My Silchester Top Ten 1997 – 2014

It is almost impossible to condense 18 years of excavation into a pithy sentence or two….and one day I will write the book of the dig (and change the names of course). But ever since that final Final day on site this summer, people have been asking me about my best memories of a fantastic, exhilarating, and at times frankly exhausting, journey back through archaeological time. So, as it seems a popular thing to do at the moment, here are my Top Ten Silchester Field School memories…..

Beginnings I have to say this! But, obviously, that moment in August 1997: the 55m by 55m excavation trench in Insula IX had been stripped of turf and topsoil by machine, the campsite was established a little way down the drove way outside the West’s barn, the first cohort of archaeology undergraduates had been introduced to field archaeology, and the very first glimpses of the late Roman town and the Victorian trenches dug in 1893 had been revealed. There was ONE moment when I looked around me and realised the scale of the journey Professor Michael Fulford and myself were about to embark on. This was without a doubt one of the largest areas of excavation in the UK at the time, set within a fantastically preserved and relatively little explored Roman town….with the additional task of teaching field archaeology to the University of Reading’s Archaeology undergraduates! It is fair to say however that at THAT moment in August 1997, neither Mike nor I were expecting to still be working on Insula IX 18 years later…our Scheduled Monument consent granted by English Heritage to work within the Roman town was for 3 years only….

The Silchester Field School August 1997: One season complete and only 17 to go!

Weather Warnings This ‘moment’ is a little bit of a cheat….because of course it encompasses all 18 seasons of work. But…..the Silchester weather sticks very large in my memory! How many times have I said that the Roman Town and environs has its very own weather system? Our little bubble of excavation often experienced completely different weather from Reading….or even Mortimer just 3 miles down the road! In my introductory briefings to the students I always say expect the unexpected, and never underestimate the British weather and the power of the Silchester weather god! Many undergraduate tents have suffered in the grip of Jupiter’s thunderbolt; I particular remember one tent being lifted clean over our boundary fence and into a farmer’s field beyond the Roman Town wall. The farmer returned it to its owner on the back of a tractor – with belongings still intact inside….That was also the summer that I watched a line of portaloos tumble one by one, domino style, as the wind swept through. Luckily they were all empty at the time…And! Who remembers the great rainstorm of 2007? 20th July 2007: it was our day off and that phone call is still etched in my memory…’don’t worry Amanda, the site is underwater, the roads are underwater….but don’t worry!’ As if I would! And how about the barbecue summer of 2009?


The Tipping Point One particular season stands out: it was the year that we had excellent recruitment into the Archaeology department and nearly 80 1st year undergraduates arrived on site at Silchester to be trained in field archaeology! People talk about the ‘tipping point’ …and this was ours. I started that season with a huge amount of trepidation. Would the fragile infrastructure continue to work…how many more portaloos would we need…..I had to draft in members of the department staff to help collect the new arrivals as we could not fit everyone into one minibus. Food provision was, at times, a little challenging – but, to be honest we often found food provision challenging (who remembers the ‘Jim Year’)!? However, conversely, this huge influx of people led to a strategy change and a spurt in archaeological progress, which led to our discovery of the Iron Age lanes and the exciting confirmation of the Iron Age alignment and layout of the underlying 1st century BC town.


Say Cheese An excavation like this is full of amazing and startling photographic opportunities! For example, how did we mark 10 years of the Silchester Insula IX project? Well, it seemed like a daft idea at the time….why don’t we all all stand in the trench in the shape of the Roman numeral X whilst our friendly ‘plane overflies us? I don’t believe in the word ‘can’t’ so I put Dan in charge of organising this from the top of the photo tower, in the centre of the site with a megaphone. It was a wonderfully cohesive moment.

We were equally inventive when it came to wishing Biddy West a Happy Birthday:

And take a look at Dan’s Leonardo inspired final lunchtime on site:


Fancy Dressing One thing we did exceptionally well as a project was to fancy dress up! Any excuse – a birthday, an Open Day, a site event, a party… name it, we dressed up! Our End of Season parties were legendary, and on a variety of themes. If our students worked as hard on site as they did off it, designing and producing such an amazing array of costumes, well, 100% would have been a common module mark….And who remembers Dan and Cassandra’s ‘wedding’ with the Rev. Jon Tierney officiating?



