Silchester Roman Town - The Insula IX Town Life Project
The Victorian Excavations of 1893
 
Introduction
Excavation Techniques
Trench Plan
House 1 & Block 1
Ogham Stone
Rubbish Pit
Wells, Pits & Hearths
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Bibliography
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Victorian Excavation Techniques

The Great Plan The excavation
A decision was made in 1889 to undertake excavations at the Roman town of Silchester in order to reveal for the first time the complete plan of a Roman town. Within a period of 20 years (1890-1909) a programme of excavations under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries of London revealed a plan of all masonry-founded buildings within the walled area of the town. At the time this was understood to represent a complete plan of the Roman town, a belief which rested on the assumption that all the buildings were constructed of masonry, or at least had masonry foundations, and that the town walls enclosed everything of significance, apart from the amphitheatre.

Methodology
Little is known of the methodology by which the Victorian and Edwardian excavators achieved their goal. Regular reports were published in Archaeologia, accompanied by plans of the blocks of the town (insulae) and, depending on their complexity, individual buildings of note within them. There is also a limited photographic archive.

The area within the walls was excavated block by block, since the pattern of the street grid had been largely established from the mid-eighteenth century as streets could be traced in the ripening crop. Since nothing of the town within the walls is visible above ground, it is assumed that trenching was employed as a method of identifying the locations of buildings within each insula, the plans of which were then revealed by opening up larger areas around them. It is believed that the outlying pits, wells and hearths recorded on the Victorian plans were also located by this process of trenching.

Finds
Comments on finds were of secondary importance and only individual objects of intrinsic importance were discussed. Nevertheless attention was paid to several categories of what we would now describe as 'bulk finds'. The excavation of wells drew attention to the preservation of waterlogged material and so seeds, plant remains and insects were recorded. Regular specific identifications of coins were also made in the reports. Pottery was the first category of material to receive systematic study at the close of the excavations, and was published by May 1916. No finds curation policy is detectable however until Joseph Stevens' acceptance of an offer from the Duke of Wellington to house the growing collection in Reading Museum in 1891.

Insula IX
Insula IX was first excavated in 1893-4 and was therefore one of the earliest to be systematically investigated. The most effective method of exploring a rectangular area, such as a city block, where it is expected that buildings will share the same orientation as the insula, is by diagonal trenching. A number of trenches have been identified within our area of excavation of insula IX and it is now possible to suggest a sequence of events. There are 4 main phases: 1) initial exploration 2) exploration from east-west road at the north of the insula southwards 3) exploration of buildings 4) further trenching.
 
 Phase 1 [Plan]
We can trace only one trench (1060) which cut its way right across our excavated area, and on this basis it is likely to be one of the earliest. This trench will have drawn attention to both House 1 and Block 1 (our Building 1). A second trench (1574) originates from close to the south-west corner of our excavation area and may have been started at the same time as the first, but it does not extend far beyond the point of intersection with the first, where it meets a third trench (1070), parallel with, and close to, the first. Like the second, this too does not extend right across the site. A fourth 'diagonal' trench (1776) may belong to this phase. It is broadly parallel with trenches 1060 and 1070, and may have started from the northern side of the insula, once trench 1060 had found the street line. It only cuts across the outermost wall of House 1.
 
 Phase 2 [Plan]
This involves exploration from the road southwards.
 
 Phase 3 [Plan]
This involves the exploration of the plan of House 1 and Building 1.
 
 Phase 4 [Plan]
This phase explores the remaining 'blank' areas, using each of the buildings already discovered as the source of the trenching. Thus this phase comprises trenches dug either from the buildings outwards, usually extending the lines of walls already found, or at close to right angles to one of the sides. A further three or four trenches extend at right angles to the street south towards House 1 whose wall lines they respect. Their orientation presupposes that the line of the street had been established. The group of three 'diagonal' trenches in the south-west corner (1011, 1070, 1014) have spaces between them of approximately 1m. This is similar to the interval between trenches 1060 and 1070 and two pairs of trenches at right angles to the east-west street at the north of the excavated area (1317, 1331 and 1036, 1032). Of the three trenches on an east-west orientation, two in the north-east of our area are difficult to explain: one is close to the street (1893), while the second is a relatively shallow cut (1259), only c.1m to the south. While these were interpreted as Victorian when they were excavated (one has produced a sherd of 19th century pottery), their character and orientation are anomalous, raising the possibility of their having originated as Roman construction or robber trenches, perhaps re-excavated in 1893. Such trenches, sited to explore the 'blank' areas, were also sufficiently sensitive to identify the softer fills of wells and substantial pits, as well as locating isolated structures such as hearths.
 

 
Click on the links below to view scanned reproductions of pages from Archaeologia:
  Archaeologia 53
  Archaeologia 54
Click here to read some contemporary newspaper reports of the 1893 excavations.
 
Click on a thumbnail image below to view the full size image.
Aerial view of town showing streets delimiting the insulae
 
Insula IX: the plan of 1894. The Insula is divided by a modern droveway.
 
Phase 1 trenches (from the south-east)
 
Phase 3 trenches: exploration of House 1
 
Phase 4 trenches
 
Trenches in the north-east area of the site; the circular trenching revealed a hearth made of tiles.
 
 
Click here to explore the archaeology of Insula IX through our interactive map.


© Copyright University of Reading Department of Archaeology 2017