Today I went to check out what's happening at the archaeological excavation of Silchester, which was the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum. Located between Reading and Basingstoke, about 60 miles west of London, Silchester is one of the biggest teaching digs in the country.
Dr Hella Eckardt -- Lecturer in Roman Archaeology at the University of Reading -- has invited me to come see what was happening because I hope to set a future Roman Mystery mini-mystery at Silchester. Hella's specialty is diaspora in the Roman Empire. In other words, what were North Africans doing in Roman York? And what were people from the Rhineland doing in Silchester? Hella studies their bones and grave goods to get the answers. She likes my books because I have different ethnic groups and nationalities and this reflects what the Roman empire was like! She and I are also going to collaborate on some worksheets for school-children to do when they visit the site.
It is a beautiful summer day with friendly fluffy clouds, the kind of day when England is at its best. Site director Jon meets me at Mortimer train station and drives me to the site. I find Hella and she introduces me to excavation director Amanda Clarke and excavator Mike Fulford, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. Mike has been excavating Silchester for over 30 years! I ask him what was unique about this Romano-British settlement and he tells me it was special because it thrived from the Iron Age continuously through the Roman period. Then in the 6th century AD it was completely abandoned.
Hella gives me a tour of the site. Over a hundred volunteers (mostly students) are helping to excavate one insula (city block) of the town. This insula had some private houses as well as small industries, like a metal-workers and perhaps fullers' (laundries). Like most archaeological sites, it is quite confusing, with many different layers of occupation. You have to have a certain kind of mind to understand what's going on. Hella does have that kind of mind. I don't. Even though she explains it clearly my attention wanders. I am more interested in the tents and the portaloos and the fact that all the volunteers have to be driven a few miles to take showers! Also, they are having a masked ball in the marquee this evening for their end-of-dig party.
I perk up when Hella shows me some of the artefacts they've found this season. This summer, they have been 'digging in the AD 60's and 70's' which means they're at the level which puts them exactly during the time my books are set. Hella shows me a dupondius of Vespasian (you can recognize his ugly mug even through two thousand years of corrosion) and also one of Claudius, during whose reign Britannia was first occupied. She also lets me examine a bronze fibula, a pair of bent tweezers and two iron signet rings, both with intaglios made of pale yellow glass paste (?). One signet ring has a tiny horse's head and boar's head, the other has a centaur looking at a shrine. I also see a clay tile with the footprint of a dog imprinted in it. Here is evidence of a ancient Romano-British dog running across tiles drying in the sun!
It's the last day of the season and there is a mechanical crane called a 'cherry-picker' there, so that photographers can take aerial views of the site. Amanda says that Hella and I can go up in it! From up here you can get a bird's eye view of the excavation. We look down and can clearly see a well, traces of a round building, the road running from the Northern Gate to the Southern Gate and other such things.
After the breathtaking view from the cherry picker, we sit on a finds bench and eat a sandwich lunch and discuss the site.
Here are some interesting facts about Calleva Atrebatum:
Calleva means 'woodland'.
Atrebatum means 'of the tribe of Atrebati'.
Nobody knows why the town grew up on that particular site.
Nobody knows why it was completely abandoned many years later.
A nearby church is built on the site of a Romano-British temple.
There is an amphitheatre outside the town walls.
There's a strange marker inscribed with 5th century AD Irish script.
(Sadly too late for my books)
Some of the wells are lined with wine-barrels made of silver fir.
Silver fir only grows in the Alps.
The barrels probably contained Rhineland wine.