Insula III

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Fortune favours the bold

As a research and fieldwork active archaeology department, we are extremely fortunate to have one of Britain’s best preserved Roman and Iron Age towns on our doorstep – Silchester, or Calleva of the Atrebates, is less than 10 miles from the Department of Archaeology’s door. The department has been carrying out fieldwork at Silchester, led by Professor Michael Fulford, for nearly 40 years – and this largely undisturbed greenfield site provides many opportunities to pose new research questions, and then to answer them through cutting edge fieldwork.

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Posing palace questions

For the last 4 summer seasons we have been searching for structural evidence that the Roman Emperor Nero (Emperor from 54 to 68AD) commissioned a palatial residence in the provincial capital of Calleva Atrebatum. Our excavations in Insula IX between 1997 and 2014 had thrown up tantalising evidence for this in the form of high quality building stone incorporated into the foundations of later Roman buildings, as well as pottery tiles stamped with Nero’s name. These tiles are found nowhere else in Britain, and their discovery hints at a high level of imperial involvement – and even investment – into the town. But where exactly was Nero’s palace?

Testing hypotheses

Archaeologists test hypotheses – and ours was that Insula III, centrally located within the town, held the secret – and possibly also the Nero commissioned palace. The Victorians had excavated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their resultant town plan suggested the presence of a stone founded building of good size. And indeed we thought we might have found it when, in 2013, we began digging in the south-east corner of Insula III and uncovered the colonnaded remains of a mid-1st century AD building, which, at first trowel, looked substantial and significant.

Location, location, location

However 4 seasons of work later, we can unequivocally state that Insula III did not contain a luxurious home to rival those of Rome, and built for a supportive British ruler or noble with Nero’s patronage. Instead we found an unfinished and fairly flimsy structure, built over layers of clay and gravel dumped to offset the soft and slumping fills of the underlying Iron Age pits and wells. It must have been a bitter blow for the builders of Nero’s time to realise that prime building land in the centre of the Roman town, next to the forum, was unsuitable for solid masonry structures. Instead we surmise that the area lay largely unused until the late Roman period when the desire for prime real estate overrode the restrictions of the earlier centuries and allowed the construction of gravel founded timber buildings, jostling for space in this most desirable of town locations.

New knowledge

Archaeology is a voyage of discovery and even if we don’t find what we hoped or expected, there is always a net gain in knowledge. This summer was our last chance to find Nero, and through the use of our – by now – tried and tested methodology of investigating the archaeology of Insula III by simply re-excavating the trenches dug by our antiquarian forbears and using the emptied trenches as ‘key-holes’ into the undisturbed layers, we uncovered a new and detailed sequence from the natural geology through to late or post Roman occupation, followed by 2 phases of Victorian excavation.

Seasons in the sun

We dug for 3 weeks in August and September of this year – and, as it turned out, we had the very best of an English summer: some hot days, lots of bright sunshine, and very little rain. A relatively small research excavation such as this also provides a great opportunity to give employability placement opportunities to our part 2 and Part 3 students, particularly those hoping to enter a career in commercial archaeology. But – to be honest- everyone should add an excavation to their CV – working as part of a team, communicating, solving problems: these are skills all graduates should have on leaving university. Plus, it is enormous fun – working together towards a common research aim, in what can sometimes be challenging physical conditions – what’s not to like?

Caedmon planning

Caedmon planning

 Turf, topsoil and talent

We opened 3 trenches – each with their own objectives – and we had a workforce of up to 20 on site, including a team working with our Finds and Visitors. The stage was set! Step 1 was to get the machining right – using a JCB to strip the turf and topsoil off is a challenging task. Take too much off, and you risk losing vital late and post Roman evidence; take too little off and you are condemning your team to days of backbreaking digging of sterile topsoil deposits and the risk of not finishing on time… With the help of a truly talented digger driver, we got it exactly right, and within a day we could quite clearly see the outlines of the diagonal Victorian trenches as darker stripes cutting through the topsoil and subsoil. Also immediately visible were striations and patterns of gravel which, on cleaning, began to show themselves to be outlines of a late Roman building completely missed by the Victorian excavators whose sole work purpose was to discover large pieces of masonry and exciting artefacts.

