In the parish of Silchester, ten miles to the south of Reading, lies the site of a large Iron Age and Roman town: Calleva Atrebatum.
Today, all that’s visible of the town are its defensive stone walls and ditches and an earthwork amphitheatre. However, digging a little deeper, archaeologists in the 19th and 20th century discovered extensive evidence of the town's ancient inhabitants and the lives they led millennia ago.
Reading Museum is the proud guardian of these treasured objects. While we are closed, join us in our brand-new virtual Silchester gallery, where we explore the ancient stories of these artefacts.
The Roman remains at Silchester were known about for centuries but were not methodically excavated until the landowner of the site – the second Duke of Wellington – allowed Rev James Joyce, rector of Stratfield Saye church, to undertake archaeological investigations.
Rev Joyce began his excavations in the 1860s and initially focused on the town’s central administrative building, the Forum Basilica.
Rev Joyce kept illustrated diaries recording his work. He recorded key finds, and – like his contemporaries – was selective in choosing which remains to keep. This ‘representative’ approach contrasts to modern excavations, where mass collections are undertaken of material culture and environmental evidence.
After Rev James Joyce’s initial excavations, the Society of Antiquaries (SoA) proceeded with the ambitious task of uncovering the entire town within the walls, across a site approximately forty hectares in size.
The SoA started their project in 1890 and published yearly reports on the results of the summer excavations. Although the contextual information they recorded was not as detailed as modern excavations (overlooking details like exact stratified locations), they did consult specialists for identifying key artefacts and completed their work in 1909.
These plant seeds and remains were collected from wells on the site. After being sieved, the individual plant species were then identified by Prof A.H. Lyell, who compared the finds with those in his own collection. This tells us about the fauna that grew in the area and the type of food and plants that the inhabitants used and consumed.
[image: plant seed slide 1934.114.3]
The Roman town was built on top of a large Iron Age town, known as an oppidum.
The Iron Age earthwork enclosure banks are still visible today. It is thought this town was the centre of the kingdom of the Atrebates, the local tribal group.
Modern excavations have uncovered remains of the Iron Age material culture including coins, coin moulds, metalwork, and pottery, along with evidence of the town’s layout and buildings.
The Roman town was founded in the first century AD and retained a link to the local tribe with its name ‘Calleva Atebatum’. The Roman town was of civitas status, making it the economic, cultural and administrative capital of the region.
This bronze horse figure was excavated by Rev Joyce in 1870. The figure is reminiscent of Iron Age art, including the Uffington White Horse on the Berkshire Downs.
[image: Silchester Horse 1995.4.2]
The Roman town was not a static place. Like modern towns, the buildings and layout changed over time.
Modern excavations have identified round and rectangular timber buildings from the Iron Age town and from the early Roman occupation. These buildings were missed by the Society of Antiquaries’ excavations. While their methods identified stone buildings and foundations, exposing them through excavations, the earlier timber buildings left much subtler remains which were more difficult to spot.
During the Roman period, the town developed a street-grid layout, and buildings in the second century began to be built from masonry, while public buildings were transformed from timber to stone. At the same time the town’s defences were evolved, from Iron Age ramparts and ditches to more fortified Roman equivalents (initially) and then the masonry stone wall and defensive ditch identified through the excavations.
Towards the end of the Roman period, building types and traditions changed greatly again, and the buildings ultimately fell into disrepair.
[image: column volute 1995.85.48]
The most famous object found at Calleva Atebatum is the Silchester Eagle, dating to the second century AD.
This cast bronze figure of an eagle was found in the Basilica of the Roman town on the 9th October 1866, during excavations undertaken by Rev Joyce.
The bird is posed with wings outstretched, head raised and turned to the right. Its original wings are missing, but it’s clear, from the careful modelling of the feathers beneath them, that they must have been extended and raised.
In 1962, Jocelyn Toynbee described the eagle as ‘by far the most superbly naturalistic rendering of any bird or beast as yet yielded by Roman Britain’.
This figure inspired Rosemary Sutcliff's books The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.
[image: Eagle 1995.4.1]
We can learn about the lives led by the people of ancient Silchester by examining the food and drink that they consumed. Archaeologists can determine this by studying a range of different archaeological finds and materials.
Food and drink containers provide comprehensive evidence of what was drunk (and where it was produced). Archaeologists discovered wooden wine barrels that had been repurposed into linings for wells. Meanwhile, amphora fragments clearly show that food and drink was imported from the Mediterranean.
Additionally, the Society of Antiquaries discovered animal, fish and plant remains, which give us insights into what was eaten.
This mortarium would have been used to grind up foods and spices. This one still contains the remains of food pulp comprising varieties of cherry and plum. One of these fruits must have been preserved and stored because they ripen at different times of the year!
[image: mortarium 1992.1.1611]
Modern excavations by the University of Reading have revealed the lives of animals and birds, both domesticated and wild, in ancient Silchester.
The Society of Antiquaries collected thousands of animal skeletal remains, which - through identification and examination - inform us about the range of animals that inhabited the town.
Recent re-examination of the bones of dogs tell a complicated story: lack of butchery marks and healed injuries suggest that they were kept as pets, and not as a food source. However, dogs they were also mistreated and sometimes skinned for their pelts.
The impressed animal and bird prints in the ceramic building tiles reveal a range of creatures present in the brick kiln production areas. Ceramic tiles are a common building material on Roman sites. The Society of Antiquaries found and kept many tiles that bear graffiti and footprints. This suggests that tiles were made in the local vicinity and that tiles weren't wasted, even if they were spoiled by the footprints of animals walking on them before they dried!
