Archive for July, 2012

A Day at the Dig Part I: Roman Silchester 2012

July 22nd, 2012

Owing to the continuous heavy rain, this season’s excavations at Roman Silchester have been more challenging than ever. However, the usual festive atmosphere prevails, as was apparent at yesterday’s Open Day, when many of the participants wore ‘themed’ costumes.

The rain has also beautifully brought out subtle but revealing contrasts in the soil, which are not so obvious on ground that has been baked dry by summer sun. For example, there are dark stripes marking the remains of floor-level beams, dark circular stains indicating post-holes, more dark stripes along the third-century street (pictured left) suggestive of wheel ruts.

The picture on the left illustrates the progress of the archaeologists over the years from the third-century street level (behind Amanda Clarke, Field Director, in the fetching hat) down to that of the first century (on which she is standing). They are continuing to concentrate on the earliest Roman layer in Insula IX, dating more precisely from about 40 to 60 A.D., where they have discovered a large number of insubstantial wooden buildings.

Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke, who oversee the dig, remain convinced that these buildings were for military use, and indeed that the Calleva of that period was highly-militarised, if not a garrison town. As Professor Fulford has discovered in previous excavations, there was a square wooden building under the later Forum, which is equally likely to have had a military purpose. In further support of the theory, the finds in Insula IX have included horse harnesses, belts and buckles, a ballista bolt and – in the last three weeks – three tiny pieces of chain mail.

The team are also revealing further traces of the iron-age settlement that existed before the arrival of the Romans, including what may have been the hall of a chief. There is evidence beside it of a substantial track. Its route through adjoining fields is to be investigated by means of ground-penetrating radar. Where the street runs past the chief’s house it is lined by a row of post-holes. There is also a flanking trench, which was either to support a fence, or for drainage.

Remains of amphorae, samian-ware and goblets imported from the Continent are evidence that this was no backwater. The Atrebates enjoyed a relatively sophisticated diet, which included such exotica as dill, coriander and celery. Most exciting of all has been discovery this season, in a well, of a single olive stone, the very earliest to have been found in Britain – a Continental import before ever the Romans arrived. This is not surprising given that Commius and his Atrebates, the first-century B.C. colonisers of this place, were émigrés from Gaul.

The most poignant discovery has been of a little dog in the foundations of the supposed chief’s house. An animal of two or three years old, resembling a miniature poodle, it is of a type never previously seen in Britain, a land better known for its cunning hunting dogs. Professor Fulford thinks the animal was an offering, deliberately buried in the foundations to ensure the life of the building. One wonders if it had been the cherished pet of the chiefly family – and hopes that its death was quick and painless.

Pressed on the causes of Silchester’s decline in the fifth century A.D., Professor Fulford points to evidence of deliberate spoliation, with the rubble of demolished buildings having been tossed into wells. The inhabitants had a habit of digging these wells into ancient latrine pits, which cannot have helped. Whatever the causes of its gradual abandonment, the thoroughly-Romanised Calleva Atrebatum had no future in Saxon-dominated Britain.

For last year’s Silchester blogs, see

The Olympic Torch is carried through Reading

July 16th, 2012

Wednesday 11 July: at 8.15 on a warm, sunny morning in Reading, the ‘Olympic Torch’ is carried through Valpy Street into Blagrave Street. The tune blaring from speakers on the supporting bus is, inevitably, ‘The Final Countdown’. I follow the procession into Broad Street, where the flame is transferred from a male to a female torch-bearer, who looks like Sheila Hancock. Large and enthusiastic crowds line the streets, ‘whooping’ their approval. The torch-bearers are elated.

The event seems strange and artificial, yet it is impossible not to be caught up in the festive atmosphere. In recent days it has been attended by moments of high comedy. One of the torch-bearers in Oxfordshire, the chef Raymond Blanc, came to a clumsy halt when he dropped his mobile phone. In Henley, a male ‘streaker’ stole the show. Possessing more obvious athletic prowess than the official ‘torch-bearer’, he raised the louder cheer, before being hustled away in a blanket by the police. I hope he has not been charged.

Later, I see film of the torch changing hands on Whitley Road, the bearers genuflecting in the course of some strange ritual that reminded me of the Greek evzones. A voice from the crowd utters a derogatory remark. I see pictures of two bearers elsewhere performing some sort of jig. Presumably these routines are choreographed by individual participants on the bus on the way in.

It has also been interesting to observe the official Metropolitan Police escort of young men and women in grey outfits, who take turns to jog along with every runner and must by now be in peak condition. They take a dim view of anyone straying onto the road. At one point recently, a young lad wobbling around on a BMX bike appeared to be wrestled to the ground. On another occasion, also shown on television, a woman on crutches hobbled out of the crowd and attempted to approach the passing torch-bearer, who was in a wheelchair. The escort swooped into action and she was quickly removed. The nearest policeman was heard to say, ‘Sorry mate. Did you know her? We’ve got to keep things moving.’ Animals are, of course, less easy to control and a police runner was nearly tripped up by an enthusiastic Jack Russell that darted out into the road.

The funniest moment (somewhere up north) was when two ‘urchins’ attempted to wrest the torch from the hands of the bearer, who clung on to it for dear life until the tiny assailants were removed, bodily, by the escort. So there can be no question of shaking the torch-bearer’s hand or patting him on the back as he passes.

Oddly enough, I saw the real Sheila Hancock the following day in the London Library – unless, of course, the woman in question was merely an even more convincing ‘lookalike’.