Silchester – The Roman town of Calleva

Silchester from the East, by Alan Sorrell (Crown copyright) object no. 1975.37.1

Silchester from the East, by Alan Sorrell (Crown copyright) object no. 1975.37.1

The Silchester Collection consists of a wealth of items from the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester, in Hampshire. The Revd J.G Joyce excavated on the site from 1864 to 1878 and discovered the Silchester Eagle. The Society of Antiquaries’ excavations uncovered the whole area within the town walls between 1890 and 1909.

These things belonged to rich and poor, old and young and no project on life in Roman Britain is complete without reference to Calleva and its objects. The town was abandoned after the Roman period and the site was never developed. Therefore the excavations produced the most complete plan of any town in Roman Britain and the objects from those excavations illustrate all aspects of town life – personal, social, religious, commercial and official. The highlights are now displayed in the Museum’s Silchester Gallery.

The Collection also throws light on the development of archaeological techniques. Revd J.G Joyce meticulously recorded his work in a three-volume Journal, which is now in the Collection. His appreciation of stratification and his interest in Darwin’s work on earthworms foreshadow modern scientific techniques. Darwin’s sons visited the site to conduct scientific studies and Darwin’s The Earthworm contained some woodcuts from Joyce’s section-drawings.

PDF Silchester Eagle The Silchester Eagle, described as ‘the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’. 34KB
Silchester Gallery

Featuring finds excavated from the Roman town near Silchester, including the famous Silchester eagle and the Silchester Horse.

Date published: 18 Oct 2010

The Silchester Annexe at Reading Museum

The Annexe space focuses on the pottery discovered at the Roman town of Calleva near Silchester, and photographs of the early excavations.

Date published: 18 Oct 2010

SILCHESTER ROMAN CITY WALLS AND AMPHITHEATRE

Reconstruction painting of Silchester as a thriving town - gateway with trading stalls outside.
View of Silchester Roman City Walls.
Reconstruction painting of Silchester as a thriving town - gateway with trading stalls outside.View of Silchester Roman City Walls.FREE ENTRY

Open any reasonable time during daylight hours

ADDRESS:

Silchester, Hampshire RG7 2HP

BEFORE YOU GO

Silchester in Hampshire has its origins as Calleva, a centre of the Iron Age Atrebates tribe from the late 1st century BC. After the Roman conquest of AD 43 it became the large and important town of Calleva Atrebatum. Unlike most Roman towns, it was never reoccupied or built over after it was abandoned in the 6th or 7th century, so archaeological investigations have given an unusually complete picture of its development.

The complete circuit of the Roman walls, some of the best-preserved Roman town defences in England, and remains of the amphitheatre still stand.

Read more about the history of Silchester.

BEFORE YOU GO

Access: The site is reached by a footpath, parts of which may be uneven and can become muddy.

Parking: There is a charged car park at Silchester Roman Town, not managed by English Heritage. The site is about a ten minute walk from the car park. Please note, there is no car parking available at the Amphitheatre, visitors should park at the main car park.

School Visits/Large Groups: Prior notice of tall vehicles (such as coaches and minibuses) wishing to park in the car park is needed. Please contact Hampshire County Council on 0118 970 0132 to open the height barrier.

Dogs: Dogs on leads are welcome.

PLAN A GREAT DAY OUT

Why not travel to historic Farnham to view the impressive motte and shell keep of a castle founded in 1138 by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester.  The castle is about a 45 minute drive from Silchester and tours of the Bishop’s Palace are available on Wednesday afternoons for an additional fee.

The picturesque ruins of Waverley Abbey, nestled on the banks of the River Wey, is another popular spot and is roughly a 50 minute drive away. Pack a picnic and look out for the wildlife on the lake en route to the abbey ruins.

Or why not try The Grange at Northington. Set like a lakeside temple in a landscaped park, The Grange is the foremost example of the Greek Revival style.  Popular with families for picnics and just a 50 minute drive from Silchester.

HISTORY OF SILCHESTER ROMAN CITY WALLS AND AMPHITHEATRE

Silchester was originally the centre of the Iron Age kingdom of the Atrebates tribe from the late 1st century BC. After the Roman conquest in AD 43 it developed into the town of Calleva Atrebatum. Laid out on a distinctive street grid pattern, the town contained many public buildings and flourished until the early Anglo-Saxon period. Unusually among the Roman towns of southern Britain, it was not abandoned until the 6th or 7th century. Substantially excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and over the last 30 years, Silchester remains one of the best preserved Roman towns in Britain and is one of the few that were continuously occupied from the Iron Age.

The south gate at Silchester Roman City

The south gate at Silchester Roman City

IRON AGE TRIBAL CENTRE

The Iron Age town of Calleva, which covered over 32 hectares, seems to have been established between about 20 and 10 BC. It may have been a planned settlement of people from north-west Gaul (modern France), centred around the town of Arras and the tribe of the Atrebates.

