BMCR 2022.08.18

Silchester revealed: the Iron Age and Roman town of Calleva

, Silchester revealed: the Iron Age and Roman town of Calleva. Oxford: Windgather Press, 2021. Pp. xvii, 206. ISBN 9781911188834 $24.95.


Fulford’s volume proceeds chronologically through the history of Silchester both as an ancient living town and as a modern archaeological site, summarizing previous excavation work and incorporating relevant points from more recent projects. The goal of the volume is to update and consolidate the general knowledge of the site and its contribution to the study of Roman Britain as a whole, which is handily accomplished in an accessible and informative overview.

The introductory chapter outlines the excavation history of Silchester, from the original antiquarian projects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through the Insula IX project (completed in 2014) and additional targeted work still being performed on the site and its finds; it provides both a concise review of work at Silchester specifically and also an illustrative case study in the development of various archaeological methods in general (such as aerial photography & flotation tank analysis) and how they add to the recovery of more detailed archaeological information. A particularly striking feature of this chapter is the discussion of how the previous work on the site and the application of developments in archaeological science to the investigation informed the goals of the Insula IX project, specifically in terms of timeframe and focus. The dramatic expansion in available information offered by new excavation techniques means that the personnel, time, and funding required to sufficiently capture this information in an excavation expand correspondingly, necessitating that researchers balance a narrow focus and deep analysis. This is an important point of excavation planning that often goes unspoken in archaeological volumes aimed at more generalist audiences, and is effectively brought home by the comparison between the 1890s project, which considered a complete excavation of the entire 100-acre-plus town site over the course of 19 years feasible, and excavations of the basilica site in the 1980s, which demonstrated that excavating the remainder of the forum-basilica building alone at a similar level of detail (to say nothing of the rest of the town site) would have taken 35 years.

The majority of the book covers the chronological history of the ancient town of Silchester, or Calleva as it is referred to in the discussion, as revealed by archaeological excavation. Chapter 2 addresses the pre-Roman phases of occupation, particularly the site’s establishment as a high-status hub of communication and trade with continental Europe as evidenced by the presence of both Mediterranean luxury goods and significant distributions of coins minted by various pre-Roman rulers in the area. Chapter 3 discusses how Calleva changed in the early decades of the Roman conquest of Britain, namely the construction of Roman-style public buildings in the reign of Nero, including a bathhouse and amphitheater, and changes in diet attested by both local and imported plant and animal remains and the analysis of residues in ceramic cooking vessels. Chapter 4 builds on this development by further examining the evolution of Calleva through the end of the first century CE and into the early second, from Iron Age trade hub to thriving Roman settlement and civitas capital, including the layout of the Roman-era street grid and the construction of more permanent masonry and tile buildings in place of timber and thatch predecessors. Chapter 5 deals with the second century heyday of Calleva as an important crossroads and urban center, addressing increased wealth in the form of mosaic flooring from some private houses, evidence of both local industry and imported goods, and the general health and wellbeing of the inhabitants. Chapter 6 evaluates changes in the habitation patterns of the site during the third century CE, highlighting the construction of the town walls and the abandonment, demolition, or renovation and conversion of various structures as the needs of the inhabitants changed. Chapter 7 covers the remainder of the Roman-era occupation at Calleva through the end of the fourth century CE, highlighting the role of geophysical survey and new scientific excavation techniques in identifying the remains of smaller timber-framed buildings missed by previous antiquarian projects.

