After the Roman invasion of England, most of the Iron Age tribes in the South of the country accepted the Roman lifestyle, and were generally peaceful. However, the Iceni who were a tribe based in East Anglia and the Fens, were not so peaceful and the Roman had the need to build Military forts at Water Newton and Longthorpe in order to guard crossings of the River Nene at those points.
First mention of a Military presence at Water Newton was in AD43. Some 17 years later units of the Roman Ninth Legion, based at Longthorpe were massacred by local Iceni warriors.
The existence of a Roman fort was first suggested here in 1930, and was confirmed by the air in 1938. The fort covers an area of just over 5 ½ acres. There are three ditches fronting the ramparts on the West side, two ditches on the South and East sides and just one on the North side. Aerial photographs show a road going through the centre of the fort and the outline of a rectangular building at the rear, which is thought to be a barrack block.
The Military Garrison was ideally situated alongside Ermine Street, the Roman road which ran from London to York. Later also known as the Great North Road, this was one of the four major Roman Roads in the country. The Fen Causeway, another major important Road, was the only major road to go across the Fens. This joined up with Ermine Street West of Peterborough.
As well as all that, the Carr Dyke, a massive man made dyke used by the Romans for transportation, ran from Washingborough near Lincoln, to the edge of Peterborough.
This, combined with its close proximity to the River Nene, made the area that the Parish of Chesterton sits in today, of prime strategic importance with regards transportation of goods. Little surprise then, that a civilian settlement was gradually formed alongside the Military garrison.
The town of Duribrivae grew up around the military garrison. It’s importance was such that it has been suggested that Durobrivae was probably a regional capital and market centre.
Durobrivae was also to become one of the richest Roman towns due to its flourishing pottery industry. Durobrivae has been described as one of the great industrial centres in Roman Britain, with Pottery being produced in vast amounts from the late Second Century onwards, reaching a peak in the 4th Century. This pottery is known as Castor Ware, and has been found as far away as Germany.
A fragment of pot found at Water Newton had the inscription “Made by Cunoarus at the Vicus of Durobrivae”. In the history of the Roman empire, a vicus (pl. vici) was an ad hoc provincial civilian settlement that sprang up close to and because of a nearby official Roman site, usually a military garrison or state-owned mining operation.
Such was the prosperity of Durobrivae that Roman Villas sprung up all over the area. One in particular, a Pretorium at Castor, was mistaken for a small village when it was first discovered, and has turned out to be the second largest Roman building ever found in this country. There was even a Temple here, which stood where Castor Junior school stands today.
The current church of St Kyneburgha at Castor stands in what was the courtyard of this Pretorium. Standing on top of Ivens Hill in Chesterton there is a wonderful view of this majestic church on top of Stocks Hill in Castor. Going back to the Roman occupation, and standing on the same hill in Chesterton, there must have been a superb view of this magnificent structure.
Incidentally, the Roman Pretorium was abandoned in around AD 450, and 200 years later St Kyneburgha, who was a daughter of Penda the King of Mercia, founded a convent in the ruins. This was excavated in 1957 and evidence was found to suggest that the convent had been sacked by the Vikings at some point.
The last time that I was in St Kyneburghas church at Castor there was a display of Roman artefacts, all of which were revovered from the church grounds. There are also fragments of original Roman brickwork incorporated in to the church walls. Remains of Roman brickwork can also be seen in opposite the church.
It is not known who this palatial residence belonged to, but perhaps it would be possible to think that it might have belonged to someone involved in the administration of the town, or someone who had made his fortune from the pottery industry.
A hoard of Roman gold coins was found in 1974 within Durobrivae, in a field some 200 metres from the A1 road at Water Newton. There were thirty coins, all gold, including a contemporary forgery, and had been buried in unusual fashion. Originally they had been in a leather purse but this had then been placed in a very thin bronze bowl resembling a Celtic hanging bowl. This, in its turn, was then placed inside a Castor ware pot with stamped decoration.
If Durobrivae is known today for its pottery industry, it is equally as well known as being the place that the “Water Newton Treasure” was discovered. In February 1975, a hoard of 4th century Roman silver was discovered, which is known as the 'Water Newton Treasure'. The silver plates and bowls, votive tokens engraved and embossed with the labarum (the chi-rho cross), and an unengraved standing two-handled cup of the form (cantharus) later used as chalices comprise the earliest group of Christian silver found in the Roman Empire. Due to the importance of this find, it is now in the British Museum, with replicas at Peterborough Museum.
Visitors to Chesterton will notice a large white farmhouse at the side of the A1. This used to be a public house called Dryden's Head. In the 18th Century some building work was going on at that building and some skeletons were uncovered, all seemingly thrown in to a pit. It is thought that this was a Roman Plague pit.
Visitors to Chesterton's St Michaels church will be able to see a Roman Coffin in the church grounds. Made of stone, this was found in the locality during excavations in the nineteenth century and brought back to church grounds. There are similar coffins in the church grounds at Water Newton and Castor, with the latter also hosting the final resting place of Edmund Tyrell Artis, the archaeologist who did much of the work in the 1820's.
In the Autumn of 2007, our village was featured on BBC1's The One Show. A few hundred metal detector enthusiats descended on the village in a weekend organised to promote the relationship between them and archaeologists. Many items were found, including a gold Roman Stater and a damaged spoon that had the Christian symbols on it.
In March 2008 the overall importance of the whole area was increased still further with the discovery and preliminary excavations of a huge Roman villa at Bedford Perlius, near to Wansford and close to Ermine Street.