes from north-west Europe throughout the 4th century.

There were at least 7 rooms with a courtyard and a cobbled alley on the south side. In one of the small rooms you can see remains of a hypocaust, or underfloor heating system. Fragments of plaster have been found, showing that the interior walls were richly painted with elaborate designs.

One of the interesting features is an earthen rampart which enclosed the stone walls, with two deep V-shaped ditches outside the wall. The fort was laid out in typical Roman fashion, on a rectangular plan with corner towers and a gateway in each wall. You can see the foundation walls of a guard room for the south gate

One of the most important objects found during excavations at Caister was a carved figure of Mercury. Outside the fort archaeologists discovered a bronze plaque with an inscription saying that Aurelius Atticianus fulfilled a vow to Mercury. Other finds include bracelets, beads, hairpins, and rings, suggesting that women and children lived within the fort.

Archaeologists found a wealth of food remains, including bones of animals like cows, badgers, and foxes, as well as over 10,000 oyster shells. These finds paint a vivid picture of how people lived and what they ate at Caister.

Communication With Caister in Roman Times

The road to Venta Icenorum would have run west c.19 miles overland, crossing the River Yare in the region of Norwich. The River Yare itself would have given another supply route, but the journey would be lengthened to c.28 miles due to the meandering course of the river. The postulated road to Brampton would have run overland for some twenty miles, while the journey along the River Bure would have taken about twenty-four miles to reach Horstead, from which the river journey would have been a further four miles to Brampton or a mere two and a half miles by road.

Considering the possible Roman road to Brampton, there is an obvious alignment of modern roads to the north of the River Bure, some of which may have a Roman Foundation. The alignment follows the modern A1064 from Caister through Filby, and continues via a minor road crossing the B1152 just north of Clippesby, passing within yards of the Ashby Hall Rectory. Therafter, traces are lost in the area of Thurne village to the east of the Thurne – Bure confluence, though there is a conspicuously-named “Cold Harbour”, lying about a mile south of Ludham, and St. Benet’s Abbey on the north bank of the Bure also invites further investigation. Continuing to the west of the confluence of the River Ant with the Bure, there is a short alignment of road (named “Up Street” ?) between Ludham Bridge and Horning, which lies on our line, but following that, traces are unclear. The Roman road may have continued to Coltishall through Hoveton St. Peter, or followed the River Bure more closely, (following “Up Street”) through Hoveton St. John. Coltishall stands on the north-eastern bank of the Bure, and the site of the Roman marching camp at Horstead lies opposite, on the south-western bank. It is possible that the Bure was forded at this point, and the overland route continued on the western side of the river the last three miles to Brampton, though the suspected east-west Roman road of “Low Street” crossed the Bure two and a half to three miles further north.

The Caister – Venta Icenorum road possibly crossed the Bure near Stokesby, though it is unknown whether the road ran through Mantby and Thrigby or took the more southerly route via Runham. The line of the road then must have followed the route of the modern A47 from Acle, through North Burlingham and Blofield to cross the River Yare near Norwich.

Roman Roads near Caister On Sea

Although there are no known roads in the neighbourhood, there may have been overland communication to Venta Icenorum (Caistor by Norwich) to the west, and Brampton in the north-west; and equally, there may have been some sea-borne communication with Gariannum (Burgh Castle) which lay only a few miles further south down the coast.