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The best surviving and most upstanding Roman remains in the north of Hampshire are the walls surrounding Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), a civitas capital. Just outside them, at the northeast corner, stands the oval form of the town’s amphitheatre. It escaped examination a century ago, when much of the site was sampled as it did not lie within the Wellington Estate. It was only when it was taken into Guardianship in 1979 that a programme of seven years excavation took place, led by Mike Fulford of Reading University, at the request of the former Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.
British amphitheatres tend to be smaller than those found on the Continent and generally have three characteristics in common: they are always outside town walls, are variable in orientation to street grids or defences and consist of local material that supports the cavea (seating) with no record of purely masonry support. The amphitheatre at Silchester displays all these characteristics.
The first timber phase at Silchester was constructed to a circular plan probably between about AD 55-75 on land that had been in prior use, as evidenced by two substantial ditches, which it truncated, and by a pottery-making site beneath the western seating bank from which coarse-ware wasters were found among pre-Flavian finds.
Seating was not free-standing and was supported on material excavated from the site. The overall capacity is estimated to have been about 3600 to 3700 although if spectators stood on wide terraces more than 7000 may have been accommodated.
The second timber phase, difficult to date but perhaps of the mid -2nd century AD when masonry was the preferred building material, did not fundamentally change these arrangements. The original entrance layouts were retained and it seems very likely that there was no disturbance to the recesses on the east-west axis but efforts were focused on adapting the arena plan to give it an oval shape.
The arena wall of the second timber phase was replaced in the 3rd century by one of stone which consisted mostly of flint with some use of greensand and sarsen. Flint was also the preferred material used in the re-construction of the passage walls, while brown ironstone was used in the refurbishment of the arena surface. The dimensions of the arena were slightly increased to about 45.5 by 39.m with its oval shape unchanged. It has been found difficult to date the stone re-construction phase although a plausible suggestion is the time of arrival in Britain of Septimius Severus in 208 AD. Such an event may well have justified the considerable expenditure incurred – estimated to be comparable with the cost of the original construction.
About the time that the Silchester amphitheatre was being constructed, the monument at Pompeii on the Bay of Naples was being overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius. This froze in time an arena which had been built 150 years before, when the name given to them was ‘Spectacula’. The term amphitheatre (‘double theatre’) came later. The Pompeii seating could accommodate over 2000 in the best seats (separated by a deep moat from those behind!) and about 25000 overall, more than six times Silchester. There were also special boxes on the top tier for ladies – as Augustus thought it wrong for them be too near the action…and action there certainly was. Supporters at a gladiatorial show in AD 59 got out of hand and a riot took place between the Pompeiians and visiting Nucerians. This resulted in a 10-year ban for such shows at Pompeii, and exile for those who had staged it.
If Pompeii had not been buried in ash and lava, the amphitheatre would almost certainly have been improved, with the provision of an under-floor level, as at nearby Pozzuoli.
Positive evidence for the use of the Silchester amphitheatre is too sparse to draw any firm conclusions. Animal remains, predominantly horse, were retrieved from all three construction phases and it may be that there were equestrian displays, possibly animal hunts (venationes) or even beast fights. There is no evidence of gladiatorial contests and Nemesea, serving some religious purpose, seems to be the most acceptable explanation for the recesses on the east-west axis.
It is quite likely that the amphitheatre fell into disuse and eventual abandonment sometime in the mid – 4th century as evidenced by the finding of two coins of that period. It has also been suggested that the robbing-out of the stone wall could have occurred not much later, although the construction of the parish church of St. Mary 1125-1250 AD may be a more probable cause.
There is as yet no evidence that the amphitheatre may have been used in the post-Roman period until at least the 11th century when a single-aisled hall was built and a number of pits were dug within it. Pottery finds indicate a short period of occupation and the other contemporary structural changes do not preclude the use of the site as a castle during the ‘Anarchy’ of the reign of King Stephen (1135-54).
Thereafter from the 15th century until the 1970s the arena served as a yard for a nearby farm with late-17th to early 18th century pottery, glass and building material from the south entrance vicinity indicating the presence of a long-vanished cottage.
The amphitheatre has an evocative atmosphere and is well worth the short walk from the Church should you be visiting Silchester Roman Town.
Fulford, M (1989) The Silchester Amphitheatre, Excavations of 1979-85. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
Archive; A1980.65 held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
The Hampshire Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic tool. Under its alternative title of the Archaeology and Historic Buildings Record (AHBR) it can be accessed and interrogated on-line in all manner of ways. If you want to know whether your village, town or parish hides items of archaeological or historical interest it’s the place to start, and it can lead you on a trail towards obscure reports (we call them ‘grey literature’) as well as published evidence.
Using the database it’s easy to get hooked on searching for your favourite type of site – Roman villas, for instance (104 results) – and then while away an evening, sifting through the various leads, which might head you towards some splendid find displayed in a museum, or alternatively into a ditch terminal. As more and more illustrative material becomes digitally available and linked-in, the historic environment will be more and more at our fingertips and our appreciation of what has gone before will be much enhanced.
One large step along this route has been taken by the staff of the Hampshire County Council Historic Environment Section, with the release of the Atlas of Hampshire’s Archaeology. Using the 50,000 records at their disposal, David Hopkins (County Archaeologist) and Alan Whitney (Historic Data Manager) have produced a set of forty maps which span the periods from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) which began around 10,000 years ago, to the end of the Roman occupation (about 1600 years ago). The excellent base maps employ either topography (15 altitude bands) or landscape type (derived from a palette of 25 pastel shades) and this, together with the river systems, allows the current character of the country to be easily read.
When it comes to putting things on the map, there are at least forty different symbols employed, but these range from just three for our Middle Stone Age ancestors, to eleven on one of the Roman maps. This inevitably leads to a bit of congestion, especially when the symbol for a single find is essentially larger than an industrial estate, but care has been taken to make everything fit sympathetically.
A genuine sense of distribution can be obtained for all periods – and an appreciation of the physical relationship of communities with soil types and river systems. It highlights the enigma of the Neolithic in Hampshire – long barrows, yes, but why on earth no causewayed enclosures, cursus monuments or henges? It also shows how, by the following Bronze Age – to judge from the spread of round barrows – there were no ‘no go’ areas. In the Iron Age – a period blessed with 14 maps – grain and wool processing are among particular activities that can be teased out and ‘banjo enclosures’ also have their part to play; on the Roman maps, the layout of the road system brings communications well and truly to the fore.
Roman roads are an interesting subject, and have a number of people committed to their study. The current maps don’t include the routes through the New Forest surveyed by Arthur Clarke (2003), the last Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, which would enhance the western approaches. Other features that don’t fare well (in the Bronze Age) are the so-called ‘ranch boundaries’, sometimes termed ‘Wessex linears’, which are represented by a static symbol when their role, interpreted by some as the first tangible manifestation of territories (Cunliffe, 1993), would be better shown by a true representation.
The maps are accompanied by short essays summarising the character of each period, particularly with regard to the landscape. Indeed, the word ‘landscape’ wins out in any word count and is perhaps a little repetitive, especially when it is contrasting the ‘farmed’ with the ‘wild’. True, the landscape is the canvas holding the scene together, but with such vivid and varied pictures being painted by the human activity, it could perhaps be allowed to slip into the background a little. Alternatively, simpler maps showing the advance of the ‘farmed’ at the expense of the ‘wild’ would make the point – but would take a lot more preparation!
The maps throw up a number of issues not explored in the text, issues that tend to dog distribution maps. The concentration of finds in certain areas will be the result of individual fieldwork (George Willis et al around Basingstoke, for example, or Malcolm Lyne (2012) in Binsted and environs) and the growth of certain towns (Basingstoke, Andover etc) will have provided many more opportunities for discovery than other locations. Aerial cover will also be uneven, although in time the increasing use of LIDAR will bring greater equality. As a result there will inevitably be some bias on display, but the maps do a brilliant job in presenting the current state of knowledge and providing food for thought.
And in so doing, they are the perfect spur and complement to further research. The national ‘Atlas of Hillforts’ , for example, is nearing completion and it will be interesting to see how much variety is proposed in the survey for the forty or so ‘hillforts’ on the Hampshire map. Also, the Roman layout is forever being reconsidered – including roads that deviate for unknown reasons – whither Vindomis? etc ; and the monumental ‘desert’ that is the Neolithic remains as intriguing as ever.
So do make use of the maps – and having taken in the broad sweep of thousands of years of human history, consult the Historic Environment Record, and dig a little deeper.
Dave Allen, Curator of Hampshire Archaeology, Hampshire Cultural Trust
Clarke, A (2003) The Roman road on the eastern fringe of the New Forest, Hampshire Studies, Vol 58, 33-58
Cunliffe, B W (1993), Wessex to A D 1000. p129 ff
Lyne, M (2012), Archaeological Research in Binsted, Kingsley and Alice Holt Forest, BAR British Series 574
Just to the southwest of the walled Roman town of Silchester is a late Iron Age earthwork. In 1985, for the first time in many years, the adjacent area was ploughed. Searching by a metal detectorist unearthed an elaborate and flamboyant gold finger-ring with strands of beaded gold wire forming a filigree hoop and a large engraved gem (intaglio). Such rings generally date to the last few decades of the Roman period in Britain and were widespread throughout the Roman Empire. The intaglio consists of onyx engraved with a satyr and a small cupid. Four late Roman silver coins were found nearby.
During the winter of 1986-7 further finds were detected nearby and coin finds reached 55 in total. Although the exact locations were not reported, a visit to the site by an archaeologist revealed a limited area of disturbance and it is thought likely that both sets of discoveries derive from a single hoard. A subsequent small excavation exposed no further late Roman material and no associated features. This suggests that the collection was lost or hidden and is most likely to have been a ‘flight’ hoard.
Of the 55 coins, all but three were heavily corroded, broken silver examples of the late 4th century AD. At least 13 of them had been ‘clipped’, a practice dated to the reign of Constantine II (407-11 AD). Four additional rings were found, two complete gold examples and two fragmentary, one of which was silver. Because of potential plough damage it is impossible to tell whether the incomplete and broken rings were part of a jeweller’s hoard or were damaged after their concealment.
One of the complete gold rings has a raised bezel set with a glass gem in imitation of onyx, cast with the device of a satyr carrying a hare. This ring is large and heavy; the other complete but distorted gold ring is much slighter, set with a re-used glass bead. Only very fragmentary and mineralised remains of the silver ring survived. This had also been set with an imitation onyx cast glass gem, decorated with the image of a seated bearded man reading from a scroll, interpreted as a philosopher.
Some of the items mentioned here are on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. The Silchester hoard, though smaller in size, can be compared through its composition to the late Romano-British Thetford Hoard, discovered in 1979 in Norfolk. Two rings from Thetford are similar to the Silchester gold ring with the glass bead; a satyr appears on a gold buckle-plate from Thetford.
N1997.20 – archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
M.G. Fulford, M. Henig and C. Johns, A Late Roman Gold Finger-Ring from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XVIII, 1987, pp.279-281.
M.G. Fulford, A.Burnett, and C. Johns, A Hoard of Late Roman Rings and Silver Coins from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XX, 1989, pp.219-228.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
Object photographs by Claire Woodhead.
When the much-needed Andover bypass swept around the southern reaches of the town in the late 1960s it sliced through the southwest corner of the 18 ha (45 acre) plateau enclosure of Balksbury. From that moment on, the earthwork’s days were numbered. Housing developments eventually arrived and now carpet nearly all of the interior, but at least the disappearance of the archaeology was well-documented, and six episodes of excavation are on record.
In 1939 the southern side of the defences was examined by Jacquetta Hawkes, while husband Christopher was busy excavating at nearby Bury Hill. Twenty years later the northeast corner of the enclosure was looked at during house-building. More substantial opportunities came in 1967 with the arrival of the bypass and again in 1973, when the same excavator, Geoff Wainwright, undertook one of his celebrated ‘big digs’, uncovering 10 ha of the interior. The Central Excavation Unit investigated a further 2 ha in 1981. Finally, between December 1995 and April 1997, another 5.5 ha of the interior was examined, additional work took place outside the enclosure, and a section of bank and ditch was looked at in detail.
Viewed as a whole, the site produced evidence from Neolithic to Late-Roman date, although the earliest activity is represented only by stray finds, including a Beaker burial of an adolescent female.
Around the 8th-9th centuries BC (Late Bronze Age) large-scale clearance of woodland preceded the construction of the enclosure. A single entrance was found to the southeast as well as three phases of bank and ditch, some involving timber strengthening. If there was any occupation at this period, it apparently took the form of a few four and five-post structures, scattered around the periphery. In the Early Iron Age the evidence is more substantial, with three round houses and 27 storage pits identified. Pits also dominated in the Middle Iron Age, with 90 attributable to this phase, but there were no recognisable structures.
In the Late Iron Age and Early Roman periods a number of pits and gullies were dug but the type of activity they represent is elusive. It does, however, appear to merge into the later Roman occupation which involved a substantial building with ovens (and painted wall plaster), a corn-drier, small enclosures, pits and burials. Finds included both local and imported pottery, worked bone and stone, coins and jewellery, including 11 brooches, four bracelets, five rings and a buckle plate. Part of a scabbard for a La Tene 1 type dagger, a rare find from a settlement site, is of Middle Iron Age date.
In the mid-1990s, the final phase of excavation concentrated on the nature and economy of the enclosure, rather than its wider landscape setting. The enclosure, at 18 ha, was too big to be defended effectively and its description as a ‘hillfort’ is wrong. It probably marked out an important place in the landscape, a focal point for communal activities, which may have included feasting, exchange of goods, and the means to build social relationships. Later activity took place in the centre of the site and the impression is of a succession of small farming settlements taking advantage of an existing, but redundant, enclosure.
A1978.12 Archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Balksbury Camp, Andover, Excavations 1973 & 1981, Wainwright & Davies (1995), English Heritage Archaeological Report 4.
Excavations at Balksbury Camp, Andover 1995-97, Ellis & Rawlings (2001), Hants Studies Vol 56.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
On 29 March, 1968, a bulldozer levelling a playing field near College Copse, Hamble, unearthed a hoard of Roman coins and the remains of the pot in which they had been buried. Some confusion followed regarding ownership but it was eventually decided that they belonged to the landowners, Hamble-le-Rice Parish Council, who had commissioned the landscaping works.
The coins went first to the Hampshire Museums Service and then to the British Museum, to be identified. A list of the hoard contents was published and the British Museum also purchased about 200 coins for their own collections. Hamble Parish Council retained 90 coins for display purposes. The remaining 2,190 were deposited with the Hampshire Museums Service, initially as a loan, but in 1997 the loan was changed to a gift and the coins accessioned as N1997.47.
In more recent years a selection of thirty representative coins has been remounted in a frame for display in Hamble.
A total of 2,494 coins have been accounted for, but it is possible that the hoard was originally larger. The majority (2,192) belong to the period 330 to 335. Only fourteen coins are older than this but 267 are younger, with the latest dating to 348-350. A burial date of around 350 therefore seems likely. A small number of coins (21) were not from official mints, but were ‘barbarous copies’ – contemporary forgeries! Such practices were rife in Roman times.
Large hoards of this date are quite common in Britain and Gaul and may relate to reforms in the coinage which took place in 348. Equally, the idea that they were buried as an offering to the gods should not be discounted.
The earliest coin in the hoard was issued by Claudius II (268-270). All the other coins belong to the 4th century and most were issued by Constantine I (‘the Great’) and his dynastic companions, including two imperial women, Helena and Theodora. Other well-represented coins include those struck to mark the dedication of Constantinople (Istanbul) as new capital of the Eastern Empire and to placate Rome, the old capital – both showing helmeted busts – personifications of the two cities.
By the 4th century, coins were being made at many imperial mints around the Empire and these are identified by mint marks. Most of the Hamble coins were manufactured close to Britain (London ceased production in 326) at Trier, Arles and Lyon, but there are also examples from numerous other sites including Nicomedia, Cyzicus and Antioch, showing just how far money travelled.
Recent Coin Hoards from Roman Britain Vol 1, British Museum, 1979; The Hamble and Chorleywood Hoards and the Gallic Coinage of AD 330-335
N1997.47 Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
Beneath a 1960s housing estate a mile to the north of the current town centre of Basingstoke lies a 26.7 m (87’) deep well; it was originally dug in the late 1st century AD, probably to provide water for cattle grazing on the slopes of a dry valley on the chalk downs. The well was associated with an occupation site comprising pits, enclosure ditches and field boundaries. During development of the estate in 1965, the field archaeology group of the Basingstoke Museum recorded the site; the finds suggest continuous occupation from the early/middle Iron Age to the late Romano-British period.
Although only limited examination of the settlement took place, the well was completely excavated. After a century of use, the well shaft filled up with both natural and deliberately placed deposits. Analysis of these, particularly the animal bones, provided information regarding the utilisation and disposal practices of carcasses and also changes in the local environment during the period of deposition which continued possibly up to the 7th century AD.
Excavation revealed that the weathering cone at the well-head narrowed from a diameter of 4.3 m to only 1.2 m at a depth of 4 m. The diameter remained approximately constant to a depth of 22.5 m, the level of the water table (which is probably the same now as when the well was in use). The lack of space in the shaft gave considerable difficulties to the excavators, particularly for the 4 m below the level of the water table, where pumps were required.
In the chalky silt at the bottom of the well (coloured blue in the section illustration) was found an almost complete late 1st century AD flagon, probably deposited as a propitiatory offering in order to ensure a good supply of water. Also found near the bottom in the primary deposits were some pieces of waterlogged wood which may have formed part of the winding gear: these may have fallen from the top of the well when it was abandoned, about a century after it had been dug.
The shaft then became a depository for unwanted material, making up the fill above a depth of 26m (85 feet) for almost 2m (coloured green in the illustration). Large quantities of bone refuse – waste from butchery or skin-processing – indicate that stock-raising continued. These layers contained pottery of late 2nd century date including a samian bowl in small pieces. This was decorated with figures of inebriated revellers, including dancing and flute-playing satyrs accompanying the god Bacchus (Dionysus).
A second period of deliberate dumping occurred in the late 3rd / early 4th centuries (coloured yellow). Two almost undamaged small, already 150-years-old, Antonine samian flagons had been carefully deposited. Other evidence of ritual behaviour included the deposit of large numbers of dog and puppy bones and two hare skeletons. This deposit comprises both rubbish and material of funerary/religious nature, including the co-mingled bones of two adults.
Over 2m (7 feet) of material (uncoloured in the section illustration) accumulated over a 50 year period before deliberate deposition resumed in the late 4th century (coloured orange in the illustration) from a depth of 20.5 – 16 m. Large quantities of animal bone were found, possibly all deposited within one breeding season. Some represented processing waste, but a number of complete cow skeletons were also found. Human skeletons (3 adults and 3 children) were also present and it has been suggested that a disease, such as anthrax, hit both the human and animal populations.
Above a depth of 16 m (52 feet) the fill was weathered chalk with almost no deliberate deposits (coloured pink in the illustration). During this period (late 4th to 7th centuries) the settlement was overgrown: evidence comes in the form of wild animal species – including swallows which probably nested in the shaft. A few human and domesticated animal bones indicate that the area was not completely deserted.
Oliver, M, 1993, The Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement at Oakridge, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc , Vol 48, pp.55-94.
Maltby, M, 1994. The Animal Bones from a Romano-British well at Oakridge II, Basingstoke, Proc Hants Field Club & Arch Soc, Vol 49, pp.47-76.
1965.426 etc; Archive held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust
- *The Basingstoke Museum field notebooks show that the depth reached by 25 February was about 47 feet – just over half way to the bottom. The water table was reached on 3 May. Pumps were installed and digging recommenced in mid-June. The work was not without its dangers and on 13 June, M Forward was taken to Casualty with a cut cheek that required two stitches and an anti-tetanus jab! By mid-August fragments of wood, straw and twigs were being retrieved, as well as lots of pottery. The end was in sight! It’s doubtful if a local group would attempt such an excavation in such a way today – health and safety issues would prevail.
Some of the finds are on display at the Willis Museum
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
The excavations at Rockbourne (1940s to 1970s) unearthed more than 700 coins scattered across the site, but ‘jackpot day’ came on Saturday, August 26th, 1967 when a hoard, of 7,714 bronze and silver-bronze antoninianii and three silver denarii, was found buried in a two-handled storage jar. The coins mostly belonged to the period 250 to 290, but issues of Diocletian and Maximianus suggested a deposition date of around 305.
The hoard caused great excitement at the time and the news even made some national papers, presumably resulting in a late-season rush of visitors to the villa. After the coins had been counted they were carried off to the village shop to be weighed (collectively!). As the scales were not up to the job, someone produced a set of bathroom scales and they provided a reading of 56lbs (25.4 kg).
A T Morley Hewitt, discoverer of the villa and owner of the site at the time, then set about having the coins cleaned and identified. When it was clear there were numerous duplicates – 2,439 issues of Tetricus I, for example, and 1,474 of Victorinus – he rewarded each of his regular diggers with a small packet of coins at the annual dinner later in the year.
This dispersal of the hoard continued in other ways, as the decision was made to sell some of the duplicates in order to raise funds for the continuing excavation. There was also some dispute about whether the ‘finder’ should have a significant share of the hoard. At the end of the day (or more precisely in 1979, when Hampshire County Council acquired the site and finds) only 986 coins were present, and only half of these ended up in the site archive. These 493 coins, along with the New Forest jar in which they were concealed, are part of the museum displays.
Debate continues about whether such hoards represent the hiding away of wealth, particularly in troubled times, or a religious offering to the gods. The discovery of the huge ‘Frome hoard’ in 2010 (52,503 coins in a very large pot) supports the votive offering theory. The excavator of the Frome find reported distinctive ‘organic matter’ around the pot, suggesting that this was packing to protect it. Morley Hewitt also mentions an organic component to the Rockbourne find, but it’s not clear in what quantity.
In 1894, a hoard of 4,020 coins, of similar date, was found on the site of Roman farm buildings at Whipps Hill, less than a mile from Rockbourne.
Rockbourne Roman Villa; A Guide £5 plus p&p, available from Hampshire Cultural Trust.
A1979.6 Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.