The Town Life project 1997-2014

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Silchester

The Roman name for Silchester was Calleva Atrebatum which denotes its role as the centre of the territory of the Atrebates, one of the major late Iron Age tribes in southern Britain.

Silchester was one of the main towns of Roman Britain and stands at the junction of a number of major routes leading to other urban centres. It is unusual in that, unlike comparable Roman cities such as London, Winchester and Chichester, Silchester never re-emerged as a town in the later Anglo-Saxon period. The site was abandoned after the Roman period, the existence of a city beneath the fields indicated only by the surrounding town walls and, in dry weather, by the lines of the street grid appearing in the pasture and revealing the town blocks (insulae).

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Large scale excavations were carried out over 20 years (1890-1909) by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Their achievement was to excavate the whole of the Roman Town within the walls, resulting in the now familiar plan of Silchester.

More about the Victorian excavations

The Insula IX Excavation

The Town Life project was an 18 year excavation of one block of the Silchester Roman Town by the Department of Archaeology at the University of Reading.

This block is called Insula IX and was chosen from all the other insulae by a number of factors. Recent aerial photography and geophysical survey had shown that more buildings existed here than had been originally identified by the Victorian excavators in 1893.

A large building of flint foundations had been discovered by the Victorians but it’s alignment was asymmetrical to the street grid perhaps suggesting this was an earlier structure of Iron Age date

There were also apparently ‘blank’ areas, where neither the excavation of 1893 nor subsequent aerial survey had revealed structural remains. Our excavation offers the opportunity to see if these ‘blank’ areas contained timber buildings

The Victorians in Insula IX

The Victorian plan of Silchester showing Insula IX

 

Who’s in charge?

Mike_sm Professor Mike Fulford

Univ. of Reading
Principal Investigator

 

Michael Fulford – Project director and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. Mike has been excavating at Silchester since 1974.

 

Amanda_sm Amanda Clarke

Univ. of Reading
Field Director

Amanda Clarke – directs the Field School and co-directs the excavation. She is an experienced field archaeologist and has a particular interest in delivering training in field techniques.

The Project

The Silchester Town Life Project was established in 1997 by the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Reading. The project is both a training Field School and a research excavation located in a major Roman civitas capital (administrative centre), situated in the parish of Silchester, in the county of Hampshire (England). Below we summarise some of the key findings from Insula IX

House 1

A striking feature of the excavation area was the positioning of the large House 1 which lay diagonally across the insula, against the grain of the streets, two of which bound the area of the excavation to the north and the east.

From our first few years’ study, it was clear that it had a complex history. Starting life no later than about the mid-first century AD as a timber-framed house of at least three rooms, the house developed in the later first century into two town-houses of masonry construction.The two town houses were then linked to create one large town-house, some 37m in length. All of these developments perpetuate the same, pre-Roman alignment.

Traces of at least three other buildings on orientations either similar to, or approximately at right angles to our town-house were discovered within the excavation area.

Photo of site under stormy clouds

In studying the plan of the town recovered by the Victorian and Edwardian excavators, we can identify many other buildings which apparently share orientations different to, and, in all probability, dates earlier than, the Roman street grid. Among these we can include the amphitheatre, the town baths and several temples. Occupying much of the area within the later town-walls, these buildings belong to a time in the first century AD when Calleva probably lay within the semi-autonomous ‘client kingdom’ of Cogidubnus. Together, they constitute the first Roman city of Calleva.

The First Century AD

The evidence suggests that, by the middle of the first century AD, the irregularly planned city was transformed by the laying out of a regular street grid which divided the settlement into a series of rectangular blocks (insulae) which had little or no regard to the pre-existing arrangment. From this time onwards new properties were constructed which co-ordinated with the streets and there was a move towards focussing commercial activity along the principal streets. At the same time some of the old properties, including our House 1, continued to develop in their original positions.

Shops and Workshops in Insula IX

Site drawing showing position of House 1

Within Insula IX, the effect of the laying out of the streets was to encourage the development of shops and workshops along the main east-west street and, within our area, of similar properties running up the north-south street from the central crossroads. House 1 was rebuilt as a timber-framed, aisled hall (shown in the reconstruction image above) resting on stone foundations, one end of which was devoted to metal working, ranging from iron-forging to the working of gold. By the late second century, two timber-framed buildings, probably shops or workshops, and associated with at least two wells, had developed along the north-south street in the south-east of the excavation area.

By this time, and following the break-up of the kingdom of Cogidubnus, Calleva had become responsible for the administration of a county-sized area, the territory of the Atrebates, corresponding approximately with the historic county of Berkshire.

City in Transition