Calleva Atrebatum - Roman town at Silchester

Silchester, where lies the Romano-British town of Calleva Atrebatum, is situated approximately 30 miles west of London, between the towns of Reading and Basingstoke. The town was abandoned shortly after the Roman occupation and was never re-populated. The site now consists of green fields, having been systematically excavated in Victorian times. However, most of the walls are still fairly intact and an amphitheatre has been exacavated outside the walls.

Looking across Calleva Atrebatum. The walls are where the tree-line is. The present day inhabitants of Calleva

Short history

A settlement, consisting of defensive ditches existed at Calleva at the end of the Iron Age. The word Calleva means "woody place". The area around Calleva was the land of a tribe called the Atrebates. Hence Calleva Atrebatum was their "capital".

A British prince of the Atrebates, Eppillus, rebelled against his brother, Tincommius, around 5 A.D. He issued coins bearing the legend "CALLE"

The town seems to have come under the jurisdiction of the Catuvellauni to the north and their ruler Cognidubnus. At any rate, the latter's welcome to the Roman invaders of 43 A.D., ensured that Calleva quickly became a Roman provincial capital.

The town walls were initially palisaded embankments, but around 270 A.D., they were re-built of stone. Like any good Roman town, this one had a basilica, forum and temples.

The town may have been looted at the time of the battle between Allectus and the forces of Constantius in 296 A.D. by the forces of one side or the other. The decisive battle was fought not far to the south.

After the withdrawal of the Roman legions in 410 A.D., the town carried on until possibly early into the sixth century. After that it was abandoned, never to be re-populated. In it's place the nearby village of Silchester was founded by the Saxons, maybe using the re-cycled stone from Calleva.

Why was it abandoned? The period between the departure of the Romans and the take-over by the Saxons is shrouded in chaos and mystery. Modern scholarship suggests that the Saxons didn't simply chase the native Britons out or slaughter them wholesale. For a start, the Saxons didn't have it all their own way; they had their own defeats. They were probably not interested in moving into the existing towns, preferring the rural life. Caleva, and towns like it may have just withered away, much of their functions of government and trade being redundant. Epidemics, of which a number are known about, may have delivered the coup de grace. Calleva has remained abandoned to this day.

Entry of the Gladiators. The Amphitheatre. The Amphitheatre.

The site

The site consists of flat green fields, the only inhabitants being curious cows. However, the Roman walls surrounding the site are almost complete, although not at their full height. Outside the walls are earth-works, parallel ditches. A larger, outer ditch defines the settlement of the Iron-age inhabitants. The ditches close to the walls are the result of the building of a pallisaded rampart at the beginning of the Roman period. The stone walls were built around 270 A.D., possibly when the Governor of Britain, Clodius Albinus, attempted to usurp the power of the legitimate Emperor, Septimius Severus, by moving his troops to Gaul.

The main gates are to the North, South, East and West. The walls turn inward where the gates occur so that the gate-houses would have recessed compared with the face of the wall. The gatehouses themselves are no longer there, but they would have been mainly brick-built, rather than the stone of the walls. The North Gate spanned an opening of 4 metres and the recess for the threshold beam can still be seen.

In the eastern corner of the site, close to the East Gate is the church of St Mary the Virgin, built starting in the early 12th century, possibly on the site of a Roman temple, using re-cycled Roman building materials.

Just outside the Eastern Gate is the amphitheatre. Originally it consisted of earth banks for seating, but later a stone retaining wall was built around the arena. The amphitheatre would have held between 3,500 and 7,250 people. During the 12th century an aisled hall was built on the arena, with a protective pallisade on the surrounding banks. This may have been the Castellum de Silva captured by King Stephen in 1147 during his wars with Matilda.

A section of the South/West walls. Most of the entire walls are about this height. The South Gate. View from inside the town. The brick gate itself, would have stood in the foreground of the picture.

Excavations

The site was excavated between 1890 and 1909. By the standards of the day, the excavation was quite good, but destroyed the evidence that modern methods could have made more sense of. Most of the finds are now in Reading Museum. There is also a small "un-manned" museum near the site. This museum, like the site itself, is difficult to find unless you know where it is. Every summer since 1997, an organised group of undergraduates from Reading University Archaeological department have undertaken excavations in Insula IX, one of the "city blocks" to the north-west of the town, near the site of the Forum. Public access is catered for and encouraged and finds are exhibited on site. One of the student guides there assured me that even though the same area was being excavated every year, artefacts and information were still being discovered. Personally, I think the artefacts are being secretly re-buried during the winter! The excavation has produced a great mound of roof tile fragments and the public are allowed to take a piece home as a souvenir.

The Church of St Mary the Virgin, just inside the walls. Worth a visit in it's own right. Remains of the brick structure of the South gate.

Excavators from the University of Reading hard at work. Hey! who mentioned lunch?


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