A common thread through all these chapters is the wealth of evidence extracted from the Insula IX excavations. The chapters usually begin with more general developments over the broader site, and then highlight examples of these developments which can be seen in Insula IX specifically. The careful phase-by-phase exploration of this one specific city block and its chronological development is effectively employed to illustrate questions of diet, economic activity, architecture, and daily life in the town. This becomes especially clear in Chapter 8, which breaks slightly from the previous pattern of chronological discussion of the construction and habitation phases of Calleva to focus primarily on aspects of daily life in the Insula IX block during the last clearly attested phase of occupation in the fourth century. The thorough analysis of finds from Insula IX in this period provides the kind of richly detailed picture of food production and preparation, industry, transport, literacy, and overall daily activity that is often missing or inaccessible for many late Roman sites. A final summary, Chapter 9, focuses on the abandonment of much of Roman Calleva sometime between the early fifth and mid-seventh centuries CE, and the much smaller medieval habitation phase of the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. While arriving at certain rationale for the site’s abandonment and the lack of resettlement in later eras (as happened with some other urban areas in the region) is probably unlikely, Fulford’s conclusion that changes in trade and traffic patterns, especially to and from London, in the post-Roman period pushed Silchester out of its previous role as a trade hub makes a good amount of sense given the characterization of the site in the preceding chapters.

The book is also rich in diagrams, photographs, and color plates, with almost every page featuring some kind of relevant illustration. Aerial photographs of the site and high-quality photos of significant finds, diagrams & plans of building phases and theoretical reconstructions, maps of the site in the general context of southeastern Britain, and even scientific slides of stratigraphic cross-sections clearly complement the written discussion, in addition to reminding the reader of the wealth of information on the site provided by various excavation techniques. The choices of imagery have clearly been carefully considered to effectively supplement the text and elaborate on important points, and the importance of investment in quality images for a publication on archaeology and material culture has been taken seriously here. The production of illustrations has taken good advantage of available imagery from the excavation volumes and presents important visual information from the excavations in clear formats that are easy for non-specialists to analyze and understand.

One potential shortcoming of the volume lies in its limited bibliography and lack of references or citations within the body of the text. A ‘Further Reading’ section at the end of the book consists mainly of a highly selective list of resources used in the compilation, namely the excavation volumes for the various projects conducted on the site. While this is perhaps understandable considering the book’s goal as a more general overview as well as the extensiveness of the extant bibliography of Silchester and its place in the archaeological landscape of Roman Britain, it (along with the lack of in-text citations) does introduce some extra work for those wishing to expand on some of the research and conclusions in the volume. It also raises the question of how this volume is meant to intersect with other publications on the Silchester site. If intended as a more surface-level overview of the site’s history for general, non-academic audiences or those not looking to expand on its conclusions in further research, it functions quite well. If intended as a synopsis of the excavation volumes which can direct researchers toward the more detailed technical publications or as a replacement for those publications as the main source of general knowledge about Silchester, however, the lack of specific references and bibliography is detrimental. A subsequent edition might split the difference by opting for short, more specified lists of resources at the end of each chapter, rather than a longer list at the end of the volume, which would make it clearer where precise information might be found and increase opportunities for the book’s use in research.

All in all, this volume represents a welcome addition to the bibliography on Silchester specifically and to the literary landscape of Roman Britain in general. Newcomers to the study of Silchester or non-specialists looking for a concise overview of the site’s history will find this volume to be illuminating without being dry or dense, and those familiar with the extensive publication and study of the site will appreciate the condensation of conclusions and interpretations drawn from many years of careful archaeological study into one volume, as well as the holistic overview of what has been added to the body of knowledge since the publication of previous compilations. Those wishing to pursue more in-depth research on the subject by consulting the volume’s bibliography may have some extra work to do, but they are by no means left on their own, as the ‘Further Reading’ section, though short, does reference the most significant publications on which the current work draws. In addition to all this, one of the volume’s great strengths is the illustration of how ongoing developments in archaeological science and excavation techniques can capture more detailed information about a site, and how excavators incorporate those techniques in pursuit of answers to specific questions. Using Silchester and the Insula IX project as a case study, Fulford’s analysis lays out not just how various excavation techniques have served investigation of Silchester in the past, but also how these strategies can be applied to other projects and sites to retrieve various forms of archaeological evidence and subsequently analyze them to arrive at holistic conclusions. The volume thus functions not just to reveal Silchester, but also to reveal the development and future potential of archaeological excavation in general in approachable and straightforward terms.