And don’t forget that Mike and I have now been granted the freedom of the Silchester Village by the villagers themselves! I have yet to drive my sheep across Silchester Common, or request that I be driven home from the Calleva Arms in a taxi after one too many Sauvignon Blancs….but that time, I am sure, will come!


Wonderful Things Archaeology is all about the thrill of discovery….it is why we kneel day in day out in a muddy, gravelly, uncomfortable excavation trench, risking life and limb through all weathers! You never know what you will find when you roll out of bed each and every fieldwork morning. And although we may not have quite emulated Howard Carter’s exclamation on seeing into Tutankhamun’s burial chamber for the first time, 18 years of work on one of Britain’s largest and best preserved Roman and Iron Age towns has brought with it some fabulous discoveries…..from whole pots buried at the bottom of pits and wells (who remembers the 4 Iron Age pots found at the base of ‘Trapper’s’ well?); the discovery of a partially preserved wooden barrel at the base of a mid-Roman well; a wooden writing tablet! So many unexpected treasures found at the bases of our deep features. In total we found 86 complete pots in Insula IX! So many interesting, quirky, beautiful, and intriguing objects which are currently being conserved and studied – for example, 614 brooches (or bits of brooches) and 764 coins….just think how much knowledge each of those special finds gives us about the Iron Age and Roman inhabitants of Insula IX.


Olive branches One of my strongest memories is not really a moment at all….but a dawning series of moments recognising the value of applied science to archaeology, and how it can open up our world of archaeological discovery and provide us with hitherto unknown detail about past lives. Reading the stories in the floors through micromorphology; uncovering the nature of our hearths through x-ray diffraction techniques; sieving for details of lives lived…..the discovery of a single olive stone in an Iron Age well in Insula IX setting in motion a whole new story of 1st century BC lives; pollen and seeds filling in those tantalising gaps of exactly what the town once looked like.


Laughlin Whiteley Meet Laughlin, the inspiring son of Andrea and John, who had an illness which confined him to years of treatment, but never robbed him of his passion, and imagination for the life of an archaeologist, a life yet to be lived. Laughlin joined us to dig on site in 2013 courtesy of the ‘Make-A-Wish’ Foundation – in a white stretch limousine which parked itself outside our portaloos, producing an unforgettable image! Sadly, very sadly, Laughlin lost his battle with 2 bouts of cancer on 11th October 2014, but along the way he won so many hearts, including ours. Laughlin’s visit was a special moment for many of us. See and


There are a whole slew of moments relating to the passion and interest of our visitors! Difficult at first to comprehend the level of excitement and interest in what we were uncovering year in and year out….but it was shown to us time and time again through support at our 2 Open Days every summer – how the crowds poured in, even in our wettest, muddiest summer of 2013! And not just any old visitors! Celebrity visitors! Who remembers the buzz when Alex Kingston appeared on site…..but never Jeremy Irons (he was invited)! Our FaceBook ‘likes’ and our Twitter Feed reflected the popularity of our project – and even my Blog caught a few readers! We had nearly 1500 visitors to our final Open Day on site in August 2014 – our greatest number ever. Archaeology has the power to capture the imagination of a populace and I am proud that the Silchester Field School has played a small part in this.


Shared Experiences Once you have been on an excavation, you will never look back. It will be – quite simply – one of the very best experiences of your life. Friends made on site are friends made for life. Silchester has created a network …..a web extension of friendships all over the globe, consisting of thousands of participants who first met in a field in Hampshire. These networks will endure long after Mike and I are memories in textbooks and the Roman town sleeps beneath generations of cows’ feet! Silchester has seen weddings, births, and, sadly, some deaths too. I won’t say that I remember each and every person who has ever dug at Silchester Insula IX (I do try!) – but my very best moment has to be every time a graduate says ‘I owe it to Silchester’.



