Excavating the CA archive: Silchester

6 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 1 March. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI337, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

In this latest column exploring ‘great excavations’ (a mini-series that we began last month), I turn my attention to the Roman period. Everyone loves a good Roman site – to visit as much as to dig – and CA can modestly argue to have set the ball rolling on the excavation of at least one such site. It is a challenger for the crown of ‘great excavation’: the Iron Age settlement and (from the mid-1st century AD onwards) Roman town of Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum). Located on the northern edge of Hampshire, it has been subject to nearly constant excavation by the University of Reading since 1974.


Back in CA 8 (May 1968), editor Andrew Selkirk’s ‘Last Word’ column made a prescient observation following a BBC television project that explored Silbury Hill: ‘what is really wanted is something that will provide continuous excitement, and a whole flow of tangible, obvious finds… I cannot help feeling that a Roman site would have been much more suitable: one can guarantee walls and floors and pottery and small finds, things that anyone can understand. Why not choose one of the Roman towns like Silchester or Wroxeter that are ploughed every year?’. CA’s solution – that the BBC purchase one of these sites outright and then film a long-running excavation – was an opportunity missed by the broadcaster. But in 1973 a different solution presented itself, when the local authority filled the role of purchaser of a site that was at that time in disputed ownership and under serious threat of destruction. The rest is, as they say, history. Silchester was to become one of Britain’s longest-running excavations, and work there not only transformed our understanding of Roman Britain but also surely trained more archaeologists than any other site in the country.

Excavations at Silchester appeared on the cover for the first time in CA 82.

If Silchester is a ‘great excavation’, then two people have been its great excavators: Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke. Fulford is the name that most people associate with Silchester, but he has himself (as demonstrated in his writing down the years) always made it clear that it has been a team effort with Clarke, supported by an ever-growing cast of archaeologists – literally thousands once you count up every staff member and every volunteer trained there. CA 75 (February 1981) saw the first report on work on the site, at that time focused on re-excavating the forum-basilica originally uncovered in the 19th century. But CA 82 (May 1982) is the first of the really detailed reports on Silchester that the magazine carried from that time onwards. It is also the first time the site was CA’s cover star, with an image showing excavations in progress down the length of the basilica in the summer of 1981. (Does anyone recognise the people in the photo, perhaps the individuals themselves? If so, do please let CA know.) By this time, while work continued on the forum, it had also spread to the amphitheatre to the east of the town walls that, up until then, had never been excavated.

Investigations at the site carried on throughout the 1980s, and among Silchester’s many claims to ‘greatness’ is the determination of its excavators to publish their outcomes swiftly, rather than simply dig and dig ad infinitum. The late 1980s and early 1990s thus saw relative quiet on the site (although Fulford and Clarke were busy elsewhere on both the domestic and international archaeological stage), and the resulting forum site-report is reviewed in CA 177 (January 2002).

The cover of CA 177 featured the site again, but with a reconstruction drawing by Margaret Matthews that combined modern photography and computer imagery.

Before this, in CA 155 (December 1997), the site had reappeared with news of what became the greatest of all elements of this ‘great excavation’: the fieldwork, which ran continuously between 1997 and 2014, to investigate one whole block of the Roman town, Insula IX. CA 161 (February 1999) followed up on this news, summarising the already impressive scale of work after just two years. But it is CA 177 (January 2002) that really reports at length on the excavations, utilising what were, at that time, cutting-edge computer graphics.


The milestone editions CA 200 (November/December 2005) and CA 250 (January 2011) step back and give reviews of the lessons learned from Silchester, both in and of itself and in the wider context of Roman Britain. A different aspect of the site’s celebratory spirit – and a hint of the deeply held emotions of those involved in the project over the years – then comes in issues 262 (January 2012) and 278 (May 2013), with two different Silchester-themed birthday cakes. The first was for Cindy van Zwieten (then Head of Science on site) and the second for the 80th birthday of Roger Ayers, one of the long-term volunteers at Silchester, who, together with his wife Lesley, dug there annually from 1999 onwards.

A further special review of all that has been achieved at Silchester then comes in the milestone issue CA 300 (March 2015), when Chris Catling (aka CA’s Sherds) persuaded Michael Fulford to discuss the more personal aspects of his life at the site. This reveals some of the fascinating influences on the young archaeologist, including learning how to dig at Winchester with John Collis in 1963 (another great excavation that I have mentioned previously in this column – see CA 332) and at Fishbourne with Barry Cunliffe in 1964 (ditto – CA 330).

Silchester has even inspired birthday cakes, as seen in ‘Edible Archaeology’ in CA 262, submitted by Benn Penny-Mason. (Image: Benn Penny-Mason)

CA 295 (October 2014) summarised the conclusion of the Insula IX project with a mighty set of statistics: 18 seasons (totalling 108 weeks) on site, exposing some 3,000m2 of the insula, and providing the first modern view of a substantial area of a southern British Late Iron Age oppidum. The project revealed at least six phases of occupation, with the greatest complexity seen during the Iron Age c.20 BC and in the 1st-century Roman occupation. Beyond this massive addition to our knowledge of Roman Britain, the scale of the training provided there was made very clear in CA 295: over 250 volunteers took part in the final season alone. (How many pints of beer does that account for in the local pub over 18 years? A brewery’s worth, at least.) They were mostly University of Reading students, but also those from other institutions, plus a number of older, mostly local participants, many of whom have supported the project since its earliest days. This is ‘community’ archaeology with a vengeance.

Amanda Clarke and Michael Fulford celebrate 18 seasons at Insula IX in 2014. (Photo: Michael Fulford)

All of this effort at Silchester has not gone unrewarded. In 2015, Michael Fulford was rightly a nominee for – and subsequently winner of – CA’s Archaeologist of the Year Award, as reported in CA 302 (May 2015). In his acceptance speech, Fulford (who may lay claim to being one of the nicest as well as greatest of archaeologists) paid tribute to his team at Silchester as follows: ‘Thank you for this great award, and I would also like to thank all the students I have taught through Silchester and all the other projects. It is them who make us what we are today. I would also like to thank Amanda Clarke who has been a mainstay of Silchester for about a million years.’ This is a fitting summation of a life spent at an unquestionably great site by an unquestionably great archaeologist.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 1 March. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI337’.

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