Calleva Atrebatum

Calleva Atrebatum

Site plan of Calleva Atrebatum
Shown within Hampshire
Alternate name Silchester Roman Town
Location Silchester, Hampshire, England
Region Britannia
Coordinates 51°21′26″N 1°4′57″W / 51.35722°N 1.08250°W / 51.35722; -1.08250Coordinates: 51°21′26″N 1°4′57″W / 51.35722°N 1.08250°W / 51.35722; -1.08250
Type Settlement
Area Approximately 40 ha (99 acres)
Builder Atrebates tribe
Founded Late 1st century BC
Abandoned 5th to 7th century AD
Periods Iron Age to Roman Empire
Site notes
Management English Heritage
Website Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre
OS grid reference: SU639624

Calleva, formally Calleva Atrebatum ("Calleva of the Atrebates"), was an Iron Age oppidum and subsequently a town in the Roman province of Britannia and the civitas capital of the Atrebates tribe. Its ruins are now known as Silchester Roman Town and are beneath and to the west of the Parish Church of St Mary the Virgin, which is just within the town wall and about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of the modern village of Silchester, in the English county of Hampshire close to the boundary with Berkshire. Reading is some 9 miles (14 km) north-east and Basingstoke is 5 miles (8.0 km) south. The Ordnance Survey grid reference is SU639624.



Evidence for the presence of a Late Iron Age oppidum at Silchester is derived from numismatic evidence and archaeological excavations over the 20th century. Coins of the British Q series link Silchester with the seat of power of the Atrebates, and coins stamped with COMMIOS have been used to associate Calleva Atrebatum with the historical figure Commius, who is thought to have fled to Britain from Gaul.[1][2] The Late Iron Age oppidum was situated on the edge of a gravel plateau, underlying the subsequent Roman town. The Inner Earthwork, constructed c. 1 AD, enclosed an area of 32ha, and a more extensive series of earthworks were present in the wider area. Small areas of Late Iron Age occupation have been uncovered on the south side of the Inner Earthwork [3] and around the South Gate.[4] More detailed evidence for Late Iron Age occupation was excavated below the Forum-Basilica. Several roundhouses, wells and pits were present on a north-east - south-west alignment, dated to c. 25 BC - 15 BC. Subsequent occupation, dated to c. 15 BC - AD 40/50, consisted of metalled streets, rubbish pits and palisaded enclosures. Imported Gallo-Belgic finewares, amphorae and iron and copper-alloy brooches show that the settlement was high status. Also distinctive evidence for food was identified, including oyster shell, a large briquetage assemblage and sherds from amphorae which would have contained olive oil, fish sauce and wine.[5] Further areas of Late Iron Age occupation have been uncovered by the Insula IX 'Town Life' Project. Excavation of the Late Iron Age phases have provided evidence for a substantial boundary ditch c. 40 - 20 BC, a large rectangular hall c. 25 BC - AD 10 and the laying out of lanes and new property divisions c. AD 10 - 40/50.[6]

A map of major 2nd-century Roman roads, showing the importance of Calleva as a crossroads of routes leading west from Londinium (London)


After the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD the settlement developed into the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum. It was slightly larger, about 40 hectares (99 acres), and was laid out along a distinctive street grid pattern. The town contained a number of public buildings and flourished until the early Anglo-Saxon period. A large mansio was situated in Insula VIII, near the South Gate, consisting of three wings arranged around a courtyard.[7]

Calleva was a major crossroads. The Devil's Highway connected it with the provincial capital Londinium (London). From Calleva, this road divided into routes to various other points west, including the road to Aquae Sulis (Bath); Ermin Way to Glevum (Gloucester); and the Port Way to Sorviodunum (Old Sarum near modern Salisbury).


Silchester was finally abandoned in the 5th to 7th century, which is unusually late compared to other deserted Roman settlements.[8] Ford identifies the site with the Cair Celemion of Nennius's list of the 28 cities of Sub-Roman Britain.[9] Most Roman towns in Britain continued to exist after the end of the Roman era, and consequently their remains underlay their more recent successors, which are often still major population centres. There is a suggestion[10] that the Saxons deliberately avoided Calleva after it was abandoned, preferring to maintain their existing centres at Winchester and Dorchester. There was a gap of perhaps a century before the twin Saxon towns of Basing and Reading were founded on rivers either side of Calleva. As a consequence, Calleva has been subject to relatively benign neglect for most of the last two millennia.[11]

A 180 cm figure standing on the exposed remaining wall
Calleva's ruined amphitheatre

Modern excavation

The earthworks and, for much of the circumference, the ruined walls are still visible. The remains of the amphitheatre, added about AD 70-80 and situated outside the city walls, can also be clearly seen. The area inside the walls is now largely farmland with no visible distinguishing features, other than the enclosing earthworks and walls, with a tiny mediaeval church in one corner.[12][13] There is a spring that emanates from inside the walls, in the vicinity of the original baths, and which flows south-eastwards where it joins Silchester Brook.

