The Sacred Sites of the Iceni in Post Boudiccan Roman Britain

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Boudicca: Warrior Queen of the Iceni

Tacitus claims that Roman revenge against the Iceni in Post Boudiccan Roman Britain was brutal. The archaeology of Iceni sacred sites back this claim.

After the Boudiccan revolt, the rebuilding of Roman Britain began. Archaeology shows that in most cases, towns and settlements were rebuilt immediately-with one exception.

Many Iceni sites and settlement show signs of abrupt abandonment and even deliberate dismantling in the middle of the first century AD. These sites were not reoccupied for generations after the Boudiccan revolt.

This agrees with Tacitus’s claim that the Iceni heartland was ‘laid to waste by fire and sword’ by the vengeful Romans. What is interesting is that many of the sites are not settlements but ritual centres, as excavations at Thetford and Sedgeford have shown.

Sedgeford, Norfolk-The Sedgeford Hoard

Sedgeford in Norfolk has several examples of sudden site abandonment after the Boudiccan Revolt. Many were not reoccupied for many years, something that was not usual across roman Britain.

One site recently discovered was a farmstead which remained abandoned for at least a few generations. But the second site is of a different nature. Identified as a ritual site by archaeologists, it remained abandoned until the Anglo Saxon period.

The most prominent find on the site was a coin hoard known as the Sedgeford Hoard, discovered on 12th august 2003. Hoards are often identified with times of warfare and social disruption and Sedgeford’s hoard was no exception. It consisted of 39 gold alloy coins hidden in a cow’s leg bone, an item probably chosen for convenience rather than any ritual significance.

The coins themselves are interesting because they were probably used to pay to roman soldiers rather than act as local currency. Known as Gallo-Belgic ‘E’ staters , they were minted in northern France between 60-50BC. The coins were largely unworn, suggesting they were buried soon after minting. Where they perhaps booty taken by Iceni tribesmen and hidden for safekeeping?

Who knows? But the context of the find certainly suggests they were not ritual offerings. Whoever buried the Sedgeford Hoard intended to return for it. The position of the half metre oval pit was marked with a cow’s pelvis. But whilst the area shows signs of disturbance after the hoard was buried, no one claimed the hoard and the site was abandoned.

Thetford

Thetford, a town on the Norfolk-Surrey border has very conclusive archaeological evidence for ‘fire and sword’ destruction.

Situated on top of Gallows Hill in the town’s industrial estate, the site occupied a prime strategic location overlooking major river crossings of the Little Ouse river. It was a large enclosure with multiple ditches and a timber palisade. There are signs these features were extensively rebuilt in the years before the Boudiccan Revolt.

Archaeologists do not believe the enclosure was a political centre but a ritual one. There is little evidence of domestic activity but finds on the site are mainly coins and brooches-possible offerings or items dropped by visitors to the site. The timber palisade which consisted of 9 rows of oak uprights, may have been an artificial oak grove, according to Graham Webster, especially as it’s believed the branches were left on.

The landscape surrounding the site is also surrounded by graves. This, taken with the size and construction of the site, suggests it was the Iron Age equivalent of Westminster Abbey according to the excavator Tony Gregory.

Coin and pottery evidence suggest that this Iron Age cathedral ceased to be used in the late 60’s early 70s AD. But the site was also deliberately dismantled. The outer ditches were purposely filled in and remaining fragments of wood from the timber palisade show they did not rot in situ-they were deliberately removed. The Romans could indeed have been clearing Iceni sites

Why Sacred Sites?

But why? Archaeology cannot tell us this. Perhaps in the case of Thetford, the Romans misunderstood the nature of the site. After all, it occupied an important strategic position and a roman fort was later built nearby to take advantage of this.

But possibly ritual sites were seen as centres of resistance. The Thetford site’s speedy reconstruction in the 40s AD needed a large number of people working in complete unity to be achievable. The Roman would want to discourage such British centred focal points after the revolt. Perhaps sacred sites, like the druids, had be either controlled or obliterated.