BMCR 2020.01.52

Late Iron Age Calleva: The Pre-Conquest Occupation at Silchester Insula IX. Silchester Roman town: the Insula IX town life project. Volume 3. Britannia monographs series, 32

Michael Fulford, Amanda Clarke, Emma Durham, Nicholas Pankhurst, Late Iron Age Calleva: The Pre-Conquest Occupation at Silchester Insula IX. Silchester Roman town: the Insula IX town life project. Volume 3. Britannia monographs series, 32. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 2018. xx, 532. ISBN 9780907764458 £75.00 (pb).

Between 1997 and 2014 the University of Reading carried out excavations on the site of a Romano-British town, Calleva Atrebatum, ca 1.5 km west of the modern village of Silchester. Calleva is usually referred to as a Late Iron Age territorial oppidum, which in the subsequent periods developed into a typical Romano-British town. The establishment of the settlement is dated to the last decades of the first century BC, with dating refinement presented in the volume under the review. The site was prominent in the Late Roman period, with an abandonment horizon between the fifth and the seventh century. As it was never built over, Calleva has enormous archaeological potential for investigating the urban development and population dynamics of an ancient town from beginning to end. The excavations presented in the volume were focused on the so-called Insula IX area of the settlement, covering 0.9 percent out of total 32.5 ha of enclosed settlement. It was selected because of its domestic character, as revealed by 19th-century trenching (p. 6), offering ideal conditions for investigating the daily life and activities of the settlement as well as the layout and occupation histories of buildings of non-official character.

The volume under review is the third in the series of Insula IX excavation reports and the seventh for Calleva in general. The first two volumes focus on mid-Roman and Late Roman features of Insula IX,1 with other volumes covering excavations conducted at the forum basilica, the amphitheater and the town defenses.2 The present volume covers archaeology immediately before the Claudian conquest of the British Isles in 43 CE, a period sometimes referred to as Late Pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA). Two more volumes, focusing on the mid-first century CE (Claudio-Neronian) and late first to mid second centuries CE at Insula IX, are planned for publication in the Britannia Monograph Series. One hopes that a more general publication will appear, condensing the information from all nine volumes to provide an exhaustive account of Calleva’s development and highlight interesting observations and interpretations in language accessible to both academics and laymen.

Late Iron Age Calleva is a detailed report untangling the 50 years of human occupation of the north-west corner of the late Iron Age settlement. The task was a challenging one, as Calleva is typical of early first-century CE sites in southern Britain, where determining which features can be confidently assigned to LPRIA and which ones belong after 43 CE, and what material assemblages are Roman, indigenous or more broadly British, is anything but straightforward. Disentangling the stratigraphy has proved to be a demanding task (pp. 7, 8–11), and the volume’s editors are to be congratulated for completing this impressive work of sequence refining.

The volume is focused on the features of period 0 of Insula IX, roughly dated to c. 10 BCE to some time before 43–4 CE, with in-depth study suggesting a further distinction into three phases, though the authors acknowledge that this is conjectural. This tight chronological focus allows the authors to construct an archaeological narrative of the site’s first two generations of inhabitants and glimpse their decision-making strategies regarding the spatial development of the area and surrounding countryside. The sheer amount of data collected, presented in the three sections discussed below, makes it especially apparent how peculiar early Calleva was, not only in relation to subsequent periods but also in the wider landscape of south-eastern LPRIA settlements. The book is supplemented by ca 100 pages of appendices, with more data available digitally through Archaeology Data Service.

Section 1 – The Site reveals the distinctive quality of the area’s structural elements. The excavation uncovered four structures and an unusually large rectangular building, referred to as a hall. The function of this enigmatic hall-like structure is obscure, but on the basis of various strands of evidence the authors view it as a high-status building originally for domestic use. Structures of similar scale and function are nearly non-existent in British LPRIA contexts, and the authors have rightly turned their attention to the continent to trace the comparanda (p. 26). Their search has provided some parallels, though no direct antecedents, but the discussion is somewhat limited by the absence of ground plans of similar structures on the continent. Meticulous phasing and in-depth assemblage analysis indicate the building’s function shifted from domestic to more ceremonial use in the following phase. Another enigmatic structure located nearby and identified as ‘the possible Iron Age temple’ (p. 37) yielded further clues as to the changing nature of the area around the time of the Roman conquest, but the temple and finds there will be reported in subsequent volumes.