Excavations at Calleva (Insula IX)

Calleva was partially excavated by the Society of Antiquaries of London between 1890 and 1909, and this excavation provided valuable information about civic life and daily life in the first centuries of the Common Era, as well as a map of the town. Whilst the excavation techniques of the time were adequate to deal with buildings with stone foundations, work in other towns of Roman Britain has revealed that timber construction predominated in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and the early excavations were not capable of recovering evidence of these buildings.[14] This excavation was believed to have destroyed evidence that might have been analysed with current technology and practices. As archaeological study of this kind can be a destructive process, the excavation of Calleva is frequently mentioned as an example of why complete excavation should not be performed.[15]

Molly Cotton carried out excavations on the defences from 1938-39.[16] Since the 1970s Michael Fulford and the University of Reading have undertaken several excavations on the town walls (1974–80),[17] amphitheatre (1979–85) [18] and the forum basilica (1977, 1980–86),[19] which has revealed remarkably good preservation of items from both the Iron Age and early Roman occupations. From 1997 to 2014 [20] the 'Town Life' project has undertaken excavation of the north-eastern area of Insula IX. Results of the Late Roman [21] and Mid Roman phases have been published.[22] In 2013, excavations began in Insula III, investigating a structure identified by the Victorian excavations as a bathhouse.[23]

A wingless Roman eagle discovered in excavations at the basilica in 1866 was part of the inspiration for Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth. The Museum of Reading, which houses the Silchester eagle, states that it "is not a legionary eagle but has been immortalized as such by Rosemary Sutcliff."[24] It may originally have formed part of a Jupiter statue in the forum of the Roman town.

Silchester Amphitheatre Panorama 360 degrees
Silchester Amphitheatre Panorama 360 degrees.


Now primarily owned by Hampshire County Council and managed by English Heritage, the site of Calleva is open to the public during daylight hours, seven days a week and without charge. The full circumference of the walls is accessible, as is the amphitheatre. The interior is farmed and, with the exception of the church and a single track that bisects the interior, inaccessible. Current excavations are sometimes open for visitors, and occasional organised open days are held; see the Reading University web site ('External links' below) for details.

The Museum of Reading in Reading Town Hall has a gallery devoted to Calleva, displaying many archaeological finds from the various excavations.


  1. G, Boon (1957). Roman Silchester. London: Max Parrish and Co.
  2. Creighton, John (2006). Britannia: the Creation of a Roman Province. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 21–22.
  3. Boon, G. 1969. Belgic and Roman Silchester: excavations of 1954-8 with an excursus on the early history of Calleva. Archaeologia 102: 1-81.
  4. Fulford, M. 1984. Silchester: Excavations on the Defences 1974-80. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 5
  5. Fulford, M. and Timby, J. 2000. Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: Excavations on the Site of the Forum Basilica, 1977, 1980-86. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia monograph Series No. 15
  6. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Pankhurst, N; Lucas, S (2013). Silchester Insula IX: the 'Town Life' Project 2012. Reading: Department of Archaeology, University of Reading.
  7. Boon, George (1957). Roman SIlchester: The Archaeology of a Romano-British Town. London: Max Parrish.
  8. "History and Research: Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
  9. Ford, David Nash. "[ The 28 Cities of Britain]" at Britannia. 2000.
  10. Kennedy, Maev (1999-04-09). "Burials 'show Roman city was cursed'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-12-17.
  11. "A Guide to Silchester". Silchester Insula IX. University of Reading. June 2009. Retrieved 2005-09-22.
  12. "Calleva Atrebatum - Roman Silchester". Discover Hampshire. Hampshire County Council. 2006-04-03. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2009-08-20.
  13. "Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 2005-09-22.
  14. "History of the Excavations". Silchester Roman Town - A Guide to Silchester. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 2005-09-22.
  15. Barker, Philip (1993). Techniques of Archaeological Excavation. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 30. ISBN 0-415-15152-X.
  16. Cotton, M. A. 1947. Excavations at Silchester 1938-9. Archaeologia 92: 121-167.
  17. Fulford, M (1984). Silchester: Excavations on the Defences 1974-80. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 5.
  18. Fulford, M (1989). The Silchester Amphitheatre: Excavations of 1979-85. London: Society for Antiquaries. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
  19. Fulford, M; Timby, J (2000). Late Iron Age and Roman Silchester: Excavations on the Site of the Forum Basilica, 1977, 1980-86. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia monograph Series No. 15.
  20. "The Insula IX Excavation". Silchester Roman Town - The 'Town Life' Project 1997-2002. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 2008-12-07.
  21. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Eckardt, H (2006). Life and Labour in Late Roman Silchester: Excavations in Insula IX since 1997. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia Monograph Series No. 22.
  22. Fulford, M; Clarke, A (2011). Silchester: City in Transition: the Mid-Roman Occupation of Insula IX c. A.D. 125-250/300: a Report on Excavations Undertaken Since 1997. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Britannia Monograph Series no. 25.
  23. Fulford, M; Clarke, A; Pankhurst, N; Lambert-Gates, S (2015). Silchester: The 'Town' Life Project 2014 (PDF). Reading: Department of Archaeology, University of Reading.
  24. Reading Museum's Silchester Eagle PDF

Further reading

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