The town became a major processing and trading centre. Locally manufactured goods, such as horse and chariot gear, were exchanged for metals, grain, slaves and other commodities from across southern Britain. In turn these were passed to the Roman world in exchange for luxury foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

A low bank is the only evidence remaining today of the Iron Age defensive earthworks. There would have been a number of cemeteries situated outside the town. Only one, containing cremation burials, has been found through excavation.

After the Roman conquest the territory of the Atrebates retained some autonomy until the late 1st century AD.

The Iron Age town was a thriving defended settlement, with buildings arranged on an organised layout. It extended over most of the area of the later Roman town

The Iron Age town was a thriving defended settlement, with buildings arranged on an organised layout. It extended over most of the area of the later Roman town © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

CALLEVA ATREBATUM: A ROMAN TOWN

The large Roman town known as Calleva Atrebatum developed from its Iron Age predecessor from the mid 1st century AD onwards.

A regular street grid was laid down over an area of about 40 hectares. Important buildings included public baths in the south-east quarter, and an administrative centre (the forum basilica) in the centre. There was a rest-house (mansio) near the south gate, used by travellers on imperial business, and an amphitheatre on the eastern edge of the town.

The principal streets were crowded with shops and workshops, while wealthier people lived beyond them in larger ornate houses. Several small temples have been identified across the town, as well as a possible Christian church. The town was defended from about AD 200.

Calleva Atrebatum was the local centre for the administration of taxation and justice and an important trading centre. Specialist activities such as metal, wood, textile and leather working took place here. The population was predominantly British, with some foreign merchants and immigrants.

The town of Silchester as it may have looked in the 3rd century AD, looking west. The east gate led to the London road and the gatehouse stood on the site of the current farm

The town as it may have looked in the 3rd century AD, looking west. The east gate led to the London road and the gatehouse stood on the site of the current farm © Historic England (illustration by Ivan Lapper)

SILCHESTER AFTER THE ROMANS

Unlike most major Roman towns in southern Britain, Calleva Atrebatum did not re-emerge as a town in the medieval period.

Rome lost control of Britain at the beginning of the 5th century AD, when evidence suggests that Silchester was still a flourishing town. It is likely that it was abandoned sometime between AD 550 and 650.

An Ogham stone was discovered during excavations at Silchester in 1893. The inscription is in Ogham writing, which developed in southern Ireland in about AD 400. This is our only evidence of early medieval activity at Silchester.

Domesday Book (1086) lists a village known as Silcestre. During the 12th century an aisled hall was built in the amphitheatre arena. A palisade was erected on top of the banks. This medieval fortification may tentatively be identified with the ‘Castellum de Silva’ (small castle in the woods) recorded as having been taken by King Stephen in 1147 during his wars with the Empress Matilda.

The only surviving physical evidence of medieval Silchester, however, is the 12th-century church of St Mary, located close to the east gate. Archaeological evidence suggests that the medieval village lay between the amphitheatre and the south gate. This village seems to have been deserted around 1400, perhaps as a consequence of the Black Death (1348–9).

The present village was founded to the west of the Roman town, where the earliest houses date from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The modern excavation by the University of Reading of a section of the Roman town known as 'Insula IX'

The modern excavation by the University of Reading of a section of the Roman town known as ‘Insula IX’. © University of Reading

SILCHESTER UNCOVERED

The University of Reading has been excavating a particular part of the town, a residential area known as insula IX, every summer since 1997.

Early excavations, particularly those of the Revd Joyce and the Society of Antiquaries (1890–1909), revealed the plans of all the stone buildings. After this, only small-scale excavations took place until the 1980s when the forum basilica and the amphitheatre were investigated.

The University of Reading’s Town Life Project excavations are exploring in detail this residential area, from its Iron Age origins to the end of the Roman occupation of the town. Modern methods, in particular the ability to recognise stratigraphy – the layers that build up over time – have allowed archaeologists to chart the development of individual buildings.

A variety of finds, including pottery, metalwork, and animal and plant remains, are being studied in a chronological sequence in relation to the buildings. The way they change provides insight into the status, lifestyle and occupations of the inhabitants, and their links beyond this town.

