Archive for July, 2011

A Day at the Dig: The Roman Town Life Project at Silchester, Hants.

July 24th, 2011

Yesterday’s ‘Open Day’ at Silchester, or Calleva Atrebatum to the Romans, was a typically jolly event. Hosted by the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology, it was an opportunity to view, at close quarters, what is currently the largest archaeological excavation in Britain.

Now in its fifteenth season, the ‘Town Life’ project focuses on a small part of the 170-acre site, the so-called ‘Insula IX’. The insulae are the various quarters of the town, neatly divided by the Roman grid system and numbered by the pioneering Victorian archaeologists for  their convenience. Insula IX merits investigation as it stood at the intersection of the main north-south and east-west roads and was densely packed with humble dwellings and workshops, rather than the better-understood public buildings.

Amanda Clarke, the Field School Director, is pictured (above) beside the north-south road at its fourth-century level. The built-up surface of the street is as solid as concrete but the ground behind her has been dug down to a much lower level, that of the first century. She also points (left) to the well-scorched hearth of a small building of that period, just off the street, which is marvellously evocative. There is speculation that this might have been part of a complex of military buildings. There is also substantial evidence of early round houses in Insula IX, suggesting that the indigenous population lived side by side with their conquerors, but were slow to adapt to the Roman way of life. The team have yet to find a Roman ballista still lodged in the backbone of some unfortunate, such as was famously discovered at Maiden Castle, but they live in hope.

There is an air of Glastonbury surrounding the tented village that arises here each summer. I was amused to see that some of the young and attractive team of diggers (see left) have been daring enough to pose naked for a calendar – ‘without the permission of Reading University’. All profits from Naked Archaeologists are donated to the Silchester Town Life Project and the Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project, in which they are also involved. I particularly like the picture for May. Five girls, clearly perishing cold on what was presumably an early-morning photo-call, are gazing into the city from the south wall. Their shivering backs are adorned with intricate spiral patterns of woad. The caption wittily reads: ‘Boudicca and her warriors plan their attack on the Roman town’. The tableau is historically accurate. According to Roman writers, the Ancient Britons daubed themselves with woad and charged naked into battle. There is also evidence of destruction at Silchester at the exact time of the Boudiccan revolt. I hope these girls know the correct pronunciation of her name: Bow-deeka.

A more questionable image is that for November. Entitled ‘An evening of bar sports in the Calleva Arms’, a naked man, snooker queue in hand, cocks his leg over the side of the table and leans over it as he aims his shot. The Calleva Arms is a family pub so let’s hope the picture was taken out of hours. Otherwise the images are very tasteful, and all the models are undoubtedly good sports.

In this picture, Roger Hammett of BBC Learning, based at Southampton, handles a sample of Roman ‘poo’ with a fine air of professional detachment. I hope he was duly grateful to his assistant, Sophia, who had spent hours, the previous day, kneading these unsavoury objects into shape. Introducing passing children to the thrill of archaeology in a sandpit, Sophia (right) showed a considerable knack of engaging with them and instructed them expertly in the significance of their various ‘finds’.

Here Hannah, a budding Oxford Classicist, pauses to rest during a bout of energetic digging, having just nonchalantly excavated a substantial part of the rim of a large bowl. Roman Silchester had a strikingly youthful population, few of whom would have lived beyond the age of thirty. It is touchingly appropriate that their modern counterparts should be uncovering their lives with such energy, grace and commitment.

See also my previous blog on Roman tilers and their literacy in Calleva Atrebatum.

Roman Silchester, St James’s Church, Bramley and the Little London Tilery

July 24th, 2011

(From the programme of the Bramley and Little London Music Festival, June 2011)


Bramley and Little London’s glorious parish church dates largely from the mid-1100s and contains notable fragments of its original murals – almost universal in medieval churches, but largely lost elsewhere – including a scene of the murder of Becket. The very walls of St James’s are thus redolent of tradition and continuity. Concealed behind the exuberant medieval paintings, there is even the possibility of a link with the Emperor Nero.

The 12th-century builders must have been intrigued and baffled by the ruins, at nearby Silchester, of a once-mighty city – the work of giants, it was said, or of the Devil. Who else could have built the formidable walls, up to eight metres in height, that surrounded it? The Saxons had never colonised the place, fearing its mournful atmosphere and its ghosts.

The site had nevertheless yielded much detritus and occasional treasure, including gold coins. Some seemed to bear the name of the ‘giant’ king, Onion. There were great quantities of dressed stone, including that from the defensive outer walls, for the taking; and the plough regularly uncovered the fallen-in roofs of the houses, with their distinctive red tiles. These proved particularly useful to the builders of our church, who imported them by the cartload to Bramley, mixing them with flint to make up the three-feet-thick walls of the new nave and chancel.

Since the 18th century, it has been understood that Silchester was a Roman city, identifiable with the Calleva Atrebatum of the Antonine Itinerary, and that the legendary Onion was probably a misreading of ‘Constantine’. Calleva has now been excavated with greater thoroughness than any other town or city in the Empire. Many magnificent objects have been discovered – from fine mosaic floors to the famous bronze eagle on which Rosemary Sutcliff based her novel, The Eagle of the Ninth – yet none, perhaps, is as evocative as those humble tiles.

