Excavations at Silchester - top 5 finds
PUBLISHED: 10:17 17 August 2015
Reading University’s Professor Michael Fulford has been excavating at Silchester for over 40 years. Here he picks five of their most significant finds to date
The parish of Silchester on Hampshire’s border with Berkshire is the location of a large Roman town - Calleva Atrebatum, which was founded in the first century AD (nearly 2,000 years ago), and was built on the site of an Iron Age town, Calleva.
The Roman amphitheatre and town walls are some of the best-preserved in Britain, and are open to the public throughout the year. A great many of the items uncovered are now on display at Reading Museum. The town was abandoned some time after 400AD for reasons that are not fully understood, which makes it one of only six Roman towns in Britain that are not still populated.
Back in 1997 the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, led by Professor Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke, investigated one block or ‘insula’ of the Roman town. The aim was to provide details of town life from its origins in the late Iron Age to the time it was abandoned. Excavations in Insula IX are now complete, but Mike’s work is far from over on the site as he takes a look back over some the best finds to date.
This section of the Silchester site was first mooted as an Amphitheatre in about 1720, but Mike was the first to dig it in 1979. Its excavation continued for seven years. “It’s a great spot,” says Mike. “You can go there, stand in the arena or look down from the seating banks, and visualize what it was like to be there then.” The Amphitheatre’s secrets will remain just that however: “You see a structure such as this and automatically think of gladiatorial fights, bear baiting or bull fighting taking place, possibly even the odd execution.” Truth is, no one knows its real use: “Actual evidence is absent”, laughs Mike.
Iron Age items
People have been aware of connections to the Iron Age at Silchester, mostly because of the coins dated to the period which carry in abbreviated form its Celtic name, Calleva. “But real evidence was never initially found,” explains Mike. “Having done further excavations we’ve come across so much more. Silchester is unusual in having both Iron Age and then Roman development. The Iron Age Silchester had its own network of lanes and pathways through the town, its own grid. So it’s a wonderful transition from Iron Age community to the ‘horrible Romans’ coming in to make their mark,” he reveals.
“At an excavation of the basilica in the mid 80s we showed that what the Victorians found was merely the top of a wonderful sequence of earlier Roman buildings, underneath all of that there was this first glimpse of the Iron Age.”
Ivory mating dogs
Mike is always being asked, ‘have you found anything interesting?’ A rhetorical question where Silchester is concerned: “We have thousands of objects which give us a picture of the town. Within those there are some lovely items, such as the famous, ivory, mating dog razor, or folding knife. “The handle, which depicts two dogs mating, was carved in exquisite detail from elephant ivory some time in the second century. It is thought to have been made in Germany, France or Italy and would have been a valuable possession. The knife may have been deliberately buried as a ritual.”
Emperor Nero tiles
These discoveries are completely unique to Silchester; a collection of tiles stamped with Emperor Nero’s famous titles. They were a significant find, as Mike explains: “It implies an element of imperial ownership in and around the town. Of course Nero was the Emperor at the time the rebellion of Boudica took place. We found a lot of examples of these and we’re planning an excavation in late August to early September, reinvestigating what the Victorians discovered back in the late 1800s, early 1900s.” On revisiting an excavation at Silchester, Mike and his team found that what the Victorians thought was a bath house was actually a very early Roman development of the first century AD, perhaps of about the time of Nero, and this has led to exciting theories: “The thought that goes through my head,” teases Mike, “is the question, did Nero invest in a model town for Britain? Is that the context for all these tiles? Is what we’re finding now in Insula III Nero’s master plan? It’s fascinating and tantalising.”
The Ogham Stone
Other than ‘have you found anything interesting?’ another popular question Mike is asked is ‘we know about the beginning, but what about the end? “People are fascinated by the fact that there are green fields there now,” Mike points out.
One of the objects found by the Victorians was a dwarf Roman column that had a name inscribed in a strip, but written in a Celtic form of writing called ‘Ogham’, not Latin. It was developed in southern Ireland about AD400 at the end of the Roman period. “What it implies is that there’s something going on here after the end of the Roman administration - an element of life which involves an Irish or certainly a Celtic community,” says Mike.
The inscription refers to ‘Tebicatus, son of the tribe of’. “The column probably takes us into the beginnings of the Anglo Saxons, and rather than Silchester ending with the Romans, a community continues.
“The inscription opens up the possibility of links to Ireland. Silchester could have been a stop off for many people travelling west to east to cross The Channel. In early Christian Ireland in the 6th century there were many missionaries travelling to the continent.”
Since Mike began his work at Silchester back in 1974 it’s fair to say scientific approaches in archaeology have moved on dramatically.
“The difference between then and now is that we are better able to understand how the layers of soil develop over time, and interpret them. We can now uncover plant remains, including those that have become mineralized,” explains Mike. Very small samples of different layers are taken and their chemistry analysed: “We’ve found evidence of metal working and bronze working at Silchester, where there’s no other evidence, no objects such as crucibles, or moulds.” More exciting is they have identified gold working too, simply through analysing the soil. “You can do a lot more with your finds too, animal bones, human remains (though there’s not many), reveal things about their diet and possible origin. It shows us the diversity of people around Britain, there was a great deal of immigration. Such a thorny issue today was just a normal part of life in Roman Britain,” he points out.
Work continues later in the summer in Insula III to explore the possible ‘Neronian’ activity. Mike has recently received a grant to write up the team’s work at Silchester and to continue looking at the wider landscape around it. “I’ve so far spent 41 years uncovering Calleva Atrebatum. The great thing about archaeology is that you make discoveries while digging in the field but also, when you come back to the lab, you are constantly discovering things there as well. Even objects that were found decades ago have been re-discovered and given new significance.”
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