30 Jun 2018

Tags: Collections

You might not expect to stumble across towering walls of flint in the Hampshire countryside. However, these are the visible remains of the Roman town of Calleva Attrebatum. The Roman town, near Silchester, was abandoned after the Roman period and the site was never developed.

In this blog, learn about the history of the excavations, and discover the internationally-significant Silchester Collection kept and displayed at Reading Museum today.

Silchester Eagle
The iconic bronze eagle found in the forum basilica by Reverend Joyce on the 9th October 1866. (REDMG : 1995.4.1)

Roman history in the heart of Hampshire

The majority of objects in the Silchester Collection at Reading Museum came from excavations directed by the Reverend James G. Joyce from 1864 to 1878 and by the Society of Antiquaries from 1890 to 1909. Today, they are displayed in the Silchester Gallery, Silchester Annexe and the Atrium.

The Society of Antiquaries uncovered the whole area within the wall of the Roman town, about 40 hectares. This revealed a regular street grid and building foundations, as the excavations illustrated all aspects of town life: personal, social, religious, commercial, and official. The range and variety of items that were discovered range from hundreds of pieces of complete Roman pottery vessels to iconic objects like the majestic Silchester Eagle, which inspired the creation of the widely-beloved children's book The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. The Silchester Collection is the most important collection from a Roman town in Britain and is consulted widely by scholars both in Britain and aboard.

Reverend Joyce meticulously recorded his work in a three-volume journal, which is now in the Reading Museum collection.

Revd Joyce's Journal
A page from Reverend Joyce’s Journal dated the 9th May 1867 with illustrations and comments about a number of objects found in the Forum. (REDMG : 1934.2.1)

The Silchester excavations in photographs

The early excavations at Silchester were meticulously documented across more than 600 photographs, which today are kept at Reading Museum. These include the official site photographs and more casual snapshots, often with personal comments on the back. Most images are of the Society of Antiquaries excavations, but twenty-seven depict earlier investigations by Joyce. These photographs are an invaluable pictorial record of how these 19th century excavations were both undertaken and managed.

The Jubilee Pot
A photograph of the Jubilee Pot (REDMG : 1995.1.88) in a wheelbarrow with a group of excavators (REDMG : 2002.34.109).

Today, the Silchester site continues to be excavated and studied by the University of Reading, increasing knowledge about the Roman town's Iron Age and the trade links of the people that lived there.

Find out more about the remarkable Romano-British history of the Silchester Roman town at Reading Museum. Plan your free museum visit today.