Writing a book about the history of a Roman town in Britain is not an easy task. To create a readable and balanced account, an author has to contend with various levels of knowledge, inevitably glossing over or filling in the areas where it is weakest. There tends to be a focus on structures rather than past inhabitants simply because that is what research up to the 1980s concentrated on. The application of environmental archaeology and other scientific approaches over the last 40 years or so now allows us to understand better what people ate and the conditions in which they lived. So, if we want to get to grips with the lives of Romano-British townspeople, we do need to turn to places that have received recent excavation on a decent scale.
Michael Fulford has been excavating near-continuously at Silchester in Hampshire since 1974, and his meticulous and well-planned campaigns have provided exactly that sort of information, which greatly enhances the structural evidence recovered by Victorian excavators. It is the quality of his evidence that allows Fulford to paint a picture of the everyday lives of the working class, just as much as those of the more distinguished citizens. Silchester is thus one of the best understood Romano-British towns, but there has been no recent synthetic description of it. That deficiency has now been remedied in this fascinating and engrossing account.
Little prior knowledge of Roman archaeology is required to enjoy this book because Fulford writes clearly and lucidly. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs, reconstruction drawings, and plans – the latter clearly rendered and a huge asset to those who wish to follow the arguments in detail. But this book will also appeal to readers with deeper existing knowledge, because the necessity for a clear and succinct narrative means that the author has to cut to the chase and just say what he believes. So we learn the views of one of our leading experts on some of the big issues of Roman Britain.
The book sets Silchester within its national context and some well-known historical characters make an appearance, such as the British noble Caratacus, who led the resistance against Rome after the invasion of AD 43, and the emperor Nero, in whose reign the town was transformed – Fulford christens this the ‘Nero project’, and wonders whether it became the temporary capital of Roman Britain after the devastation of London by Boudica. He is at pains to stress what an important place Silchester was in the decades prior to the Roman invasion, and his mission is clearly to rectify past omissions by putting the Iron Age firmly into the story. But while Silchester was undoubtedly significant in the affairs of Britain in the 1st century AD, it was seemingly a more run-of- the-mill town thereafter – locally and regionally important, but not nationally. The population in the 2nd century was perhaps in the order of 7,000.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is in many respects a celebration of the evidence that can be obtained from careful excavation and – just as important – the detailed analysis of the findings that allows their full potential to be realised. The author demonstrates why we should continue to excavate important sites for the sake of pure research. Archaeology’s great attraction is that, through fieldwork, we can create new knowledge of the past. But you have to be a special sort of person to want to take on the challenges of leading major fieldwork projects (and the crucial, but far less glamorous, tasks of raising the necessary finance and organising all the logistical support). Thank goodness a young lecturer at Reading University was up for the challenge in 1974. This book is a triumphant statement of what Michael Fulford has achieved since then.
Silchester Revealed: the Iron Age and Roman town of Calleva, Michael Fulford, Windgather Press, £16.99, ISBN 978-1911188834
Review by Neil Holbrook.