City of the Dead: Calleva Atrebatum

By Professor Michael Fulford

A reconstruction of  a street in Calleva with buildings and Roman soldierExcavations in Hampshire revealed the remains of a once-thriving Roman town, Calleva Atrebatum. But what led to its abandonment? Why was there no medieval successor? Michael Fulford turns detective.

The lost town

The Iron Age and Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum can be found deep in the north Hampshire countryside in the parish of Silchester. But where once there was a busy, populous centre, now there are only green fields. All that is now visible above ground, of a settlement that thrived for more than 500 years between the first century BC and the fifth or sixth century AD, are sections of the late Iron Age fortifications of rampart and ditch, the Roman amphitheatre and, most impressive of all, the entire circuit of the late Roman town walls.

Why is there no successor medieval and modern town?

Most Roman towns evolved into modern counterparts, either directly over the site of the ancient city, such as at Chichester, Winchester or London, or close by such as at St Albans or Norwich.

So two very reasonable questions to ask about Calleva are: why did a major settlement develop in this location; and why is there no successor medieval and modern town? There are no certain answers to either of these questions, but trying to resolve them is one of the eternal fascinations of Calleva.

Enemies would find it hard to approach unseen…(and) there is plenty of water

At first sight the setting does not seem the obvious location to build a major settlement, with the Thames, a major means of potential communication, lying some ten miles to the north, but the site did have other practical advantages. A spur of relatively high ground was chosen, with commanding views to the east and south, so enemies would find it hard to approach unseen. Also, beneath the shallow gravel that caps this promontory, there is plenty of water, easily accessed from relatively shallow wells.

Celtic roots
Aerial view of the Hampshire countryside

The site of the excavation site in Hampshire ©

The Celtic place name, Calleva, can be translated as ‘woody place’, and investigations of the ancient pollen record confirm that the early settlement was surrounded by woodland, so timber for fuel and building was close at hand.

Apart from these, we have few further clues to help us understand what motivated the settlement of the Silchester promontory that was to develop so quickly as a regional centre.

…the diversity and quantity of goods imported…is as impressive as at any subsequent period.

Whatever its drawbacks, within a generation of its foundation in the second half of the first century BC, Calleva was a populous settlement, its core occupying an area of over 100 acres (almost 50 hectares), which was not significantly exceeded for the rest of its existence. The archaeological record shows evidence of wide-ranging contacts within Britain – as well as across the Channel to France and south to Italy, Spain and the Mediterranean – by the early first century AD.

Once again, the diversity and quantity of goods imported from afar is as impressive, if not more so, as at any subsequent period. Clearly, the distance of Calleva from the Thames was no major hindrance to the development of trade and exchange.

Our introduction to Calleva
Aerial view of the excavation site showing foundation marks in the mud

The excavation site of the Roman town ©

It had long been known that a major Roman town existed at Silchester before excavations began in earnest in the 1860s. Initially these were undertaken for the landowner, the Duke of Wellington, by the rector of the nearby village of Stratfield Saye.

The Reverend James Joyce was an acute observer and recorder of the archaeological record, and made many important discoveries – and his work at Silchester set the scene for the Society of Antiquaries of London, which undertook a 20-year programme of excavation from 1890. Its aim, to reveal the complete plan of the Roman town, was extraordinarily ambitious.

80-90 per cent of the site was not excavated by the Victorians, and survives intact.

Nevertheless, by 1909, the objective of excavating the entirety of the area within the Roman town walls had been accomplished, and the plan of the Roman town has since become one of the familiar landmarks of Roman Britain.

For almost all the rest of the 20th century it was believed that there was little more to be gained from excavating within the walls. The re-excavation of the early Christian Church, for example, in 1961, appeared to confirm that the first excavation had been complete, and added little new information.

In fact this was very far from the truth and it is now safe to say that 80-90 per cent of the site was not excavated by the Victorians, and survives intact. This is certainly the conclusion of the ongoing excavation under the auspices of the University of Reading.

Early excavations
The excavation site showing the extent of building foundations

Building foundations come to light during the excavation ©

The early excavators appear to have limited themselves to exposing the foundations and plans of the masonry buildings, which were discovered by systematic trenching across the area occupied by each block of the Roman street grid.

When walls were met, their lines were traced and the interiors exposed by removing what was for the most part ploughsoil. Areas between the buildings, and the complex stratigraphy that lay beneath and between individual buildings, were not further investigated.

The origins and early development of Calleva…remained obscure.

The archaeology of timber buildings was ill understood at the time of these excavations, so while much was learned of the nature of the town between the second and the fourth century AD, the origins and early development of Calleva, when timber was the major building material, remained obscure.

Immigrants from France?

An earthenware jar found at the Calleva site

A wine container found at the site dating from Roman times ©

The first glimpse of the early settlement, dating perhaps from about 25BC, was gained from excavations in the 1980s on the site of the basilica, the great public hall that occupied one side of the Roman forum. Digging down below the Roman floor, evidence was recorded of two periods of Roman timber building dating to the first century AD.

Beneath all these was the late Iron Age settlement, with evidence of some regular planning, the traces of circular and rectangular timber buildings, abundant evidence of metalworking – including of precious metals – and plentiful evidence of local and long-distance contacts.

Quantities of oysters…and containers of wine, olive oil and fish sauce…pointed to a highly Romanised community.

