One of the curiosities associated with Silchester (a Roman town in Hampshire, known to its inhabitants as Calleva Atrebatum after the Iron Age people who previously inhabited the site; see CA 343 and 358) are finds of tiles stamped with the name and titles of Emperor Nero. The first was discovered in 1903-1904, in a pit adjacent to bathhouse remains that the Society of Antiquaries was investigating, and it would be another two decades before a second emerged – a mile and a half to the south, at Little London, in 1926. There, local antiquarian Colonel Karslake was exploring what he thought was a Roman brickyard, though he did not identify any kilns. Further examples of Nero tiles appeared at Silchester in the 1980s, during excavations of the forum basilica, and since then every major archaeological investigation within the town walls has produced more.
Why are these tiles significant? When excavating in the south and east of Britain, the most commonly found Roman artefacts are surely pieces of brick and tile. As these are bulky and take up too much storage space, though, they tend to be ruthlessly discarded, with only the most intrinsically ‘interesting’ examples typically retained – such as decorated pieces, tiles stamped with the maker’s name or initials, or those marked with animal foot-impressions. Records are usually kept, detailing the different types and quantities found in an excavation before disposal, but trying to make sense of what seem, by eye, to be identical or near-identical fabrics remains a challenge, so quantification by fabric on site is still a rarity. As a result, two sets of records exist in tandem: those documenting what brick and tile was consumed at settlement sites, and those concerning tile kilns, and what was produced there. We have all too few examples, however, where it has been possible to link producer and consumer through the study of distribution – even though brick and tile (‘ceramic building material’ or CBM) is one of the best surviving testimonies of a major part of the Roman construction industry.
Returning to the Nero tiles, the key thing about these distinctive artefacts is that they have, so far, not been found anywhere else in Britain other than at Silchester and Little London. What does this mean? To begin to address this question, excavations were carried out at both sites. Within Silchester, we hoped to establish what was being built there during Nero’s reign (AD 54-68). Meanwhile, over at Little London, we aimed to confirm whether or not tile kilns were present and, if so, the range of products created at the site and where in southern Britain, other than at Silchester, they had been used.
Tracing a tilery
At Little London, geophysical survey carried out by Historic England identified hot spots which looked as if they might represent evidence for up to eight kilns, some arranged in clusters of two or three. Sure enough, in 2017 excavation by the University of Reading confirmed one such group to be the location of a large and a small tile kiln. Some 50m from the latter, a second hot spot proved to be another kiln, and a third hot spot, close by, produced the remains of two more – but here there was a surprise. These last three kilns had not been used to make tiles, but pottery: an industry not previously suspected at Little London. Reading’s four-week excavation produced more than 4.5 tonnes of material, comprising some 17,000 pieces of brick and tile (a huge task of recording for Dr Sara Machin) and over 6,000 sherds of pottery, the great majority of which were wasters (pieces that had been damaged during firing), on which Dr Jane Timby has reported.
After examining this wealth of evidence, we can now see that a wide range of brick and tile was produced at Little London – including, most importantly, two more examples of Nero-stamped tile. The bulk of the assemblage is made up of the common types of brick and roofing material, but there are also a number of rarer items such as antefixes, skylights, distinctive types of flue-tile used in hypocausts, and voussoir tile used in the vaulting of bathhouses. Prominent among the flue- tile are those with roller-applied relief patterning, with examples using four different dies. Attention was first drawn to this kind of decoration by A W G Lowther in 1948, and since then these are among the items of brick and tile from excavations which are retained and made available for study (one notable result being the Corpus of Relief-patterned Tile in Roman Britain by Ian Betts, Ernest Black, and John Gower, published in 1997).
One type of roller-applied patterning, Betts, Black, and Gower’s die 39, had already been recorded from material picked up from the ploughsoil at Little London, and further examples of the same die are known from collections in Gloucestershire, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. But, crucially, were all those tiles made at Little London, or do they represent an itinerant tilemaker carrying their own rollers from place to place? Sara Machin’s petrographic study of the fabrics of retained pieces of die 39 showed that, wherever their findspot, they were indeed made at Little London – and following up the other dies identified from our excavation further confirmed that Little London flue-tile had travelled considerable distances, certainly as far north as Cirencester and, possibly, as far east as Canterbury. Our research also identified a further die (no.81) that was found in Chichester and Fishbourne in a Little London fabric, though this was not found in the kiln excavation.
