Silchester Visit

On Wednesday the 8th of August four AIM members visited the Roman Town Excavation project at Silchester, south of Reading. We were extremely grateful to Maidenhead Archaeological & Historical Society who kindly allowed us join their visit.

After an excellent meal in the Red Lion at Mortimer West End, we and the Maidenhead members assembled in the official car park and then walked around to the excavation area.

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 and the site’s features lie relatively shallowly below the surface.  It is a ‘greenfield’ site, one of only half a dozen towns that has had no modern successor built upon it.

The current excavation is a large single trench known as ‘Insula IX’ and has been dug since 1997. Over 100 students are accommodated (mostly in tents on site) and they are trained in archaeological practices by Reading University. Insula IX was chosen especially because it lies adjacent to the north-south and west- east principal thoroughfares that bisect the site. The project is using the latest archaeological 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.

Professor Mike Fulford, Site Director, believes Calleva (Silchester) was founded around 50BC by Commius, an Atrobates leader, once a trusted ally of Julius Caesar, who then joined an unsuccessful rebellion against him and had to leave Gaul rapidly. Whether Commius headed for an existing Atrebates settlement at Silchester, or started to build on a greenfield site, a defensible hill with excellent views, near the navigable Kennet and Thames, is, Mike suggests, “a million-dollar question – why here?” They have found nothing earlier than 50BC – yet.

Commius’s town flourished, trading across Britain, Ireland and both Roman and Iron Age tribal Europe. The Callevans paid for their luxuries with exports of metalwork, wheat – the site is still surrounded by prime farm land, and there is evidence of grain-drying on an industrial scale – hunting dogs, and, almost certainly, slaves: British slaves and dogs were equally prized in continental Europe. They have also found evidence in little flayed bones for a more exotic craft industry, puppy-fur cloaks.

Commius was succeeded by three quarrelsome sons – significantly dubbing themselves on coins as “rex” or king – who successively deposed one another. The third, Verica, was toppled by local tribes and made a move that would change the course of British history: he fled to Rome and asked for help – and in AD43 the Romans came. Calleva already had strong trade links with the Continent and political allegiances to Rome before the Conquest.

Those who attended Amanda Clarke’s talk on 24th January 2012, will remember the wealth of knowledge and information she conveyed to us about the Silchester site.

Amanda, who is the Field Director at Silchester and Research Fellow at Reading University, gave us a most detailed tour of the site explaining its different phases. The western part of the trench is mainly Iron Age and is set out south-west to north-east (an alignment which is based on the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset), whereas the eastern side of the trench is Roman and runs north south.

It appears that Calleva was a well-organised Iron Age town.  Amanda pointed out the earliest feature, 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.  There is strong evidence that the Iron Age people lived at Calleva in regular house plots flanking broad gravelled roads,

 

The site has no natural 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, evidence of Calleva’s trading links.

Amanda said that Iron Age Britons were importing olives from the Mediterranean a century before the Romans arrived with their exotic tastes in food. Excavators have discovered a single olive stone from an excavation of an Iron Age well. The stone came from a layer securely dated to the first century BC, making it the earliest ever found in Britain – but since nobody ever went to the trouble of importing one olive, there must be more, rotted beyond recognition or still buried. The stone, combined with earlier finds of seasoning herbs such as coriander, dill and celery, all previously believed to have arrived with the Romans, suggests a diet at Silchester that would be familiar in any high street pizza restaurant

Amanda informed us that this year a tiny skeleton of a dog, no bigger than a celebrity’s handbag dog, had been unearthed and it was one of a handful ever found in Europe from such an early date: the evidence suggests it lived for up to three years, and was then laid, curled as if asleep, into the foundations of a house. Also the skeleton of a cat was found, carefully packed into a clay jar.

Following Amanda’s tour, we sat in a large gazebo where Elise (Finds Supervisor) handed around some of the most important artefacts found this year. Including a selection of brooches, a bronze hair pin, an Iron age coin, pieces of multi-coloured glass, a portable toilet set, a sherd of Samian ware – inscribed with the potter’s name, a coin of Nero, a bone awl and a gaming dice.

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.  With the exception of one small medieval manor, now part of a farm, and the church of St Mary, which probably stands on a Roman temple, nobody ever built on or lived at Calleva Atrebatum to this day.

The 16th season of work on Insula IX at the Roman town of Silchester took place between 2nd July and 12th August 2012.  The dig has another three years to run, ending in 2015. For further information see http://www.silchester.rdg.ac.uk/.

Many thanks to Maidenhead A. & H. Society for arranging this visit and to Amanda and her team for providing us with an impressive and informative tour.

by John Laker, with help from Jeff Griffiths, Reading University’s website and Maev Kennedy’s articles in the Guardian

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