Latest from Silchester

It  always bothers me when journalists feel a need to ‘overstate’ (for want of a better word) the recent discoveries at a particular site … last year around this time, the BBC’s coverage of the Silchester excavation was bothering me (Pre-Roman Silchester Town Planning? NOT NEWS!) … this year, the Guardian‘s follows suit:

Iron Age Britons were importing olives from the Mediterranean a century before the Romans arrived with their exotic tastes in food, say archaeologists who have discovered a single olive stone from an excavation of an Iron Age well at at Silchester in Hampshire.

The stone came from a layer securely dated to the first century BC, making it the earliest ever found in Britain – but since nobody ever went to the trouble of importing one olive, there must be more, rotted beyond recognition or still buried.

The stone, combined with earlier finds of seasoning herbs such as coriander, dill and celery, all previously believed to have arrived with the Romans, suggests a diet at Silchester that would be familiar in any high street pizza restaurant.

The excavators, led by Professor Mike Fulford of Reading University, also found another more poignant luxury import: the skeleton of a tiny dog, no bigger than a modern toy poodle, carefully buried, curled up as if in sleep. However it may not have met a peaceful end.

“It was fully grown, two or three years old, and thankfully showed no signs of butchery, so it wasn’t a luxury food or killed for its fur,” Fulford said. “But it was found in the foundations of a very big house we are still uncovering – 50 metres long at least – so we believe it may turn out to be the biggest Iron Age building in Britain, which must have belonged to a chief or a sub chief, a very big cheese in the town. And whether this little dog conveniently died just at the right time to be popped into the foundations, or whether it was killed as a high status offering, we cannot tell.

“The survival of the olive stone, which was partly charred, was a freak of preservation. But there must be more; we need to dig a lot more wells.”

Fulford has been leading the annual summer excavations at Silchester, which bring together hundreds of student, volunteer and professional archaeologists, for half a lifetime, and the site continues to throw up surprises. It was an important Roman town, but deliberately abandoned in the 7th century, its wells blocked up and its buildings tumbled, and never reoccupied. Apart from a few Victorian farm buildings, it is still open farmland, surrounded by the jagged remains of massive Roman walls.

Fulford now believes that the town was at its height a century before the Roman invasion in 43AD, with regularly planned, paved streets, drainage, shops, houses and workshops, trading across the continent for luxury imports of food, household goods and jewellery, enjoying a lifestyle in Britain that, previously, was believed to have arrived with the Romans.

This sodden summer have driven the archaeologists to despair, with the site a swamp of deep mud and water bubbling up in every hole and trench.

“Conditions are the worst I can ever remember. Ironically, the wells are the easiest to work in because we have the pumps running there,” Fulford said.

The tiny dog is one of dozens that the team has excavated here over the years, including one that was buried standing up as if on guard for 2,000 years. A unique knife with a startlingly realistic carving of two dogs mating was another of the spectacular finds from one of the most enigmatic sites in the country.

Yes, the olive stone is a significant find, but last year’s coverage (the BBC’s, referenced above … links to previous coverage there as well) mentions that the inhabitants of Calleva Atrebatum had imported olive oil and wine, so this really isn’t a stretch. What was bothering me last night as I was reading this between downs of a football game, was that there seems to be this belief that the Romans didn’t have any effect on the island until Claudius, as if that little foray by Julius Caesar didn’t open up some trade, if it wasn’t occurring already (eh Pytheas?). We should be using finds like this to marvel at ancient trade and what was traded, not use it to build up some lingering ‘mythology’ about how the folks of Britain were before the Romans ‘came’.

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