Endings And if I have to pick one champagne moment – it is the very end I will pick; that final day on site. Not because I was glad it was over (some tiny relief maybe!) but because that final Final site tour summed it all up for me: crowds of watching and listening staff and students – some new that year, some who had been back 2 or 3 times, some just about to head off into employment and leave us behind; some people who had been with us since the start (Jean the cook!), or nearly the start (the Saga Louts!) – a critical mass of archaeologists; the archaeology of Insula IX and III revealed in all its final glory. As we stood and listened to Mike summing up 18 years of dedication, the summer sun sent golden rays over us all and lit the swallows who were already swooping low over the trench and returning to our excavated pits and postholes. Around us the walls of the town threw shadows in late summer relief and a drone overhead took our final photographs. It was a magic, silent moment of emotion shared by us all. And then Mike cried. That for me sums up the power of this wonderful project – how far we have come, how very much we achieved, in so many different ways. And we have left a legacy which will echo down the centuries to come. So Mike and I cracked open Matt Williams’ (Silchester Supervisor and latterly Time Team star!) bottle of Bollinger, sobbed our hearts out, laid down in a circle for the overhead photograph – and then we all did what we always do at Silchester – we went and put on a fancy dress costume and danced that final night away. Insula IX gone but never forgotten.





Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on My Silchester Top Ten 1997 – 2014

Woeful Wednesday


The Italian Job: Edoardo’s corner

Starting with Insula IX: a photograph of the ditch  running alongside the Iron Age street, extending into the distance beyond kneeling Tom. Edoardo and his team have brilliantly revealed the extent of this curving street beneath the east-west Roman street, flanked on both side by ditches.

A quick hop over to Insula III reveals Jack using the iPad mini to record contexts….AND using his Silchester Handbook…..result!


Jack Juggling iPad and Handbook

All over Insula III we are now carrying out small targeted investigations to answer particular questions and, hopefully, provide us with dating evidence.


Will leads an investigation looking at the nature of the silts running parallel to the east-west Roman street in Insula III


A busy day on Insula III

Back on Insula IX our busy Visitors’ team is welcoming between 100 and 300 visitors a day….this is a wonderful flow of visitors……all friendly and extremely interested. Our student ‘meeters and greeters’ are now regularly leading tours of up to a dozen people with great confidence and aplomb!


Glorious Zoe and some Silchester merchandise!

Meanwhile Science@Silchester are working flat out to collect, process and sort samples…’s a losing game as our on-site team put on the excavation pressure …..


Samples per Supervisor team


James bagging samples from Sarah and Su’s area

A peak inside the Planning Hut reveals……a blow-up tiger’s head….011

And… is Eliz’s birthday. Happy Birthday Eliz! She plans to watch our (Pen)Ultimate game of Ultimate Frisbee tonight….


The Birthday Girl


(Pen) Ultimate Frisbee

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Woeful Wednesday

Tearful Tuesday

The End is Nigh….I can feel it getting closer, so I am wrapping myself in a bubble of unreality so I don’t have to think about it…..

Luckily I am busy enough…so not much time for retrospectives.

What happened today? Lots of organising of the  week ahead: on site lectures and sign-ups sessions; volunteers needed for our FINAL Open Day (fabulous champagne prizes offered by Silchester participant and Reading student Richard Bond – thank you Richard! Bubbles much appreciated!)…..

I was filmed on site by Andrew Munson for his Calleva documentary……not a day for close-ups as the wind whipped my hair into an ice-cream cone shape…..

Dave Thornley and Stuart Black visited from Reading’s Department to look at our in situ ceramic building material in Insula III, with a view to dating selected pieces using a method which measures the rehydration of the selected pieces over time….

And finally Ben Ford came to visit! Ben is Senior Project Manager with Oxford Archaeology, and a Reading and Silchester graduate to boot. Ben was on a recruitment drive: commercial archaeology is entering a boom alongside the construction industry as we emerge from the recession…and there are jobs out there for our graduates! 12 of my Silchester staff are interested in working for Oxford Archaeology, and Ben walked away with a pile of applications….

The future is bright!

The future is bright!









Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Tearful Tuesday

Last Week 5 Monday

It is Week 5. And we have 32 new people on site! The countdown continues……a lovely hot day with visits by our English Heritage Inspector Ben Jervis, Professor Norman Hammond, the Times Archaeology correspondent, and our renowned colleague Professor Richard Bradley. Mike and I also spent some time within each site team discussing strategy…the butterflies are starting….11 digging days to go!