Section 2 – The Finds provides a full inventory of various assemblages such as pottery, coins, brooches, iron-making debris, and small finds, with detailed commentary on how each assemblage complex compares and contrasts with the LPRIA material from the other area excavated in Calleva, the forum basilica. The artefacts are set in a wider regional and continental context to demonstrate how the Insula IX assemblage fits or diverges from other settlements established at around the same time. The section may appear confusing, since it includes finds that typologically can be assigned to LPRIA but were found in the post-conquest context (i.e. after 43 CE). An inattentive reader or one using the volume for the finds only may fail to notice the brief discussion on that pre-/post-conquest ambiguity in the introduction to the section. However, the difficulty in ascribing assemblages to the pre- or post-conquest period continues the necessary debate. Arguments in favour of residuality or just broader acceptance of the absence of any neat distinction between these periods situate this volume well within the current theoretical framework concerning the LPRIA-to-Roman period transition.3 A welcome addition to this section is chapter 10 dealing with organic residue analysis of few coarseware vessels to spotlight culinary practices of Insula IX. The results again support the distinctive nature of the excavated area, as the samples investigated do not contain evidence for cooking with dairy products, which stands in contrast to the evidence from sites nearby or elsewhere in southern Britain (p. 227).

Section 3 – Environmental Evidence covers analysis of animal, plant, insect and wood remains. This section is one of the chief merits of the volume. The adoption of more rigorous and systematic sampling strategies for floral and faunal remains as well as microscopic residues and small fragments of artefacts significantly raised the recovery rate of environmental and economic data. This has resulted in a large assemblage providing important insights into animal husbandry and farming practices, consumption patterns, and land- and woodland use. In that respect, it is interesting to note that the analysis of animal bones reporting the scarcity of young calves (p. 270) complements the organic residue results regarding the absence of evidence for the use of dairy products. Such evidence sets Calleva apart from the other settlements in the area, which consumed dairy products, while other activities reported from the site display the settlement’s conformity with the Late Iron practices in southern Britain generally. For instance, the burial of a miniature dog in a foundation trench of the large hall-like structure (pp. 25, 271, 274-6) seems to echo the deposition of dog skeletons in pits or other liminal places reported from other sites. These similarities and differences suggest that each southern British settlement in LPRIA period exhibited a distinct identity, which is a further key in our understanding of pre-conquest life and lifestyle choices.

The concise concluding chapter brings everything together. New sampling strategies and the use of cutting-edge analytical methods and technologies have painted a vivid picture of the early population of Calleva, their consumption patterns, and the spatial development of their settlement over a period of just 50 years. The study of crops has suggested a small number of permanent inhabitants who welcomed a large number of traders to the settlement periodically (p. 376). The early phases of Insula IX indicate thus that Calleva was certainly a socio-political and cultural node in the pre-Roman landscape, possibly acting as a market and meeting place for people coming from across southern Britain and also from the continent. There are some subtle hints that continental immigrants, possibly from northern Gaul, irregularly visited Insula IX before the Roman conquest. This data lends further support to the hypothesis of a mid-scale Gallic migration to southern Britain in late first century BCE – early first century CE.4 Links to other southern British regions, such as to Kent through the presence of briquetage for the storage of salt and to the south-west through its coins, provide strong arguments that trade was one of the most important activity in early Calleva. The conclusion sketches the very cosmopolitan nature of the earliest Insula IX occupants, though its international character is uncertain as there are a few hints of spatial segregation.

This important volume offers a vital contribution to current thinking with regard to the pre-Roman urbanisation processes, population dynamics, commerce, and regional and cross-Channel networks in LPRIA southern Britain. Its methodology and analytical framework will undoubtedly serve as a model for fieldwork on settlements of similar date and type, given the sheer amount of environmental and artefactual data recovered, which are crucial for untangling the LPRIA settlements’ complexities and lifecycles. The volume is an indispensable source of information for those aiming to explore and interpret the complex and very dense LPRIA chapter in the archaeological history of Britain.


1. M. Fulford, A. Clarke, and H. Eckardt, Life and Labour in Late Roman Silchester, London, 2006; M. Fulford and A. Clarke, Silchester: City in Transition, London, 2011.

2. M. Fulford, Silchester: Excavations on the Defences 1974–80, London, 1984; M. Fulford, The Silchester Amphitheatre, London, 1989; M. Fulford and J. Timby, Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester, London, 2000; J. Creighton with R. Fry Silchester: Changing Visions of a Roman Town, London, 2016.

3. See L. Wallace (2016). ‘The Early Roman Horizon’, in M. Millett, L. Revell, and A. Moore (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, Oxford, 117–34; D. Garrow and C. Gosden, Technologies of Enchantment? Exploring Celtic Art: 400 BC to AD 100, Oxford, 2012.

4. See R. Niblett, The Excavation of a Ceremonial Site at Folly Lane, Verulamium, London, 1999; T. Moore (2016). ‘Britain, Gaul, and Germany: Cultural interactions’, in M. Millett, L. Revell, and A. Moore (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Roman Britain, Oxford, 262–85.