More from Silchester ~ I’m Confused

I think I’m missing something … the Guardian has another piece on recent finds at Silchester, and besides the hyped olive pit from a couple weeks ago, there is at least one other interesting find, plus a lingering problem for me … here’s an excerpt from this week’s coverage:


They feared gods who demanded sacrifices as startling as anything in a gothic novel. Ravens have been found buried across the site, as well as dozens of dog burials, not just slung into a well or cesspit but carefully buried, often with other objects, one with the body of an infant, one standing up as if on guard for 2,000 years. Another tiny skeleton, no bigger than a celebrity’s handbag dog, was one of a handful ever found in Europe from such an early date: the evidence suggests it lived for up to three years, and was then laid curled as if asleep into the foundations of a house. Only last Friday the skeleton of a cat turned up, carefully packed into a clay jar.

“We are only just beginning to get a handle on all this, as our excavation is really the first ever major modern exposure of a late Iron Age town in Britain, and we still have a long way to go,” says Fulford, who has been digging at Silchester since he was a junior lecturer in the 1970s, and expects the work to continue long after his day.

Fulford spends the winters brooding on each summer’s finds, and has reached the conclusion, startling even to him, that the town was at its height of population and wealth before the Romans arrived.

He believes it was founded around 50BC by Commius, an Atrobates leader once a trusted ally of Julius Caesar, who then joined an unsuccessful rebellion against him and had to leave Gaul sharpish. Whether Commius headed for an existing Atrobates settlement at Silchester, or started to build on a greenfield site, a defensible hill with excellent views, near the navigable Kennet and Thames, is, Fulford suggests, “a million-dollar question – why here?” They have found nothing earlier than 50BC – yet.

Commius’s town flourished, trading across Britain, Ireland and both Roman and Iron Age tribal Europe. The Callevans paid for their luxuries with exports of metalwork, wheat – the site is still surrounded by prime farm land, and there is evidence of grain-drying on an industrial scale – hunting dogs, and, almost certainly, slaves: British slaves and dogs were equally prized in continental Europe. They have also found evidence in little flayed bones for a more exotic craft industry, puppy-fur cloaks.

Commius was succeeded by three quarrelsome sons – significantly dubbing themselves on coins as “rex” or king – who successively deposed one another. The third, Verica, was toppled by local tribes and made a move that would change the course of British history: he fled to Rome and asked for help – and in AD43 the Romans came.

This summer the diggers are right down at the earliest Roman level, which suggests light, short-lived, possibly military buildings, in contrast with substantial pre-invasion structures including one massive rectangular house that may prove to be the largest Iron Age house in Britain. This week they are clearing a cesspit so neatly dug it must be military, so may soon know whether the Romans ate British wheat or Roman fish sauce.

The original article has a tiny photo of the folding knife, which is very interesting and which I hope will be given ‘bigger photo treatment’ somewhere so we can get a better look at it. That said, I think I must have missed something in translation of this story across the pond — twice. We are told of Julius Caesar’s relationship with Commius and know that Commius was there for Caesar’s invasions (both the 55 B.C. one and the ‘real’ one in 54 B.C.) of Britain. But we are continuously being given the impression that nothing before Claudius’ invasion before 43 B.C. ‘counts’. Am I missing something? (I genuinely don’t understand this … it’s almost as if this dig is trying to promote the idea that ‘we were cosmopolitan before the Romans came’, which is likely true, but why write the Romans out of the picture? It’s not as if Commius was originally from the blessed isle …).

By the way, if you’re wondering about the puppy reference: Pre Roman Silchester; and just so y’all know I’m not picking on the Guardian, I griped about the BBC’s coverage of this dig last year as well: Pre-Roman Silchester Town Planning? NOT NEWS!. Clearly they find interesting things every year, but what is being stressed almost comes across as the British equivalent of the ‘flower children’ Minoans which once was popular …

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