All of these finds are tantalising hints of the reach of the Little London industry, with consumers up to about 70 miles/110km distant from the kilns. Destinations include the civitas capitals of Chichester, Cirencester, and Winchester, the ‘small town’ of Wanborough on Ermine Street, and villas like Littlecote Park, Rockbourne and, of course, Fishbourne. Thanks to the very selective way CBM has been published and examples retained in museums, we have no way of knowing the scale of the export to distant markets – it presumably wasn’t just confined to relief-patterned flue-tile. Sara Machin’s research on the collections of CBM from Silchester may, however, provide a clue. She has identified the presence of CBM made at the kilns at Minety, Wiltshire, within the Silchester archives, where it amounts to 10-20 per cent of all the retained brick and tile. While the sample is by no means representative, it points to sizable quantities of brick and tile transported (by road) over considerable distances. As Minety is about the same distance to Silchester as Little London is to Cirencester, Little London could, potentially, have supplied a similar proportion of the latter’s requirements. It is extraordinary that such a bulky and heavy material as brick and tile was transported such distances, and begs the question who bore the costs – presumably the Britons.
The pottery tells a different story, however, with no evidence of a distribution much beyond Silchester itself, where it only accounts for about 1 or 2 per cent of contemporary assemblages, though that may be because of unfamiliarity with these newly discovered wares. Scarcity may be explained by the fact that production was short-lived: the pottery is pre- and early Flavian in date, and the types of vessel produced such as flagons and mortaria do not seem to have been previously in high demand in the town. Along with a suite of radiocarbon dates, the pottery confirms a relatively short period of production of both pottery and CBM from the 50s to the 70s of the 1st century AD.
So, where does Nero fit into the story? In the past it has been suggested that the stamped tiles may mark the ceding of part of the Iron Age Atrebatic kingdom to the emperor, but nowhere else – not least in the territory of the defeated Iceni after the Boudican rebellion of AD 60/61, where you might expect it – is there evidence of the emperor marking his ownership of territory in this way. There is another possible explanation which may account for why, despite extensive post-Second World War excavations of urban and rural settlements elsewhere in central southern Britain, Nero-stamped tile has only been found at Silchester and Little London. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that, in the aftermath of the Boudican rebellion, Nero sent his trusted freedman Polyclitus to investigate what had happened and to report back. He travelled, we are told, with a huge retinue. Where did he go in Britain? How long did he stay? With the destruction of Colchester, London, and St Albans, where might he have stayed? With good communications in all directions, Silchester would have made a good base, but the Iron Age oppidum almost certainly did not have suitable accommodation for Polyclitus and his retinue; and who else but the emperor’s trusted representative might believe he had the authority to apply the emperor’s name to the brick and tile that was required for roofing and to provide hypocausts, even a bath- house, for the required accommodation? The one building that we now know used Little London brick and tile in its first phase of construction is Silchester’s bathhouse.
We don’t know how long Polyclitus might have stayed in Britain, perhaps through the winter and up to the start of the sailing season of 61 or 62, but surely not long enough to commission building projects using Little London CBM across central southern Britain. A more likely explanation is that he took over an already functioning tilery that had been established earlier, in the 50s, with others such as at Minety in Wiltshire, to provide material for the construction of the first public buildings, especially bathhouses, for the major towns and for the infrastructure of the cursus publicus (the state-managed courier system under the Roman Empire), and its stopping points, namely the mansiones and mutationes of this imperial postal system. Where all the skilled tile-makers and potters were found to resource these projects remains a fascinating question.
All images: University of Reading, unless otherwise stated
Michael Fulford (2022) The Emperor Nero’s Pottery and Tilery at Little London, Pamber, by Silchester, Hampshire: the excavations of 2017 is available from Oxbow Books for £25 until 31 January 2023; thereafter for £30.