A late Roman wall being exposed under Victorian backfill on Insula III by Will Hewson

A late Roman wall being exposed under Victorian backfill on Insula III by Will Hewson

Share them with us!


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Last Week 5 Monday

Sunday Best

Lots of visitors today…a sunny day drew the crowds. Over 300 general visitors, which kept Zoe and her team on their toes!

Mike and I spent time with friends and special visitors, including lovely Nina Crummy and her husband Philip. Nina ‘looks after’ our small finds from the site – identifying, advising, interpreting…and Philip, as Director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, is a good pair of eyes to share our archaeological discoveries with. Nina brought 6 melons for tea break! They are currently ripening in the cook hut and will be shared one sunny morning soon.

Melons for tea!

Melons for tea!

Rowena Banerjea was with us on site yesterday, taking micromorphology samples for analysis back at the university. Cindy’s Team Science spent much of today removing the final samples from the chosen sections.

Cindy and Tom: south section micromorphology

Cindy and Tom: south section micromorphology


Peter: south section micromorphology

A few site pictures: Sarah and Su’s south-east area nears completion with the excavation of a posthole alignment linked by beam slots. This is part of our earliest Iron Age hall in this area.


Lauraine excavating a posthole


Nick’s area: natural everywhere….


Posthole alignment running south-west from Nick’s area: possibly an enclosure for an Iron Age hall


Nick’s area: an array of postholes cutting natural

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Sunday Best

Saturday: Young Archaeologists at Silchester!

It rained today! Key several pictures of a rainy excavation – a rare sight in 2014…..


Rain clouds form….


Rain over the campsite


Clouds gather to the west


We are deluged!


Students run for cover!


Rosie and Amy in the well: #Innovative Headgear

Today we hosted a visit from the 3 winners of the Young Archaeologists’ Club competition: Q. What was the book written by Rosemary Sutcliff based in Silchester? A. The Eagle of the Ninth……Quite a few of my students confessed to not knowing this answer……but Lucas, Tom and George did. And they joined us for a day on site, sadly bringing the rain with them!

Young Archaeologists' Day!

Young Archaeologists’ Day!


Our winners digging with Phil on Insula III

We had a great day with the 3 of them – it is always heartening to see such enthusiasm! Tom was literally jigging with excitement throughout the day – and they all proved themselves to be serious-minded, knowledgeable and energetic. It was a pleasure to work with them. Sadly we had to close the site early at 3.30pm due to a Hampshire monsoon which elected to drench both us and the archaeology….

BUT – the sun came out for the Barn Dance! The Silchester Villagers had invited the entire dig for a hog roast and a barn dance at the West’s barn. It was enormous fun and Mike and I were honoured by the villagers….and given the freedom of Silchester Village…..a few pictures to give you all a taste of the event!


Billy Bob Tierney


Archaeologists queuing for a free drink!


Checked shirts and braces


Ready to dance


Our American cousins…




Don’t mess with us!


University of Reading barn dancers


Happy Days


Rory and Hat


Rory and brothers and sisters


SagaLouts at play


The West’s barn


We are Honoured!

village freedom

The Freedom to drive sheep – finally!


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Saturday: Young Archaeologists at Silchester!

Last Times, Past Times

The days are going by in a blur for me! Not only do we have a large number of booked in groups and visits, but each day sees more and more people from the excavation’s past arriving for a final look at a 55m by 55m trench which featured large in their lives. This means I hardly have time to breathe! And my feet don’t touch the ground in between visits!

Today we hosted a visit by Thatcham’s U3A group: Mike gave a lecture in St. Mary’s Church, followed by a tour of the excavations and a look at our finds. After making sure this was running smoothly, I spent some time with my Visitors’ team, talking about the next 2 weeks and ordering some Silchester branded merchandise so that all of our visitors can take a memory of site home with them. The Visitors team has been bolstered by the arrival of James Steward who will be a Placement working with Zoe and Will over the next few weeks. With so many visitors pouring in, Zoe has a huge challenge on her hands, making sure that all visitors are met and greeted and taken on a tour if they so wish.

