Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (2020) p/b 682pp £80 (ISBN: 9780907764472)

Michael Fulford is the leading authority on Silchester.  This work by him and four colleagues is the latest addition to his formidable output.  The book records the results of excavating Insula IX, some 3,025 square metres of the Roman town, between 1997 and 2014.

Section 1 is an account of the site and the excavation.  The site was divided into six zones.  Six chronological periods are identified, but most of the focus is on period 0 (10 BC to AD 45/50) and period 1 (AD 43-85).  Figures 4 to 7 show plans of the site in periods 0 and 1.  Two main trackways were present in both periods.  The North-South street and East-West street were added in period 1.  Traditional circular buildings were present in both periods, but in the later period rectangular timber buildings also appeared.  The Romano-British town was essentially a development of the Iron Age oppidum.

A well in Zone 2 (well 1586) was found to contain two flagons and four beakers, which were largely intact (see the book’s frontispiece).  They were probably a votive deposition, either when the well was sunk or, perhaps, when it was abandoned.  The chthonic gods were no doubt delighted to receive some good quality vessels.  The central zones, Zones 3 and 4 (discussed on pp. 62-139), are the most important.  Structure 31 in Zone 4 may have been a taberna.  This is inferred from the abundant pottery finds, its location on the main road passing through Silchester and other less salubrious indicators, such as the quantity of faecal remains.

Sections 2 and 3 comprise detailed chapters, discussing individual finds and the environmental evidence.  They are the work of the main authors and numerous contributors.  They span some 400 pages of detailed description and analysis, which a review such as this cannot summarise.

Fulford alone is the author of section 4, discussion and synthesis.  The main point which he makes is that ‘there is no obvious break between the pre-conquest, period 0 and post-conquest occupation’ (page 567)’.  There is evidence of a Roman military presence late in period 0 and early period 1.  Figure 308 is an artist’s impression of Insula IX in period 1.  It shows both traditional round houses and more ‘modern’ rectangular structures.  Both were built of timber, with clay flooring.  They were sourced locally, which suggests a similar regime of woodland management before and after the Conquest.  One change in practice during period 1 was the burial of neonates within the settlement.  The density of occupation and consumption of ceramics increased.

It is possible to infer from mineralised material in cesspits what people were eating.  The basic diet remained the same in both periods: spelt wheat and six-row hulled barley, peas, Celtic beans, meat from game birds, cattle, caprine and pigs.  But there were also developments in period 1.  Lentils first appeared on the menu.  There was greater consumption of pork.  People eat much more fish, which was probably good for them.  For pudding they enjoyed some new fruits: these must have come from the Continent.

What did people do every day?  Many activities continued from the Iron Age, but with some intensification.  There was farming, obviously.  Animal husbandry continued, with many animals being stabled inside the settlement.  Leather-working was an activity in both period 0 and period 1.  This can be inferred from the presence of awls, needles, punches and hobnails.  There was trade with Gaul in both periods, but that increased after the Conquest.  Ritual behaviour, such as depositing offerings to gods in wells, continued as before.  Fulford also identifies a ‘Callevan identity’ which existed in both periods, evidenced for example by the use of Silchester ware and a fairly distinctive diet.  He contrasts Silchester with other urban settlements in the region, namely London, Colchester, Chichester and Winchester.

The extent to which the Conquest in AD 43 really made a difference to Britain (which was already set upon a trajectory of change) is a hot topic amongst scholars.  This book makes a real contribution to that debate by presenting detailed evidence and analysis from Silchester.  It is not for the casual reader or the faint hearted.  But for Roman Britain enthusiasts, it has much to offer.


Rupert Jackson