READ A DESCRIPTION OF SILCHESTER

DOWNLOAD A PLAN OF THE ROMAN CITY

FIND MORE PROPERTY HISTORIES

FURTHER READING

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

Clarke, A, Fulford, M and Mathews, M, Silchester Insula IX: The Town Life Project – The First Six Years 1997–2002 (University of Reading, 2002)

Fulford, M, ‘City of the dead: Calleva Atrebatum’, BBC History [accessed 9 Sept 2014]

Fulford, M, A Guide to Silchester: The Roman Town of Calleva Atrebatum (Stroud, 2002)

Fulford, M and Clarke, A, Silchester: City in Transition – The Mid-Roman Occupation of Insula IX c. AD 125–250/300: A Report on Excavations Undertaken since 1997, Britannia Monograph Series 25 (2011)

Fulford, M, Clarke, A and Eckardt, H, Life and Labour in Late Roman Silchester: Excavations in Insula IX since 1997, Britannia Monograph series 22 (2006)

Silchester Roman Town [Reading University website; includes links to The Town Life Project, 1997–2002, and The City in Transition, which explores the archaeology of the mid-Roman period at Silchester, and includes a bibliography]

A Guide to Silchester [with interactive map]

DESCRIPTION OF SILCHESTER ROMAN CITY WALLS AND AMPHITHEATRE

Most Roman towns in Britain were subsequently occupied and developed, obscuring or destroying the record of Roman life. This is not the case at Silchester. The walls – some of the best preserved Roman town defences in England – and remains of the amphitheatre still stand, and the stone-built foundations, roads and other features of the town survive intact beneath the surface.

A reconstruction of the south gate at Silchester. The wall today is about 4.5 metres high, but it once stood to perhaps 7.8 metres with a wall-walk and parapet

A reconstruction of the south gate at Silchester. The wall today is about 4.5 metres high, but it once stood to perhaps 7.8 metres with a wall-walk and parapet © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

ROMAN TOWN DEFENCES

The Roman town defences were built in two phases, both of which survive today.

In about AD 200, a rampart of earth and clay was constructed, although it featured masonry gates. It was strengthened with a substantial defensive wall in about AD 270, covering a total length of about 2.4 kilometres.

The outer face of the wall originally consisted of hammer-dressed flint and stone, but now only the core with its lime mortar is visible. At its base the wall was about 3 metres wide.

This town wall is unusual in the way it uses stone rather than ceramic tile for the levelling courses. These greensand and limestone blocks were sourced from as far away as the Bath-Cirencester region. Given that clay suitable for tile is abundant around the town, the decision to choose more expensive stone is a measure of the prestige of the project.

It has been estimated that the wall contained about 40,000 cubic metres of construction material. This would have been about 150,000 cartloads of stone, representing an enormous building project.

The north gate at Silchester as it would have looked in the 3rd century AD, after the rampart had been strengthened with a wall

The north gate as it would have looked in the 3rd century AD, after the rampart had been strengthened with a wall. The carriageway was about 4 metres wide, sufficient to allow a single cart to pass © Historic England (illustration by Ivan Lapper)

GATES

While the defences offered general protection from enemies, they also allowed for control of all traffic entering and leaving the town. Major, dual carriageway gates were situated to the east and west of the town and single carriageway gates to the north and south.

Four of the town’s seven gates remain, and include the single carriageway north, south and amphitheatre gates. A small, postern gate to the south-east is also visible.

Perhaps the best preserved is the north gate, guarding the road north to Dorchester on Thames. There is even a recess indicating the position where the gate would have hung.

The forum as it might have appeared in the 4th century AD

The forum as it might have appeared in the 4th century AD. This area of town also contained residential houses, shops and workshops constructed using both timber and masonry © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

LAYOUT AND TOWN CENTRE

The Roman town was laid out in the later 1st century on a rectilinear grid of gravelled streets oriented north–south and east–west, which remained in use throughout the life of the town. The main east–west street, lined with shops and workshops, was the principal route to the west country from London.

At the heart of both the Iron Age and Roman towns were the administrative and religious buildings. Excavation revealed a 2nd-century forum basilica complex, a great public building at the centre of the town, which would have combined administrative and judicial roles (basilica) with a market function (forum). Next to the forum was the site of a possible Christian church, while further beyond was a Romano-Celtic temple.

Spectators arriving at the Silchester amphitheatre for a gladiatorial contest in about AD 250. The road from the town was probably lined with food stalls and souvenir shops

Spectators arriving at the amphitheatre for a gladiatorial contest in about AD 250. The road from the town was probably lined with food stalls and souvenir shops © Historic England (illustration by Peter Urmston)

THE ROMAN AMPHITHEATRE

To the north-east of the town are the remains of the amphitheatre, built between AD 55 and AD 75. Earth was excavated to create a circular arena which was enclosed by wooden wall. The soil was reused to form circular banks and terraces. A place of entertainment for the people of Calleva Atrebatum, it could accommodate between 3,500 and 7,250 spectators.

In the 3rd century the arena wall was rebuilt in stone and two new entrances were made, changing the plan of the arena into a typical elliptical shape.

Amphitheatres were typically used for gladiatorial combat, wild beast fights and public executions. Recovered horse bones suggest that equestrian events took place at this amphitheatre.

READ ABOUT THE HISTORY OF SILCHESTER

DOWNLOAD A PLAN OF THE ROMAN CITY 

FIND MORE PROPERTY HISTORIES

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s