The Silchester Environs Project

A talk given by Professor Mike Fulford on 17th February 2024.

Professor Mike Fulford’s talk was an overview of the archaeological work done around Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum) from 2015 to 2020. A map of the study area showed a multitude of archaeological features in the landscape around Calleva. They were mostly linear; possible boundary dykes or roads, but some enclosures could be seen.

As it is not possible to date features from their appearance, excavation was needed. Mike explained that many of these archaeological features had been radiocarbon dated from burnt wood remains only, as no material culture had been found. Thus, people had dug ditches and raised banks, and used the sites for several years, but had left no pottery, metalwork, or other evidence of material culture.

For example, excavations at Pond Farm Hillfort had shown that the inside of the fort was essentially empty, with nothing to suggest how it was used, and with only radiocarbon dated burnt wood to date it to the Middle Iron Age. Other burnt remains showed that the hillfort had been re-used in post-Roman times, and again in the later Mediaeval period, but with no continuity between the different phases of use, and no material culture found. Mike said that this was a picture to be seen all over the study area; sites used for a while, then abandoned, re-used later and then again abandoned. 

We looked at enclosures in Pamber Forest, revealed by LiDAR. Three enclosures were radiocarbon dated to the Middle Iron Age from burnt wood, and some sheep and cattle remains were found. The banks had been completely ploughed out during the Middle Ages, but the ditches, when excavated, were found to be about 2 metres deep, representing much hard work and many man-hours of labour. In one enclosure were the remains of a roundhouse’s gully, some pottery, and a pit in which Roman period charcoal was found. 

The two enclosures at Simm’s Copse showed a similar picture starting to emerge from the landscape; of small communities of Middle Iron Age people, using these protective enclosures to keep their valuable animals safe from straying, thieves, and predators, and also to inhabit. Pottery was found at Simm’s Copse, and post holes found in one enclosure may have been the remains of roundhouses.

At Windabout South, six trenches had been dug across the cropmarks of the ditches of a roughly rectangular enclosure. One excavated area towards the middle of the site, Trench 3, was shown to date to the Early Iron Age, and the other trenches gave Late Iron Age dates. At this settlement site there was some evidence of cereal cultivation, and possible animal husbandry.

Excavations at Windabout North showed the cropmarks to be mortuary enclosure ditches. The high-status graves within appeared to have been robbed in antiquity, with broken pots and cremated bones scattered over the site. A broken wine amphora left at the site may have belonged to thieves, discarded as it was no longer of use. Or it may have been an offering to the deceased.

A wood-lined cremation burial was the first grave of its kind to be found in Hampshire. The cremated bones were surrounded by six platters and two drinking cups. Four of the pottery vessels had been imported from northern France, the rest had been made locally, and all dated to the 1st century AD. Mike told us that lipids on the pottery platters had been identified as meat fat from sheep. It was thought that the high-status individual in the grave may have come from Late Iron Age Calleva.

Before starting his summary of the Silchester Environs Project, Mike explained that he was not including any Neolithic or Bronze Age data, that evidence of people from these times using the landscape had been found all across the site, but no settlements found.

On a map entitled Early Iron Age 700-400 BC, we saw that the Windabout South, Pond Farm Hillfort, Church Lane Farm and Wood Farm sites were all situated some distance from Calleva. As with many of the sites excavated, dating was sometimes only from radiocarbon dated charcoal. 

In the Middle Iron Age 400-100 BC, while Pond Farm and Wood Farm showed evidence of use, the other sites did not. New sites, for example, Pamber Enclosures 1-3 and Simm’s Copse Enclosure 1, were again situated away from Calleva.

In the Late Iron Age 100 BC-AD 70, we could see that the Windabout South settlement was once again occupied, and the Windabout North mortuary enclosure was in use. To the south of Calleva, Wood Farm was occupied, and the Little London Tilery was being used. In addition to radiocarbon dating, some sites could now be dated from settlement evidence, as material culture increased.

On a map entitled Early to Mid-Roman, we saw just a few settlement sites, all situated away from Calleva. The Little London Tilery was still in use, and in the north a new settlement had appeared at Mortimer Hill Farm. 

In the Late Roman period the picture was very similar, with the area around Calleva devoid of occupation. Mortimer Hill Farm and Pamber Enclosure 3 were still in use. Nelsons Field and Latchmere Green, previously occupied in the Late Iron Age, were once again in use.

Mike showed us a table entitled Iron Age-Earliest Roman C14 dates. From this we could see that there was no continuity at the sites over time. People appeared to use the sites and then abandon them, only for other people to re-use the sites later in time. 

Earlier, we had looked at the geology of the area, with Calleva being built on gravel, and surrounded by London clay and gravel, neither of which are good for agriculture. Mike suggested that the land around Calleva could have been reserved for the use of occupants of the town. The wooded areas: Calleva means ‘woods’, could have been used for building materials, for domestic cooking and heating, as well as industrial kilns. Any available good agricultural land could have been farmed exclusively by Iron Age and Roman period Calleva residents. 

In the Early Medieval period, again only sites away from Calleva were in use. At Pond Farm Hillfort, which was last used in the Middle Iron Age, the ditches were re-dug as the enclosure was once again put to use. 

In the Medieval period most of these sites were still in use. At Calleva, settlement evidence, including pottery, was found at the amphitheatre, the bath house and at Silchester church, indicating the use of these sites in Medieval times, which was the last period looked at by the Silchester Environs Project.

Mike ended his talk by telling us of an interactive exhibition entitled ‘Becoming Roman, Silchester: a town of change’, to be held at the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, Market Place, Basingstoke, RG21 7QD, from 10th February to 28th April 2024. 

Report by Joan Burrow-Newton

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire