Into the Iron Age: 15 Years of the Silchester Roman Town Excavation project

Amanda Clarke, Field Director at Silchester and Research Fellow at Reading University, spoke to AiM on 24th January 2012, providing an excellent overview of this major excavation project.

Amanda explained the importance of the ‘Insula IX Town Life’ project, an excavation of a small part of the large Roman town at Silchester, which is situated between Reading and Basingstoke.  The Society of Antiquaries had first excavated the site between 1890 and 1909 using local labour.  The current project is using the latest techniques to trace the site’s development from its origins before the Roman Conquest to its abandonment in the fifth or sixth century A.D.

This is one of the UK’s most complex and long-running archaeological investigations having begun in 1997.  In these days when ‘short, sharp’ rescue archaeology predominates, such extended investigations at a single site are now very rare.  It’s envisaged that it might finally run to twenty years or more.  It is both a research and a training excavation, principally for Reading University’s students.

The Silchester site is one of the largest and best-preserved towns in the south of Britain with walls that still stand up to almost five metres high.  It is a ‘greenfield’ site, one of only half a dozen towns that has had no modern successor built upon it.  Silchester is wonderfully preserved and the site’s features lie relatively shallowly below the surface.

The project is also a major training scheme, which provides students with a basic knowledge of archaeological techniques and site research methods, as well as more general skills. The prospects for graduates of this discipline have changed greatly since the project’s beginnings in 1997.  Then, employment could readily be found in the many commercial units.  Now, it’s important to inculcate transferable skills, like team working and communication skills, which can assist the employability prospects of those enrolled on the Silchester Field School Training Module.  All students are also expected to ‘meet and greet’ the visitors that the site receives in large numbers with Open Days being held annually.  The site has received extensive media coverage including Time Team, Digging for Britain and The History of Celtic Britain.

The logistics of organizing the annual encampment of students and other voluntary helpers, now well over a hundred each season, were impressive.  We learned of the exponential growth from the four Portaloos in the beginning to the 56 now delivered annually to the site – and sympathized over the difficulties of competing demands for such facilities in the Queen’s Jubilee year!

Digital techniques, such as GPS, hand-held computers and video recording are now being increasingly deployed in this project.  A huge amount of data has been accumulated and at the core of their recording is their Integrated Archaeological Database, a bespoke product that has greatly assisted their ability to publish results in a timely way.  There is now also a Silchester Blog and Twitter account.

The interior of the walled settlement is divided into ‘Insulae’ and the project has concentrated on examining only a small part of the site.  Insula IX was chosen  because it lies adjacent to the north-south and west-east principal thoroughfares that bisect the site.  The project seeks to discover how people lived in the town.  The Victorian excavators had thought Silchester was a classical ‘garden city’ but they had missed the evidence of the multitude of small workshops and structures that exist on the site.

Under the Roman town of Silchester there also lies an Iron Age settlement which was known as Calleva, the centre of the Atrebates tribe.  There are thought to be links with the ‘Age of Kngs’ in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD and three of these kings, Tincomarus, Eppillus and Verica, may have had Calleva as their base.  In 1893, the Victorian excavators had found a stone with an Ogham inscription (See the AiM Feb 2011 Newsletter).  Calleva already had strong trade links with the Continent and political allegiances to Rome before the Conquest.  While Roman Silchester is laid out with the typical N-S, W-E alignment, underlying this is the more diagonal Iron Age alignment which is based on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset.

It appears that Calleva was a well-organised Iron Age town.  The earliest feature is a late 1st century BC Iron Age ditch.  Finds in the ditch could be military and might point to Caesar’s invasion.  There is also a large rectangular Iron Age building, not the traditional round house, which has a dog buried in one corner.

The site has no natural surface water and so there are numerous wells.  In these have been found four holed pots, perhaps evidence that they had been ritually disfigured.  Samian ware from Italy and France is also to be found together with amphorae in this period, providing evidence of Calleva’s trading links.

Invading forces put in a road with a north-south alignment through the settlement but it appears that the native population was not driven out, giving the town a hybrid character.  Professor Mike Fulford, the Academic Director for the site, is now reevaluating whether there was a military presence.  A military-type latrine has been found as have horse harnesses and pieces of armour.  Significant finds include a figurine of Harpocrates, the god of secrecy and silence, and an intaglio brooch stone with the figure of Minerva.  Early Roman buildings burnt down in the period 60 – 70 A.D. could be evidence of the Boudiccan rebellion.

For reasons unknown, Calleva was abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era.  There is no evidence of a cataclysmic event.  Maybe the water supply ran out.  It has been suggested that the Saxons deliberately avoided Calleva after it was abandoned, preferring to maintain their existing centres at Winchester and Dorchester.  There was then a gap of perhaps a century before the twin Saxon towns of Basing and Reading were founded on rivers either side of Calleva.

The 16th season of work on Insula IX at the Roman town of Silchester will take place between 2 July and 12 August 2012.  For further information see  It is hoped that AiM will organise a visit to Silchester in the summer of 2012.
by Jeff Griffiths

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