Zoe and Will: Visitor Team Extraordinaire

Zoe and Will: Visitor Team Extraordinaire

I had a catch-up chat with Jen, my Database Manager, to discover how the data entry was progressing – and the news is excellent. Jen is completely on top of the entry of site records – which means that the on-site team can combine and overlay the digital plans of their areas in order to determine strategy on a daily basis. Additionally Jen is looking after the iPad mini project we are running on site: although there are glitches with the database when uploading records from the iPad mini to our Integrated Archaeological Database, these can all be ironed out. There is definitely a place for digital recording in this way on an excavation site.

My assistant Jen Eaton and I also spent some time organising lists for Week 5 – hard to believe that we are nearly into our final 2 weeks on site….gulp. We also sorted out a timetable for this Saturday’s visit by the 3 winners of the Young Archaeologists’ Club competition – the prize is a day with us at Silchester!

Our day was enriched by a visit from the ‘Sounds Like Lunch’ team from the BBC! Fiona Talkington spent several hours with us on site, recording the sounds of the excavation, and asking us all what archaeology, the project, means to us. An excavation has a sound all of its own, which reflects the people working on it……not just the tang and clatter of trowels, but also the squelch of mud (mudlarks Rosie and Amy!), the rush of water through sieves, the brush of toothbrushes against pottery, and the gentle background of archaeological (and other!) chatter. Watch this space for news of the date of broadcast!

In the afternoon I hosted a visit from Duncan Sayer, one time Silchester Supervisor and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, and co-Director of the Oakington training excavation. Good to catch up with Duncan! And animal bones maestro Jim!

The day ended with Mike Fulford’s regular Thursday afternoon site tour…..a wonderful story is emerging from our excavations on insula III…..and Insula IX is drawing inexorably to a close…….


Thursday Tour: Mike on Insula III


Mike on Tour: Insula III corn drier and ‘drain’ in the forefront


Mike on Tour: Insula IX – behind Mike is a wonderful alignment of large post holes, recently discovered and heading off into the distance in a north-west direction


Mike On Tour: post hole alignments in Insula IX


Mike On Tour


A view down our wonderful Iron Age Hall


Rosie and Amy’s cesspit cutting into an Iron Age well (with Roman rubber duck)

Tonight is our farewell staff party at the wonderful West’s! And I will leave you with a taster of our drone photographs…..more to come!

DCIM101GOPRO DCIM101GOPRO AmandaOut – see you on Saturday!


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Last Times, Past Times

Wednesday week 4: 16 digging days to go!

I had such a busy day today – but somehow rushing around in lovely bright sunshine is not nearly as onerous as rushing around in bleak, cloudy, drizzle! I gave 4 site tours – all to very nice and appreciative groups – and welcomed back to the fold students who had dug with me in 1997! There is an incredible network of communications which has built up since that very first excavation in 1997 when I had about 47 people on site, as opposed to 157!

With the student exam fast approaching this Saturday, all the supervisors are giving on-site revision classes, and Dan brought his stratigraphy and matrix sessions out of the stiflingly hot marquee and into the fresh air.


Open Air stratigraphy


Sequence sessions with Dan

It was a very hot afternoon, but the archaeology is moving apace. In Insula IX, Matt’s team have found the southern return of the north wall of our 50m long Iron Age hall, and Rosie and Amy have continued to work in the cesspit which has been found to cut the Iron Age well they have been working in. Exciting moment of the day was the discovery of a complete Iron Age pottery vessel in its fills – it is of a very unusual type so watch this space for more information…

A ?Gallo-Belgic pot, possible deliberately buried within the 'closing' fills of an Iron Age cess pit

A ?Gallo-Belgic pot, possible deliberately buried within the ‘closing’ fills of an Iron Age cess pit

Insula III is an amazing site to visit. I now have well over half the team working there, and the area crackles with energy. Everybody is intent on removing the Victorian backfill as fast as possible, and slowly but surely we are making progress. Everywhere you look there are now early Roman wall foundations appearing….and there is an air of suppressed excitement…..

Finally, this morning, Michael, our ‘drone’ man, spent an hour and a half taking some wonderful pictures from up high over Insula IX. All the post hole alignments are clear as day on these images – and all looks very exciting. I will share these images with you in due course.