 

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Antiquarian antics

By the end of the excavation, each trench had a story to tell, and when we left site with a complete record – plans, photographs, samples, finds, record cards – we left behind a very light touch on the archaeology of this major Roman town. We learnt a great deal about the nature of the Victorian intervention, as we tried to second guess their strategies – they do not record exactly how and where they dug – only what they found.

Sifting through the finds in their backfill is equally remarkable in terms of what they threw back in – what they deemed unimportant – or unrecognisable, becomes a treasure trove for us. The antiquarian archaeologists before us gave us no light and shade, no detail of the lives of the people living there. We can now fill in those gaps.

Roman New Build

As with elsewhere in Insula III, we identified substantial clay levelling of a 2nd century AD date, over an uneven surface, and not much construction work until the late Roman period – when a series of gravel-filled foundation trenches were dug to support a large, rectangular building in the north-west corner of the insula. This building had clay and gravel floors (most of which did not survive) and was subdivided into a number of rooms. Associated with it were a sequence of substantial postholes cut into the edge of the gravel surfaced street, dug and re-dug, used and re-used over time, recognising, marking and regularly replacing a boundary. The Victorian excavators of the 1860’s and the 1890’s did not recognise this as a building as such – and so we felt a great sense of achievement when adding it to the known plan of late Roman Silchester. Discovering a previously unknown Roman building is not something you do every day!

Losing Nero

Every excavation has its disappointments – and ours was no exception, We had begun this project in 2013 in the south-east corner of Insula III, looking for a palace of Nero, and we ended in 2016 in the north-west corner knowing that we had not found this building – at least not in Insula III – but knowing that there is enough material evidence to suggest that it is likely to be somewhere within the town. So – no wonderful treasures, no palaces of kings – this time – but we now know what Insula III was all about, and another piece of the jigsaw has been slotted into place. And we had a lot of fun doing so; thanks to a fantastic team!

Team 2016

Team 2016

Amanda Clarke

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This summer, the Silchester team(s) were back in the field again for both the Insula III project and the Environs Iron Age project. Amanda Clarke and Dr Cathie Barnett give their updates below…

Never say Never Again: further excavations at Silchester Roman Town

By Amanda Clarke

Professor Michael Fulford, CBE and Archaeologist of the Year, is as near as our profession will get to having Royal Navy Commander James Bond on its books. And, in true 007 style, and with reference to the 1983 Bond film of that name, we have learnt that The Commander will Never say Never Again.

Mike and I had left a hole in the ground (and in our hearts…..) at Insula IX in August 2014, and had walked away, olive trees in hand (our farewell presents from the participants), never thinking we would be back.

Groundhog Day

Now here I was, returning to Silchester in August of 2015, to set up and run a 4-week project to excavate a 15m by 20m trench in the north-east corner of Insula 111 in the heart of the Roman Town.

The Insula III team

The Insula III team

What could possibly lure us back? Insula III has been pivotal to our research excavations at Silchester for several years now. In 2013 and 2014 we opened an area 30m by 30m in the south-east of Insula III with the aim of re-excavating the Victorian trenches (dug in 1891) to reveal the structure the Victorians had thought – excitingly – to be a bath house. This methodology – of walking and digging in Victorian footsteps – proved to be an extremely successful one and allowed us, with the minimum of new excavation, to understand further the Victorian campaigns and methods of excavation, as well as determining at least 3 phases of Roman and post-Roman occupation of this part of the insula.

Palaces and Promises

We returned in 2015 to the north-east corner of Insula III as we hoped, by implementing our established methodology of Victorian shadowing, to uncover further evidence for the early Roman palatial structure (misidentified by the Victorians as a ‘bath house’) we had exposed in 2013 and 2014. This would lead our research in a new and exciting direction, promising an early Roman template of town planning, possibly under the auspices of the Emperor Nero.

