Norfolk in ancient times

Norfolk has been inhabited for more than half a million years, when we were still linked by land to continental Europe. Its name comes from the Angles, who named the land their North Folk and the South Folk. This was East Anglia, long before Cambridgeshire and Essex muscled in.

It was only the final thawing of the last Ice Age around 5000BC that separated mainland Europe from us, but that didn't stop nomads migrating to the area, coming here to hunt game in the forests. These Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) people used the local flint to make tools and weapons.

Since then there has been a constant traffic between our shores and those of Europe. Kelling Heath, near Weybourne, is one of the richest Mesolithic sites in the region.

Read about Norfolk's Deep History Coast here

Ancient NorfolkGoing underground at the Grimes Graves flint mines.

Around 3500BC a new wave of colonists arrived, bringing in the New Stone Age (Neolithic) and a culture based on farming and rearing livestock. They cleared forests, constructed defensive ditches around their villages and mine flint from the subterranean seam of chalk at places such as Grime's Graves near Thetford, the only Neolithic flint mine open in Britain. The Anglo-Saxons named this grassy lunar landscape of 400 pits Grim's Graves. Excavation in 1870 identified the pits as 5,000-year old flint mines. Grime's Graves has varying opening times with entry charge.

Not long after, about 2050, the Bronze Age Seahenge timber circle was constructed at Holme-next-the-Sea. It can now be seen at King's Lynn Museum (pictured top).

During the Iron Age, from about 700BC to the Roman conquest in 43AD, better methods of metalworking were established, as demonstrated by the crafted, gold neck ring – or Great Torc – found at Snettisham and now displayed in the British Museum. There are two Iron Age forts to see in Norfolk: Bloodgate Hill Fort is located next to Syderstone Road south west of South Creake, built 300-400 years before the Romans, and is open daily with free entry; Tasburgh Hill Fort, situated in Upper Tasburgh, close to Tasburgh Church, has an interpretation panel and is open daily and admittance is free.

Around this time we see the emergence of the Iceni, the 'People of the Horse', whose dominance would culminate in Boudicca's rampage across southern Britain in 60AD until the Romans reasserted their superiority.

The Romans, who originally invaded in 55BC (Julius Caesar bringing chickens with him) but didn't conquer until 43AD, have left a lasting legacy in Norfolk.

Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth is one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the UK and is open daily with free entry. Built by the Romans in the late third or early fourth century, three of the four walls of the fort surviving. Built of flint and mortar, the walls were constructed by carefully shaping the flints in layers of the Roman's red tile. The walls are cared for by English Heritage but the fort and surrounding farmland are owned by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust. With a total of 90 acres of land consisting of a neighbouring region of reed beds, a fascinating bird life exists.

A few miles away, across the northern side of Breydon Water are the remains of Caister Roman Fort. At the time the estuary would have been completely open to the sea, considerably larger and dotted with islands. Great Yarmouth wasn't even a sandbank at the time.

Built around 200 AD and occupied until the end of the 4th century, what's left are wall and ditch sections and building foundations. Open daily with free admittance.

Venta Icenorum, 'the market place of the Iceni', at Caistor St Edmund outside Norwich shows the outline of an old Roman town and was built after Boudicca's uprising in 61AD when the Romans took full control of the Iceni lands in East Anglia. At the time the town would have been a port. Another result of the Iceni revolt is the Peddars Way, which follows the route of a Roman road built to control the tribe.

Branodunum Roman Fort was built between 225 and 250AD replacing an earlier fort and was another of the Roman's Saxon Shore, coastal defences to keep out the marauding Anglo-Saxons. To access the fort, park at Brancaster Beach car park, then head east along the Norfolk Coast Path towards Brancaster Staithe. The fort's site is next to the coast path.

The Romans gradually retreated and by the end of the sixth century the Angles and the Saxons from northern Germany had all but eliminated Romano-British culture, setting up East Anglia in their wake. Their legacy are the wonderful round tower churches and the introduction of Christianity, but they didn't last long as rulers… by the late ninth century the Vikings had arrived in their longboats from Scandinavia.

All changed again in 1066 when William, the Duke of Normandy, won the Battle of Hastings and imposed a Norman aristocracy on Norfolk, building castles at Norwich, Castle Rising and Castle Acre and monasteries including Binham, Little Walsingham and North Creake. In 1096 work began on Norwich Cathedral.

Castles in Norfolk

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