Iron Age and Roman Silchester: excavations in the site of the forum-basilica
1977, 1980-1986 by Michael Fulford and Jane Timby
Britannia Monograph Series No 15. Society for the promotion of Roman Studies 2000. With 613 pages, 242 figures. ISBN 0-907764-24-X.
The report of the excavations on the site of the forum basilica at Silchester represents the latest, and probably most ambitious, of Fulford’s investigations into the roman town. Covering the period from the late iron age through to the late roman period, this volume is ambitious in its scope. Its origins, as set out by Fulford in the preface, lie in the academic debate in the 1970s and 80s covering the question of definition and function of the oppidum, and in particular the ‘territorial oppidum’ of the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD. These formed a notable, but little understood, feature of the settlement pattern of south-east England during the immediate pre-roman period,. This excavation offered the opportunity to answer some of the questions concerning their layout, their function and their relationship to the wider settlement patterns.
The report presents the results of excavations on the site in 1977 and between 1980 and 1986, and covers a sequence of pre-roman layers beginning from the last decades BC, as well as two phases of roman timber buildings prior to the already known plan of the Hadrianic basilica. The excavations reveal a complex development, with occupation from c.25BC consisting of a series of roundhouses, wells and other structures. This was replaced during a major reorganization c.15BC with evidence for planning furnished by 2 roads at right angles and plots at right angles to these; during the latest iron age period, these plots appear to have been replaced by a series of palisaded enclosures. In the years following the conquest (the precise date being unclear) this was replaced by a timber courtyard building, then in the Flavian period by a timber basilica, and finally by the stone basilica during the Hadrianic period.
To deal with the report itself, at 613 pages it is a lengthy and detailed description of both structures and the finds. The text is fully supported by numerous illustrations and plans which help unravelling such a complex site. The sections on the finds dominate, with full publication of the artefactual and ecofactual evidence. These are more than token catalogues, but the various authors provide intelligent discussion of their interpretation in relation to a variety of research questions. In particular, the ceramic section by Jane Timby provides an important discussion of the development of pottery between the later 1st century BC and the late 1st century AD. Timby sets the Silchester assemblage in relation to its hinterland and its regional context, allowing her to explore the nature of the relationship between this site and the outside world. Similarly, in the faunal section, Annie Grant not only discusses the changes and developments in animal husbandry and diet over time, but also the question of ritual practice and sacrifice. The section on the wall plaster should also be singled out for praise; it allows a reconstruction of the spatial patterning of colour which goes beyond the particularism of the art-historical tradition.
The report makes an important contribution to our understanding of the late iron age and the early roman period in the south of Britain. Fulford, in the synthesis, argues that Silchester developed from the late 1st century BC, with no evidence of earlier occupation, and thus mirrors other major sites in the south east of England, whilst still being distinct from the sites immediately surrounding it. Similarly, he argues for the adoption of certain forms of roman material culture during this period, especially in the faunal and ceramic evidence. This adds considerable material to the debates currently ongoing about the period between the Caesarian and Claudian invasions of Britain. The boundary between “iron age” and “roman” Britain is increasingly problematic, with evidence for substantial change prior to the Claudian conquest, drawing Britain into the roman sphere of influence. At Silchester it is clear that cultural changes occur in the decades prior to the conquest which involved a sophisticated use of the forms of material culture we think of as roman (urban planning, amphora, imported fine wares etc.).
From the roman side of the fence, the report also makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of roman fora-basilicas in Britain. It is clear that the development of the site is somewhat complex, with the construction of a timber courtyard building of uncertain function in the years immediately after the conquest. The function of this building is unclear: whether it is a military workshop or some form of early forum. Fulford favours the later interpretation, which given the lack of other evidence for substantial military occupancy, seems appealing. This was then replaced by first a more clear-cut timber forum-basilica and then the masonry example. Given the debate about the military origins of such buildings, as well as whether they were an imperial imposition by the Roman authorities, this detailed sequence of building and rebuilding adds some interesting nuances to a somewhat polarised discourse.
The recent re-evaluation of the evidence from the forum-basilica at London (reference) allows some interesting comparisons to be made between the two examples. Of particular note is the evidence for an altar in period 5. The fora of Roman Britain are known for their lack of substantial religious space compared with those on the continent. Although the central area of the basilica is difficult to interpret, it is clear that this formed some form of disruption of the central nave and aisles, and that it created an important axis with the altar. If this represents an important religious role for the forum, it was a role which was lost during the Hadrianic rebuild. This echoes the situation at London, where the enlargement of the forum, also in the first half of the second century AD, seems to have seen the loss of the podium temple lying just outside it. Although this might be completely coincidental, the disappearance of the religious space poses some interesting question about the changing functions of these buildings. A second comparison between the two buildings arises with the decoration of the building. Although there is no evidence for the decoration of the Hadrianic basilica, which is somewhat surprising, the period 5 deposits of painted wall plaster point to the distribution of colour similar to that at London, allowing us to reconstruct the spatial rhetoric of these buildings. And thirdly, the timber basilica seems to have been carefully demolished, possibly allowing some continued use of the area during the rebuilding. As this has also been demonstrated at London, it points to the importance of the forum basilica as a space and the activities being carried out within it.
Finally, the question of whether this volume is “a good thing”; as will be clear from the above comments, it will make a major contribution of the study of both the later pre-roman iron age and the development of the towns of roman Britain. Whilst it is possible to be pedantic over the absence of this map or that plan, the wealth of information available here would make such complaints somewhat petty. It is an important and fascinating insight into the archaeology for both iron age and roman specialist.
Review Submitted: June 2003
The views expressed in this review are not
necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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