Roman shadows: The Silchester Connection

Photo via wikipedia

Photo via wikipedia

It is as well to keep an open mind. because just when you think you have the answer in its entirety, great strapping questions muscle their way into the picture.

Take the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum.

Right now it is bustling. Summer holidays see an influx of archaeologists amateur, student and professional to a site of about 107 acres in Hampshire, close to the Berkshire border, in modern-day Silchester. A site which was once a Roman town.

Calleva is humming. It echoes to the sound of archaeological trowels painstakingly scraping the earth of centuries. It is populated with specialists and academics who are uniquely equipped to unlock the stories of this strangest of Roman towns. They share through social media these days, and finds have an immediacy not just for those on the site but for all of us who learn about discoveries just hours after they are made.

But in 1909, they thought they had learnt all there was to learn about Calleva.

It was the Duke Of Wellington who got his vicar working on the Roman site in the second half of the 19th century. The Reverend James Joyce was the first to try excavation at the site. It was he who discovered the battered Roman eagle from between two layers of burnt matter on the south side of the town. The eagle stands in Reading museum these days.  On the strength of his discoveries, the Society of Antiquaries moved in to try to uncover the plan of the Roman town.

This they completed 29 years after they began, in the early years of the 20th century.  Job done, they said.

But they were wrong.

It was Reading University which re-opened the books on Calleva Atrebatum. Their specialists say that up to 90 per cent of the archaeology was left there, in the soil, by the Victorians. And it was waiting to ask its questions.

Because Calleva is more about questions than answers. First populated in the iron age, and ten miles from the nearest river, it was finally and purposefully abandoned in around 600AD.

No-one knows why.

When I say purposefully abandoned, it was deserted in a planned way. Someone filled in all the wells when everyone left.  All the other Roman towns have gone on to be modern-day towns and cities. But not Calleva Atrabatum.

Why would someone do that?

The town is an oddity compared to the other settlements of Southern England. Finds show the inhabitants had contacts all over Roman Britain and further afield – France, and Spain, for example. And then there’s their diet. They ate differently: oysters, olive oil, fish sauce,wine: it looks like a staunch ex-pat community of settlers living the Roman life in Southern Britain.

It was a magnificent town: excavators have uncovered the baths, the amphitheatre, basilica and temples, a main street crowded with shops and stalls, magnificent town houses and hovels for the humble.

And the story is still being uncovered, towel stroke by trowel stroke.

You can follow the adventure: they’re on Facebook here , Twitter @silchexcavation here and have a website here, and they are taking part in the 2013 Day Of Archaeology project which you can read here. And, if you’re around Reading on August 3rd, you can visit; they’re holding an open day. More details here.

Race you there.


16 thoughts on “Roman shadows: The Silchester Connection

  1. I remember Silchester in the eighties when they were re-excavating the basilica and uncovering details of its transformation into industrial workshops. One member of the group I was with being shown round by Mike Fulford was very confused: she knew basilicas as a class of ecclesiastical building and couldn’t get her head round the ideas that (a) basilicas were originally secular and (b) this one had been used for metalworking.

    Silchester’s deliberate and systematic abandonment in the early post-Roman period is one of those mysteries that you hope the ongoing excavations will solve. Eventually! Thanks for the links, I’m looking forward to following them up.

  2. I like the idea of the expat community in Silchester a lot more than the ones I have heard of here. When the archaeologists of tomorrow inspect the plastic containers of marmite, wrappers of Walls bacon and sausages together with enough beer cans to build a monument, they’ll be some head scratching as to what sort of people these expats were.

    1. It’s sparked many stories already, Andra; Tolkein’s ring – or the best candidate – was ploughed up here by a farmer, and the battered old eagle fuelled Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle Of The Ninth. It’s a flat site – you can see the city grid from the air – but the archaeologists have the excellent ability to draw conclusions from their finds. I wish I could walk round with you there, Andra!

  3. How exciting! It’s delightful to be part of the adventure! I can see why you’d be immersed in following this current excavation and wondering what new finds might reveal some answers to the questions about why this particular Roman town was so deliberately abandoned. Thank you for the excellent links, too. This is history at its most exciting. You just never know what’s to be found!

  4. Ooh, I wish I could go! (If only for one of those rubber duckies!). We presume too much sometimes. It’s a comforting fallacy that we’ve got it sussed. Despite my Reading links and Time Team … ahem, obsession, I’ve never knew of this place. 🙂

  5. ‘ …and this is another prime example of a relic from a Motor Car of the ancient nineteenth to twenty-second centuries. It has been established that they were all used in the worship of a primitive god they called Speed …’
    I really do wonder why they buzzed off from there. If it had been a plague, would they have stuck around long enough to fill in the wells?

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