They were clearly made from local material, and in 1926 Colonel Karslake of Silchester, a diligent amateur archaeologist, identified the remains at Little London, in a field opposite ‘The Plough’, of the tilery that was probably their main source. One of Karslake’s finds, a roller-patterned flue-tile, is from the period between 80 and 200 A.D.

Karslake claimed that another of his finds (now lost) bore a round stamp with the name of the Emperor, ‘NER.CL.CAE.AVG.GR.’ (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – the notorious Emperor Nero, 54-68 A.D.). Something similar had already been discovered in the baths at Calleva. The Little London tilery may thus have been an imperial concern, with the concession to satisfy most or all of Calleva’s requirements for tiles and bricks.

The particular fascination of the tiles (displayed in the Silchester Gallery at Reading Museum) is that many bear marks, inscriptions or even footprints. Each would be shaped in a wetted wooden mould and left to dry on the factory floor. The tile-maker would test its consistency with his finger-tips, leaving a distinctive impression. From time to time – much to his annoyance, no doubt – people and animals strayed into his yard, stepped carelessly on the wet tiles and left their footprints to harden in them and be preserved for all time. Among the culprits were a dog, a cat, a deer, a calf, a lamb, an infant and a man with a hob-nailed sandal, who had perhaps reeled out of an early forerunner of ‘The Plough’.

Remarkably and unexpectedly, the Silchester tiles are also evidence of the tile-maker’s literacy, for there are specimens on which he has written. Someone in the factory used an unbaked flue-tile as a surface for writing. He was an erudite man: the inscription ends with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid: conticuere omnes – ‘all fell silent’. The text was probably meant to be copied as part of an on-the-job writing lesson, for tilers needed to keep written tallies. One tile is signed – fecit tubul[os] Clementinus (‘Clementinus made this flue-tile’), whilst a large brick is inscribed with the word Satis – ‘Enough’. These are truly Silchester’s equivalent of the Vindolanda tablets: intimate and personal, they are a hand-written evocation of life in Roman Britain.


From Petersfield to Margaret River – and Back: The Quest for Margaret Whicher

July 20th, 2011

The Margaret River region, in South-Western Australia, is famously wild and beautiful. It is now as well-known for its fine wines as for its whale-watching. This exotic picture has been kindly contributed by Jan Matthews of the Margaret River District Historical Society. She writes:

The view is of the Margaret River at its mouth, just about to break through to the sea. In the summer it is landlocked, but after the first winter rains it gains enough momentum to breach the sandbank and flow steadily until the next summer. I took this photo last week and since then it has broken through – an event always reported like that first cuckoo … We are enjoying a cold winter with quite a bit of rain, which is very welcome, as storages are low due to several below-average winters.

The time that my camera put on the photo is NOT accurate! It was something like 11.30am – much more civilised – and likely.


Margaret River, in South-Western Australia, is named after an Englishwoman, Margaret Whicher (1822 – 1915). A cousin of John Garrett Bussell, the pioneering settler and explorer of the region, Margaret was the eldest daughter of James Whicher, a surgeon of Petersfield, Hampshire (pictured left), and his wife Anna, daughter of Lieutenant-General Charles Norris Cookson, R.A.

John and his brothers had set sail from Portsmouth on the Warrior on 9 October 1829. While the ship was loading, the Whichers had generously sent down various treats from Petersfield. Such items as gingerbread and pickles proved to be a great comfort during the voyage, and the brothers were profuse in thanking their ‘Petersfield friends’.

In 1837, having founded Busselton, John Garrett Bussell had returned to England in search of a wife. His proposal to the pretty Margaret (she and her sisters were known in Petersfield as ‘the Bewitchers’) had unfortunately been rejected. She was only fifteen, and her father was reluctant to condemn her to a life of hardship and uncertainty in an undoubted ‘wilderness’.

John had married someone else – a capable widow – and within the year was back in Australia, helping the cartographer Arrowsmith to draw up the first map of the region. As James Whicher was one of backers of his proposed sheep-farming venture, he received the compliment of having a range of low hills named after him. The river that rises out of the Whicher Range was named after Margaret, the child-bride who might have been. John must have had a high opinion of her. None of the other ladies in his family (including his wife) has any sort of territorial feature named after her.

In 1852, Margaret (known as ‘Peggy’) married the Basingstoke solicitor Joseph Shebbeare, a man old enough to have been her father. Joseph died in 1860 and in 1876 she married Samuel Chandler, who had been Joseph’s junior partner. There were no children. Peggy’s home for nearly fifty years was a fine Tudor house (with later additions) in Church Street, known later as Queen Anne House. The building was demolished in 1966 to make way for the Basingstoke ‘megastructure’. It stood beneath what is now Marks and Spencer’s store.