[image: tile 1995.98.19]
Artefacts found by the Society of Antiquaries suggest several occupations that the townspeople held. The anvil, hammers, punches, shoemaker’s last, and carpenter’s plane were mostly found in the town's ironwork hoards, but their presence doesn't tell the whole story. We don’t know if these tools were used in Silchester. However, we can demonstrate that farming, metalworking, textile manufacture, bone-working, cooking and other activities took place in Silchester, as waste products and residues have been discovered.
This bone scapula with circular holes along with bone discs were found in the Roman town. This evidence suggests that bone discs, probably used as counters, were manufactured in the town.
[image: scapula bone 1995.86.235]
The Roman Empire was multi-racial and expansive, spanning from Carlisle to Syria, meaning there wasn’t just one type of Roman material culture. Instead, just like the buildings, it changed dramatically over time. Objects found in Silchester include coins from European mints, amphora from Spain, wine barrels made from Alpine wood and pottery from France.
Just as cultures changed, so too did the gods that were worshipped. This statue head of Serapis, originally a Greco-Egyptian god from the third century BC, gained popularity in the Roman Empire during the first century AD. He was the god of fertility and the afterlife. The head is larger than life-size, and the damaged beard would have been parted in the middle and rolled out to the left and right. On top of his head, he would have worn a modius – a cylindrical crown that resembled the Roman basket used as a dry measure.
We know little of the origins of the people who lived in the town, as very few human remains have been identified through excavations. Romans tended to bury bodies or cremated remains in cemeteries outside the town walls. Today, no cemeteries around Silchester have been excavated.
[image: Serapis 1995.4.4]
The Roman town at Silchester had a suite of public baths, containing an exercise area, hot rooms, wet rooms, and dry rooms! People would keep clean by visiting bathhouses and using cleaning implements, such as strigils to scrape dirt and sweat off their skin. These complex bathing systems suggest that people understood the importance of good hygiene for maintaining their health.
This hygiene utensil set was excavated at Silchester. Chatelaine sets consist of tweezers, nail cleaners and ear scoop/cosmetic spoons, all on a suspension loop.
However, a Roman town wasn’t all public baths, strigils, and Chatelaine sets.
The streets would have been smelly and putrid. Rubbish pits and cesspits typically formed close to dwellings, and modern excavations of Silchester’s wells by the University of Reading have found evidence of insects associated with polluted water and parasitic bugs linked to stomach illness. The life expectancy of the people who lived in the town was short.
[Image: chatelaine 1995.6.1]
Excavations at Silchester have revealed many things about religion in the Roman town and the spiritual life of its people, finding the former sites of public temples and signs of domestic religious practices.
This religious altar, made of stone and excavated by the Society of Antiquaries, was discovered in the town’s bath house, and provides evidence of formal libations and religious performances. Altars in Roman times were used for sacrifice and making offerings to deities. This one was possibly dedicated to Fortuna, a Roman goddess of chance and luck. Altars for praying for luck were commonplace in Roman bath houses, as they were places where people would gamble!
Excavations have also unearthed ritual deposits such as intact vessels in wells, and objects specifically buried in the foundations of buildings, implying belief in the supernatural and magical practices.
[image: altar 1995.4.36]
But what happened at the end of the life of the town?
The Roman Empire withdrew from Britain (back then, Britannia) in the fifth century AD and we know that sometime after 400AD, the town of Calleva Atebatum was abandoned.
The latest evidence of Roman life at the site includes two hordes of ironwork found in wells by the Society of Antiquaries.
These may have been religious offerings or deposits for security. Over 40,000 coins have found on the site and these provide evidence of a wide timescale of Roman occupation.
One mysterious object found in a well in the town in 1893 is known as the Ogham stone. The worn pillar stone bears an inscription in Ogham, a language and script found in western Britain and Ireland, which was developed in southern Ireland around 400AD.
Its presence suggests that people linked to either western Britain or Ireland were at Silchester at the end of the Roman occupation.
Unusually after the Roman town was abandoned, the land was not built on again. The town site may have been deserted due to a lack of water supply, inability to maintain and upkeep the masonry buildings, or the stone being removed for reuse on other buildings. The town wall survives but the land has been turned into farmland. In the twelfth century, the medieval church of St Mary the Virgin was built just inside the Roman walls.
[image: ogham stone 1995.1.24]
Though the Roman town was set in a rural landscape, it was part of a network of Roman roads that connected it to other large settlements across Roman Britain. It served as a crossroads, connecting the road from London, the road south to Portchester (Portus Adurni), the road south-west to Old Sarum (Sorviodunum), and the road north-west to Caerleon.
No large Roman settlements have been found nearby. There are signs of Roman occupation in the surrounding area, like tile kiln sites at nearby Little London, hoards of Roman coins found in Reading, small rural farms, and pottery kilns at Alice Holt.
This photo, taken in 1898, depicts the South Gate from inside the town walls. The figure shows the size of the walls for comparison.
While archaeologists in the last two centuries have produced extensive insights about life in the Roman town by excavating and studying artefacts from the site, many questions about life in Calleva remain unanswered.
Many of the objects that feature in this online exhibition feature in the Museum’s Silchester Gallery, which tells the fascinating story of Calleva and the remarkable history of the excavations.