Excavating a Roman Town: the Silchester Town Life Project

Silchester aerial view from west

The Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum at Silchester, Hampshire in southern England is, perhaps, the best known of the towns of Roman Britain.  The reason for this is that, over 20 years around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, early archaeologists gradually, block by block, uncovered the remains of all the buildings within the town walls.  By 1908, and for the first time anywhere in the Roman Empire, a complete plan of a Roman town, with its regular street grid, public and private buildings, had been recovered.  Hundreds of finds representative of the life of the town had been made and these were displayed in Reading Museum as an enduring record of the excavation.  As for the town itself, the interior was returned to arable cultivation and only the impressive and well preserved defensive walls and the amphitheatre remained for the visitor to see. 


Silchester Roman town plan, 1908


.Late 3rd century AD Town Wall south looking west 

Late 3rd century Town wall south to east

But all was not what it seemed.  Over the course of the 20th century techniques of excavation improved such that it was possible to go back to Silchester and to other Roman sites in Britain which had been first investigated when archaeological excavation was in its infancy and to start to write a new history.  For there are two main and very substantial problems with the results of the antiquarian excavations: there was a very limited understanding of stratigraphy – the recognition of the complex process by which the history of a site is understood from the careful dissection of the layers of soil which underlie and surround the individual buildings originally revealed; and there was little awareness that wood was as commonly used as stone for building in Roman Britain, not least because its remains were hard to recognise.  Unless preserved by waterlogging, wood decays over time, but archaeologists can now recognise that the soils which fill the holes dug to receive posts or the trenches dug to take sleeper-beam foundations are distinguishable from those of their immediate surrounds.

What does this mean for a town like Silchester?  Essentially it offers the possibility of giving it a history: the Roman occupation of Britain lasted for over 350 years, but the remains of the town are presented as if they were all of one period, without any sense of time depth or change over time.  Even the Victorian excavators suspected a pre-Roman Iron Age phase, but failed to find any trace of it.  Now, with that ability to explore the stratigraphic development of a site, individual buildings or different quarters or blocks of the town can be re-explored and their development traced over time.  And, as a recently concluded excavation has revealed, the pre-Roman Iron Age phase of Calleva has been identified and explored right at the base of the stratigraphic sequence, one to two metres below the present ground surface.

Silchester aerial view from north with Insula IX excavation

 Insula IX House 1 2nd to 3rd century AD under excavation

Insula IX excavation, 2012

Insula IX excavation, 2013

Insula IX excavation in progress, 2013

But it is not just the techniques of excavation which have advanced such that we can document change over time and recognise the remains of timber buildings, it is also our approaches to the finds.  Antiquarian approaches were selective, favouring the retention of a few complete examples at the expense of the comprehensive approach taken by archaeologists today to all categories of finds however fragmented.  One area where modern approaches have revolutionised our knowledge is that of food and diet.  Systematic approaches both to the recovery of animal, bird and fish bone and to plant and seed remains preserved by charring, waterlogging or mineralisation have allowed us to build up a rich picture of the different types of food consumed and how these have changed over time.  The Roman period saw the introduction of a wide range of new plant species to Britain while types of food such as fish and shellfish, especially oysters, not much exploited in Iron Age Britain, became much more commonly consumed during Roman period.  Scientific characterisation of the residues from the cooking of food preserved in the walls of cooking pots provide insight into what and how it was prepared for the table.

How have all these approaches been applied to Silchester?  A long-running project to research part of one of the insulae (blocks) of the town has recently been completed in the field.  The area had been first investigated in 1893 and plans drawn up of the individual buildings discovered.  Despite this intervention it has been possible to trace the full sequence of occupation from origins in the pre-Roman Iron Age to the abandonment of the town between the later 5th and the mid-7th century AD.  Whereas we only have this represented by a single plan of the block from the work of 1893, it is now possible to identify five, successive Roman occupation horizons in addition to that of the Iron Age.  What is particularly interesting is that it is not only possible to recognise an organised layout to the Iron Age settlement with a distinctive orientation, but that the inhabitants chose to re-assert that orientation after the Roman street grid had been laid out in the later 1st century AD.  So we find that in Insula IX a new phase of building in the late 1st/early 2nd century AD sees the construction of a town house on the Iron Age orientation, some 45° askew from the north-south/east-west orientation of the Roman street grid.  Successive phases of re-building on the same footprint take the Iron Age influence as far as the end of the 3rd century AD when there is evidence of major change in the insula, with the demolition of the town house and a new era of building.  The continuity of Iron Age practices into the Roman period can also be seen in a ritual context, for example, the deliberate piercing of the walls of vessels, commonly of pottery, thereby rendering them useless, before placing them otherwise completely intact as offerings at the bottom of wells.  Vessels from our Iron Age wells demonstrate this as does a pierced pewter flagon from the latest Roman well to be abandoned, sometime in the later 5th or 6th century.

Mediterranean foods imported pre-conquest

Iron Age silver minim of King Verica

Pierced Iron Age pot

Associated with each phase of the town is the evidence with which to begin to reconstruct the life of the inhabitants.  The making and forging of iron on a modest, household scale to make a wide range of tools and fittings is evidenced throughout the life of the town.  More exotically, chemical analysis of associated soils revealed that gold-working formed part of the life of the big town house in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  Also at household scale and connected with one property in particular was the systematic skinning of dogs for their pelts, perhaps for people to wear, perhaps for bed coverings; the evidence for which was detected through the knife marks observed on their bones.  The recovery of the faunal evidence of new born offspring and the microscopic evidence of herbivore dung revealed where domestic animals – cattle, goats, sheep and horses – were stalled, perhaps for over-wintering.  Deposits of the charred waste from the de-husking of cereals, particularly from the late Iron Age and early Roman periods indicates another link with the land around the town, with the inhabitants bringing in their corn for processing.

Iron Age pot from well with maple leaf attached

Mid 1st AD century representation of Egyptian god Harpocrates 

  Mid 1st century AD gemstone of Minerva

Silchester Nero tile fragments

Interweaved with tracing the change over time of the occupations of the inhabitants is that for the varying character of the food they consumed.  While cereals and the meat of cattle, sheep and pig were the mainstays of the diet, supplemented by domestic fowl, especially chicken, this was enriched through the importation from the Mediterranean world of exotics such as figs and dates, olive oil and wine.  Locally grown fruit, some species, such as the cultivated apple and plum, introduced by the Romans, was an important part of diet with some deposits producing abundant evidence for the consumption of apples, blackberries and plums.

Researching Roman town life involves both careful excavation to document the changing built environment and also, subsequently, meticulous research on the wide variety of finds, both artefactual and biological.  While 18 years of excavation at Silchester on one part of the town have provided us with a framework and the first part of the story, a further five years of research will be required to unlock the stories which all the finds will tell.

Michael Fulford CBE FBA is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading.