Calleva Atrebatum

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Calleva Atrebatum
Britain 4.png
Site plan of Calleva Atrebatum
Calleva Atrebatum is located in England
Calleva Atrebatum
Shown within England
Alternate name Silchester Roman Town
Location Silchester, Hampshire, England
Region Brittania
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 Atrebatum (or Silchester Roman Town) 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 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.


Wall compared with 6' 1" figure
Wall detail

The Atrebates tribe founded their capital at the site of Silchester in the late first century BC. The walls of the Iron Age settlement enclosed an area of approximately 32 hectares (79 acres). 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. It was finally abandoned in the 5th to 7th century, which is unusually late compared to other deserted Roman settlements.[1]

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[2] 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.[3]

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.[4][5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

Since the 1970s the University of Reading has become increasingly involved in new excavations. Work has been undertaken on the amphitheatre and the forum basilica, which has revealed remarkably good preservation of items from both the Iron Age and early Roman occupations. Since 1997[8] exploration of one of the central insulae of the town has been undertaken. Results indicated that the scope for further work inside and outside the walls is enormous.[6]

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."[9] It may originally have formed part of a Jupiter statue in the forum of the Roman town.


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 archeological finds from the various excavations.


  1. ^ "History and Research: Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 22 September 2013. 
  2. ^ Kennedy, Maev (1999-04-09). "Burials 'show Roman city was cursed'". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-12-17. 
  3. ^ "A Guide to Silchester". Silchester Insula IX. University of Reading. June 2009. Retrieved 2005-09-22. 
  4. ^ "Calleva Atrebatum - Roman Silchester". Discover Hampshire. Hampshire County Council. 2006-04-03. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2009-08-20. 
  5. ^ "Silchester Roman City Walls and Amphitheatre". English Heritage. Retrieved 2005-09-22. 
  6. ^ a b "History of the Excavations". Silchester Roman Town - A Guide to Silchester. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 2005-09-22. 
  7. ^ Barker, Philip (1993). Techniques of Archaeological Excavation. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 30. ISBN 0-415-15152-X. 
  8. ^ "The Insula IX Excavation". Silchester Roman Town - The 'Town Life' Project 1997-2002. University of Reading. 2004. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  9. ^ Reading Museum's Silchester Eagle PDF

Further reading[edit]

  • Aston, Michael; Bond, James (1976). The Landscape of Towns. Archaeology in the Field Series. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. pp. 45–49. ISBN 0-460-04194-0. 
  • Clarke, A; Fulford, M; Rains, M; Shaffrey, R (2001). "The Victorian Excavations of 1893". Silchester Roman Town - The Insula IX Town Life Project. University of Reading. Retrieved 2005-12-20. 
  • Clarke, A; Eckardt, H; Fulford, M; Rains, M; Tootell, K (2005). "Late Roman Insula IX". Silchester Roman Town - The Insula IX Town Life Project. University of Reading. Retrieved 2005-12-20. 
  • Pevsner, Nikolaus; Lloyd, David (1967). Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The Buildings of England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. pp. 503–505. 

External links[edit]