As a great-great-great-nephew of Margaret, I have been delighted to assist members of the Margaret River District Historical Society in their quest for information about her (though I have usually found them to be one step ahead of me). In default of a portrait or photograph (none has been found), the search is on for her grave. On her recent visit to England, Jan Matthews and I inspected the Whicher tomb in Petersfield cemetery, but there is no evidence of Margaret being buried there. To our delight, however, we were able to tour the house on the High Street in which she was born.

Lyndum House, as it is now known, is used as offices by Dalton’s, a firm of solicitors. We were most grateful to Gill Moss-Bowpitt, the practice manager, and her cheerful staff for their hospitality. It is a large, timber-framed house of great age. We were impressed by its fine galleried staircase under a domed roof and by the master bedroom overlooking the back garden. Below it, on the ground floor, is a magnificent drawing-room with tall, shuttered windows. There would have been ample space for the many Whicher children. We even explored the spacious attic, with its series of rooms for the servants, and the narrow back garden which, at one time, ran down to the stream. It is altogether a most impressive and desirable property, sadly sold by my family after the death of James Whicher in 1875.

A full account of the Bussell brothers and of Margaret Whicher’s life in Petersfield and Basingstoke is included in my latest book, Basingstoke and Its Contribution to World Culture. See also:


Constant de Thierry des Estivaux, Marquis de Faletans – Inventor of the Pencil Sharpener

July 20th, 2011

The invention of the ‘lead’ pencil is credited to the English in 1564. The inventor of the pencil sharpener was a Frenchman, Thierry des Estivaux. At Paris in 1847, he patented his design of the classic tube fitted with a narrowing cone and a blade. It was an invention that saved the fingers of generations of schoolchildren, who would otherwise have had to whittle the points of their pencils with their pocket-knives. It is an object that is universal and taken for granted.

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux was a gallant officer and patriot. He was born at Paris in 1797, the eldest son of Colonel Gaspard de Thierry, Baron des Estivaux in Lorraine, the dashing commander of the 9th Hussars during the Wars of the Revolution, and his beautiful wife Romarine, Comtesse de Faletans et Digoine, a franc-comtoise.

In 1814, while still a schoolboy, Constant took part in the defence of Besançon, and in 1815, aged 17, fought beside his father at the Battle of Waterloo, where he five times wounded. He served in the Besançon Dragoons and, from 1822, in the Russian army, as personal aide-de-camp to his ‘uncle’, the General Comte de Langeron. One of the great men of his age, Langeron had saved the life of the ‘grand old’ Duke of York, fought the Turks under Potemkin and commanded a division at Austerlitz. A distant relative, he treated Constant as his own son.

Constant left Russia after Langeron’s death in 1831, intending to settle in Paris. At Briançon, on the French border, he was arrested, apparently on the orders of Adolphe Thiers, the Minister of the Interior. Constant’s baggage, containing Langeron’s voluminous papers, was seized. The documents eventually found their way into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris, and various parts of them have since been edited and published. Without always acknowledging it, Thiers makes full use of them in his Histoire de l’Empire (published from 1845), which in turn was to provide Tolstoy with much of his background material for War and Peace (published from 1868). Langeron’s account of Weyrother’s briefing before the Battle of Austerlitz forms the basis of a particularly memorable scene (Book III, Chapter XI). Tolstoy has him toying with a gold snuffbox whilst he listens to Weyrother’s nonsense, an ironical smile on his face as he attempts to sting his vanity. Langeron, to whom Byron had already referred flatteringly in verse in Don Juan, would not have been displeased.

As far as is known, Constant was never again to be formally employed. Instead, he tried his hand as an inventor. In 1839 he took out a patent in England for one of his inventions, for some reason using the pseudonym ‘Morillon’. On 21 April 1846 he took out another patent, this time in France, for his design of a ‘palmiped propeller suitable for coastal and inland navigation’. His attempt at improved propulsion recalls the ‘pyroscaphe’, the pioneering steam-powered paddle propeller invented by his older relative, the Marquis de Jouffroy d’Abbans, and tested on the Doubs at Beaume-les-Dames in 1776. In retirement at the Château d’Abbans-Dessus (Doubs) – pictured left – from 1816, Jouffroy d’Abbans had been a near neighbour of the Faletans (who had retreated during troubled times to their own château at Busy), perhaps passing on his passion for engineering to the young Constant. Jouffroy d’Abbans had received little reward or recognition for his invention, and had died, a needy pensioner in the Hôtel des Invalides, in July 1832. If not positively ruined by his efforts, Constant, likewise, was hardly enriched by them.

Constant de Thierry des Estivaux adopted the surname ‘de Thierry de Faletans’ in 1848 and in 1860, having settled at the Château de Faletans (Jura) – pictured left – was recognised as Marquis de Faletans, a title inherited from his uncle. He was my great-great-great-grandfather. Until recently, I had no idea that he had invented the pencil sharpener. This was surely Constant’s proudest achievement but, unfortunately, is not the basis of any family fortune. The mass production of pencils dates from the later 19th century. The huge and continuing demand for pencil sharpeners, for use in schools and offices, took off in the early 1900s. Constant had died in 1871. He deserves to be better known.