But for now I must go and work on the lists for Week 5……Week 5?? Week 5. It’s nearly here. Stay with us until the end!


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Wednesday week 4: 16 digging days to go!

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

Every morning at 7.45am I make my way into the cook hut. Here I am in the privileged position of having my breakfast laid out for me…and my coffee made….by wonderful Jean, our cook…a lady whose bark is definitely far worse than her actual bite. She guards me like the rottweiler she is, and no one is allowed to disturb me until I have downed one mug of coffee and am ready to face the day.


My watchdog Jean

And what a day it was! Hampshire perfect, with a high swirl of cloud in a blue sky. Perhaps a little too hot come midday, but a cool breeze in the early afternoon. Yes, we archaeologists are obsessed with the weather. BUT this is NOT good weather for the site….everywhere is baked concrete solid, and a simple troweling exercise turns into an upper body workout. There has also been a run on blister elastoplast!

Hampshire skies

Hampshire skies

Today we had 2 sets of filming going on. Firstly, Alex Rowson from the BBC, filming for the 3rd series of Digging for Britain, to be screened in November. Alex was an Archaeology undergraduate at Reading; he studied Archaeology with History – and attended Silchester for 2 weeks in 2002 as part of his degree. After a Masters at Royal Holloway, Alex changed direction and is now an Assistant Producer on various archaeological  documentaries: Time Team and the Richard III documentary are two of his past credits. The format for the new Digging for Britain series is a video diary expose of a number of current excavations, with short videos of key excavation moments shot by members of the teams. Alex was on site today to film Mike and myself, as well as shots of the team in exciting action.

Silchester's Last Days: Alex filming Mike

Silchester’s Last Days: Alex filming Mike

Sarah was also filming today with Rebecca Watts who has just completed her PhD with Reading’s Archaeology department. Rebecca is making a film about the wide range of skills an Archaeology degree can provide you with….with the strap line ‘that’s my archaeology..what’s yours?’. Abi was filmed in Finds talking about artefacts found on site which have a gender bias: spindle whorls, hair pins etc. Amy was filmed in the excavation trench, talking about what excavation means to her, and Will was filmed in the Visitors’ hut. Patricia, James and members of the Science team were also filmed enthusiastically talking about the different skills archaeology fieldwork has provided them with.

Despite the searingly hot temperatures, work continued apace in Insula IX – all kinds of new post hole alignments are appearing as we strip away the final layers here. Fortuitously I have on site tomorrow a man with a drone and a camera…..he will overfly both Insula IX and Insula III before we start work, to see what sort of vertical overhead shots he can get. Hopefully these will illuminate the different post hole alignments popping up everywhere.

Insula III is churning out the finds from the Victorian trenches, including large pieces of worked limestone, presumably originally from the fabric of the building the Victorians exposed here.


Bath limestone, worked and shaped on the right hand side

But there is always time for a moment of peace, a joke or two, and the opportunity to sit outside the Finds hut and watch the world go by! It must be wonderful to be John Brown!

James wishing he could be John Brown

James wishing he could be John Brown

And Matt’s team is now embracing our use of the iPad minis for context recording! Watch this space for feedback.

Jesse confronts technology head on

Jesse confronts technology head on


It’s been a beautiful evening to sit back and recount the day’s escapades…..16 more digging days to go!



Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on

Muddy Monday


Storm clouds over Insula IX

A great deal happened today on site: 10 new people were inducted into the archaeology, mattocks were a tour de force in both trenches, another Nero stamped tile was discovered, Supervisor Natalie arrived to take the place of a saddened Hen who has to go back to the real life and work…… for a while…), Mike led a tour of the Andante travel group, I lost the keys to the church extension …in my purse…..and it rained!

But most memorable, and the images I will leave you with for today are of 2 mudlarks in my team: Amy and Rosie, excavating a possible late Iron Age well. Watching 5 people try and get Amy’s wellington boot off at lunch is a sight I will long remember…that mud sucks and sticks!


Rosie (left) and Amy – the Mudlarks


Heads down….



And so we head into the final 3 weeks of the excavation…..half way home….what will the next 18 days bring?


Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Muddy Monday