Victorian mayhem

The first week of excavation in 2015 revealed several things fairly rapidly to our team of volunteers, Silchester ‘old-hands’ and aspiring 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. For a start, the Victorians had been fairly brutal in their excavation techniques and had employed a methodology which resembled the path of a modern-day bulldozer. However, silver linings and all that, as the excavators of 1893 had avoided and outlined the extent of the spoil heap of the Basilica-Forum excavators of the 1860’s, who had placed an enormous and intimidating mound of soil from their forum excavations all along the western edge of the North-South Roman street, extending into the north-east area of Insula III. This meant that preserved intact beneath the outline of this spoil heap were undisturbed late Roman and potentially post Roman deposits – something of a holy grail for Silchester archaeologists who have been long intent on illuminating the final years of the Roman town.

webbedfeet&waterproofs

Sadly however there was no evidence for the continuation of the large palatial building located in the south-east of the insula – instead a packed stratigraphy visible in the sides of the Victorian trenches promised a different story.

Our second week on site proved an enormous challenge on many fronts; we had to re-employ our JCB to remove the huge depth of Victorian backfill we were confronted with, as we recognised that this Victorian-sorted soil would only enhance our muscles, and not our minds. As well as this, it rained – very hard. For days on end.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

By the start of the third week, the Victorian interventions had been emptied, mapped and plotted, and we now had time to look at what they had left behind. The Victorian plan was a red herring – nothing recorded on it was as we found it – but we did gain further insight into the Victorian psyche. For example, a feature recorded on their plan as ‘HYP’ (hypocaust) and left in situ, turned out to be an early Roman hearth, pedestalled and separated from its context – but still intact, beautiful, and able to be sampled and studied.

The early Roman Hearth

The early Roman Hearth

Targeted excavation

The Victorian excavators had not reached the natural ground surface but had instead stopped at an extensive spread of gravel of early Roman date. So, our methodology was to extend downwards from some areas of the Victorian intervention to see if we could stratigraphically uncover the earliest occupation on this part of the insula. This we did, revealing a number of Iron Age features at the base of the sequence.

It’s all in the section

The strategy for the fourth week on site was simple: to record and sample the sides of the Victorian trenches – which contained the story of Insula III from earliest to latest – and to begin stratigraphic excavation of the late Roman tabernae, or small shops which fronted onto the north-south and east-west streets, and lay beneath the dark soils. The remains of these buildings had eluded the Victorians but we were able to recognise them as flint and gravel founded buildings with clay floors, and backyards consisting of gravelled areas delineated by post pads.

 

Final Thoughts

After 4 weeks on site we ended with a very successful Open Day and were able to present our many visitors with a coherent story about the development of the north-east corner of Insula III. Our work has revealed a complexity of occupation on this central insula, and has provided a tantalising glimpse of the richness of the archaeological record here. Now follows a winter of post excavation to establish the chronology of the area, and the chance to assess the many finds left behind by the Victorians – which included more than 66 coins. See you next year!

 

Pond Farm

By Dr Catherine Barnett

A team of 15 hardy professional, student and volunteer archaeologists, led by project officer Nick Pankhurst, ignored the August-September monsoon season to tackle the site of Pond Farm. The site was suspected to be an Iron Age univallate hillfort and had been chosen as the first in a series of sites to investigate under the new Silchester Environs project led by Prof Michael Fulford.

Four 20x20m trenches were opened up across the site, positioned according to the results of geophysical and coring surveys undertaken earlier this year. Key aims were to date the site and to gauge whether it had a chronological relationship with the nearby Iron Age oppidum that underlies Silchester Roman Town. We also wanted to find out what the site was used for and for how long. Artefacts proved sparse but appeared in just the right places, including a piece of Late Iron Age pedestal beaker recovered from a palisade trench at the end of the defensive encircling bank. The lack of internal structures yet evidence of several phases of earthwork and ditch recutting leads us to suspect that this was not a permanently settled site but one periodically visited over a long time, perhaps as part of a stock management system, with the huge defensive earthworks there to protect valuable livestock.

Much of our understanding  will however come from the post-excavation analysis and radiocarbon dating of samples collected during the dig. These are currently being processed, and we’ll let you know what we find in a future post.

For further information on the Environs project please see the Silchester website or email Dr Catherine Barnett at c.m.barnett@reading.ac.uk.  

 

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