Many elements of this early settlement were different from what is found in contemporary settlements in southern England, including evidence for diet. Quantities of oysters, on the one hand, and containers of wine, olive oil and fish sauce, on the other, pointed to a highly Romanised community. The character of what was found pointed strongly to the settlers originating from continental Europe, probably from northern France.

They were a powerful group, and the evidence of coins that can be associated with Calleva and give us the names of some of the leaders – Tincomarus, Eppillus, Verica – argues that it was the centre of a powerful tribe called the Atrebates, whose territory extended over much of southern England.

The Roman town

It was this centre that was adopted by the Romans, after formal annexation of southern Britain, in the years immediately following the invasion of AD 43. First as the centre of the client kingdom of Cogidubnus, then of the Roman administrative county of the Atrebates, Calleva developed into a Roman town.

A reconstruction of a timber building at Calleva

A reconstruction of street life in the Roman town of Calleva ©

It had its regular grid of streets, its public baths, amphitheatre, temples and forum basilica, as well housing for its residents that ranged from the large and splendidly decorated town houses of the wealthy to the humble timber-framed buildings of the poor.

…richer town houses – decorated with mosaics and painted wall plaster – were situated away from the busy areas.

Shops and workshops crowded the frontages of the main street, while the richer town houses – decorated with mosaics and painted wall plaster – were situated away from the busy areas. This is essentially the town that the early Victorian and Edwardian excavators revealed, and the magnificent coins, metalwork, pottery sculpture and mosaics that were subsequently found there – illustrative of the Roman way of life – can be viewed in the Museum of Reading.

6th-century abondonment
A group of archaeologists at the excavation site

Digging for clues at the Roman site ©

The construction of the town wall in the later third century, and the downgrading of its great basilica into an industrial hall devoted to metalworking, is evidence of changing times, a symbol of the problems that Rome faced at this time in many of its provinces. Nevertheless, like its neighbours in southern England, the town continued to prosper and there is no sign of decline or desertion before the end of Rome’s formal administration of Britain at the beginning of the fifth century.

Anglo-Saxon control gradually prevailed over southern Britain.

Despite the difficulties of mapping and dating activities as Roman artefacts ceased to be produced, the University of Reading’s ongoing excavation of the block known as insula IX points to a population continuing into the fifth or sixth century.

One element of that community was Irish, evidenced by the remarkable discovery of a stone carved with ogham, a form of writing that originated in southern Ireland and that is unlikely to date before the beginning of the fifth century.

A construction of some of the buildings at Calleva

A reconstruction of farm buildings at the site ©

There are many difficulties in understanding and dating the final abandonment of the settlement, a process that involved the deliberate infilling of wells. Pressure from early Anglo-Saxon settlement around Dorchester-on-Thames, to the north, was probably a significant factor. The abandonment of the town may have been the result of deliberate policy to cleanse it of its occupants, as Anglo-Saxon control gradually prevailed over southern Britain between the fifth and the seventh centuries.

…a better understanding of the origins of Calleva is yet to come.

The ongoing excavation project that has been working on these, and many other, problems related to the developing life of the town is in a residential and working area, close to the centre. The aim is to examine a part of the insula from its origins in the late Iron Age to the demise of the town in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The project is about halfway through, and already we are seeing a sharp contrast between a comparatively rich phase in the first and second centuries, and a more industrial and crowded occupation in the third and fourth centuries. We have barely a glimpse of the underlying late Iron Age occupation – a better understanding of the origins of Calleva is yet to come.

Find out more


Silchester: The Roman Town of Calleva by GC Boon (David and Charles, 1974)

Silchester Insula IX: The Town Life Project: The First Six Years 1997-2002 by A Clarke, M Fulford and M Mathews (University of Reading, 2002) – available from The Museum of Reading, Town Hall, Blagrave Street, Reading, RG1 1QH

A Guide to Silchester. The Roman Town of Calleva Atrebatum by M Fulford (Stroud, 2002) – available from The Museum of Reading, Town Hall, Blagrave Street, Reading, RG1 1QH

Roman Britain by MJ Millett (English Heritage, 1995)

The Roman Era: The British Isles: 55BC-AD410 edited by P. Salway (Oxford, 2002)

The Towns of Roman Britain by JS Wacher (Batsford, 1995)

Places to vist

The amphitheatre and town wall, the visible Roman remains at Silchester, are in the care of English Heritage and may be visited free of charge all year, Monday to Sunday, at any reasonable time. There is a small interpretation centre (Calleva Museum) adjacent to Silchester Common, open every day during daylight hours.

The excavations at Silchester continue in July and August each year and are open to the public from Saturday to Thursday 10.00-17.00 (closed Fridays). Places are available on the Silchester Field School to members of the public who would like to participate in the excavation. The minimum age is 16. More details can be obtained from Reading University.

The Silchester Collection is housed in the Museum of Reading, Town Hall, Blagrave Street, Reading, RG1 5RD. Free admission. Tel: 0118 939 9800

About the author

Michael Fulford is a Professor of Archaeology and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading. He specialises in the archaeology of the Roman world with interests in its economy, urbanism and technology. At Silchester he has worked on the amphitheatre, defences and forum basilica. With Amanda Clarke, he has been directing the current excavation of insula IX since 1997. He is collaborating with Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the British School at Rome, on a project to explore the development of one of the insulae of the city of Pompeii, Italy. He is currently directing a research project to investigate the material properties of Roman ferrous armour.


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