Reading Museum and the Silchester Collection
Reading Mercury, Saturday 19 Aug 1893, p 5, col 4
Just now the annual recommencement of the Silchester excavations, by the Society of Antiquaries, has re-awakened interest in the old Roman City, but, alas, the old city itself is not so interesting to the general public as the large collection of things obtained from thence, which are to be seen in the Free Museum at Reading, part of the same block of building as the Town Halls, and occupy the rooms above the Free Library and Reading Room. Thanks to the generosity of the Duke of Wellington, who has lent his large and valuable collection, and also to the Society of Antiquaries, Reading now possesses a most valuable collection of Roman remains. The first room at the head of the stairs is full of glass cases, and in these the things are stored safe from dust and harm. It is hard to believe that some of the things are so antique, for on several iron implements, the rust has been removed and the metal surface exposed as when they were first fashioned. A gridiron so treated and an anvil, look as though they were newly made, and yet hundreds of years have passed since that time. The iron things are numerous, every kind of article – just as we are accustomed to use now-a-days. There is a staple and dog chain, keys, door hinges and a curious lock or bolt found at the west gate; razors and knives, the latter with the handles yet remaining. There are many other kinds of metal work; quantities of bronze bangles and fibulae, among the latter, being one so perfect that the label on it states “it could still be worn”. There are the fragmentary remains of some bronze bowls or buckets, very suggestive of those found in Angle-Saxon graves, but these Roman ones are circular in shape. The more valuable trophy, the celebrated bronze eagle, is represented by a photograph the exact size, and is somewhat more imposing in this form than the original. Another great curiosity is a leaden bulla or seal, found in the Basilica. Its date is given as the reign of magnentius, AD 350. It bears the Christian monogram and the Greek initials A.N.; and when the fact of a small Christian church having been uncovered is remembered, that seal bears a deeper significance in the antiquary’s eyes. Another curiosity is the small military badge in one of the small cases below the window, which also has the device of the eagle. In all Roman sites the quantity of pottery exhumed is marvellous, and the Silchester collection contains specimens, many perfect, while others are so beautifully mended as to appear whole at first sight. Of the Samian, Pseudo-Aretum, ware, there is an immense amount; the shapes of the vessels being elegant and the ornamentation elaborate. There is also a British imitation of it; labelled Pseudo Samian, considered to be very rare. Of potters’ marks, a whole book might be compiled, and would be valuable as giving a clue to the locality of the manufactories, for it is scarcely possible or probable to believe that all this so-called Samian was imported hither from abroad. There are some good examples of Castor and Durobrivian pottery, also, the Kentish “Upchurch”, the common Salopian, and Romano-British, these last two resembling each other in general structure, and a good deal of the New Forest pottery. This last is of a curious plum colour, especially with specimens which have been strongly fired.
Glass we were taught in early youth to believe to be a medieval invention, and yet lo and behold, here is window glass from Silchester, and the remains of tumblers, vases and bottles, and some very curious enamelled glass, similar to that now made in Italy, and known as “Venetian glass”.
The most interesting piece of woodwork is the complete lining of the well in which the celebrated collection of tools was discovered. The remains of a wooden bucket from another well is shown in one of the wall cases. Knife handles are also of wood. Leather being an animal substance is very perishable, yet the centre case contains the soles of shoes. One pair has extremely pointed toes, so that piece of vain fashion is no modern invention. Bone and ivory, Kimmeridge coal, and jet bone spoons, like our mustard spoons, counters like backgammon men, dice, engraved gems, tiny bronze figures, enamelled brooches, are here, in fact the contents of the cases are too numerous to describe and I left the room with a vague feeling of wonder if, after all, we really are more civilised and advantageous than they were.
In the smaller room are arranged the models and plans of the recent excavations and also specimens of stone work roofing and roofing tiles (tesserae). With these last are also pieces of foreign marble, and Purbeck marble, and “Opus Ligninum” as a substance was called which the Romans used for floors and probably also for wall decoration. It is a concrete or cement into which while still wet were pushed pieces of marble, stone and other mosaic materials, the whole being afterwards planed and polished. Large items of wall plaster are shown in the next case. Red was the principal colour and I remember when the large square foundations adjoining the churchyard were uncovered and pronounced to be a temple, that quantities of this red plaster lay about on the ground, and it reminded me forcibly of the old mural paintings, incorrectly styled frescoes, with which the walls of our old English churches were adorned previous to the Reformation period. Besides the red plaster there were pieces of yellow, blue, and white banded in patterns, and also two small veneers of Purbeck marble, stated to have been wall ornaments.
The excavations this year did not commence before the middle of May, and operations were begun beyond the forum to the right of the waterway or drain examined last year. The small circular temple, opened originally by Mr Joyce, was again uncovered and fully investigated, and a short distance above it a long wall was found. This has been followed, and a number of rooms have been traced apparently connected with the circular building. This discovery may lead to the identification of it. One remarkable fact about Silchester is the rarity of stone inscriptions of any kind. That excavations more or less have been carried on in the old Roman city for centuries we may feel quite sure, and anyone possessing things found on the site will be conferring a benefit if they will follow the example of the Duke of Wellington and lend them to the Reading museum. No other museum than England is better cared for than this, and the collection is so good that every endeavour should be made to make it as perfect as possible. Inscribed stones may have been carried away and used for building purposes in the neighbourhood, and to this point I would turn the attention of those interested in the subject. Perhaps some of the churches in the locality may contains relics from the Roman city, such as carved pillars, paving stones, tiles & c., for in most cases only the foundations of the houses are left, and cart loads of material must have been carried away somewhere or other.