I joined a group from the Maidenhead Archaeological and Historical and Society this summer for the latest of their regular visits to the Roman town of Silchester. This was the fifteenth season of Reading University’s Field School, which brings together a large number of students and volunteers each year at this site. As well as a valuable research and training exercise, the project offers open days and visitor tours each summer at this important site.

Silchester excavation 2010
Silchester excavations in 2010

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) was the centre of the territory of the Atrebates, one of the major late Iron Age tribes in southern Britain. It was first excavated in 1893 as part of a twenty-year project by the Society of Antiquaries. Reading Museum has an impressive gallery with finds from this period. Work has been concentrated on ‘Insula IX’, a small section in the north east of this vast site, and this summer’s excavations have yielded surprising evidence of British cultural resistance to Roman domination as reported in The Times ‘Did Silchester suffer Boudicca’s wrath?’ on September 24, 2010.

The newspaper reports the views of Professor Michael Fulford that, after a period in which the Romans imposed a north-south grid of streets upon the ancient Atrebatic tribal capital, and buildings were constructed along them, the inhabitants then reverted to their Iron-Age habit of orientating their homes northeast-to-southwest, aligning themselves instead with the sunrise. Silchester has also shown evidence of violent burning that may have been connected with the rebellion of Boudicca (AD 60-61). It appears that the Atrebates, although willing consumers of Imperial goods and culture, were less willing to be told what to do in their daily lives.

Intaglio Brooch found at Silchester
The Intaglio Brooch found at Silchester

Prior to the Roman conquest the Atrebates, led successively by kings who issued coinage employing Roman designs and using Latin, had enjoyed extensive trading relations with the Roman world. Evidence for this, mainly in the formof metalwork, glass and pottery, but also foodstuffs, food flavourings and wine, has been discovered. This summer has yielded rich remains of these materials from before the Roman conquest in 43 AD occupation. One of the outstanding finds this season was a small intaglio, a carved gemstone (see photo showing a much magnified image of this discovery) which may originally have fitted into a signet ring and been used for sealing documents. Made from reddish orange carnelian, it has the image of the Roman Goddess Minerva, a carving which would require a high degree of skill to create. It was discovered at the bottom of a mid 1st century AD pit and most likely dates to this period.

It is thought that, when this large Iron Age town was captured in AD 44, which was during the conquest of southern England under the future emperor Vespasian, there was a military occupation and perhaps even a Roman fort. The key clue to this has been the discovery of a large military-style latrine, plus what is believed to be a granary and possible evidence of barrack blocks.

Between AD 50 and 60, there was a client kingdom operating semi-autonomously at a local level in which, thinks Professor Fulford, native identity was asserted, as evidenced by buildings deliberately set out on a north-east/south-west orientation in flagrant disregard of the Roman street grid, which was laid out on the cardinal points. Two years ago evidence emerged that the destruction apparently associated with the Boudiccan revolt had occurred here, an indication that the insurrection had spread further west than had long been believed. While both London and Colchester are known to have succumbed to Boudicca’s forces, it is now thought that the Atrebatic capital may well have been involved too.

It is intended to organise a trip to this site, situated between Reading and Basingstoke, for AiM members in 2011. See for further information.

by Jeff Griffiths

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