Exeavating the CA arehive Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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.
excavators: Michael Fulford and Amanda Clarke. Fulford is the name that most people associate with Silchester, but he has himself (as
ABOVE Excavations at Silchester appeared on the cover for the first time in CA 82.
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 7S (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.
SILCHESTER'S GREAT EXCAVATIONS 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 solutionthat 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.
Investigations at the site carried on throughout the 1980s, and among Silchester's many claims to 'greatness'
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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 Qanuary 2002).
Before this, in CA ISS (December 1997), the site had reappeared with news of what became the greatest of all
TEAM FULFORD AND CLARKE If Silchester is a 'great excavation', then two people have been its great
LEFT The cover of CA 177 featured the site again, but with a reconstruction drawing by Margaret Mathews that combined modern photography and computer imagery.