On Monday, my last day of sightseeing / research before heading off for the wedding festivities, I wasn’t quite sure if I should even attempt to see Calleva (Roman Silchester). The blister on my little toe hurt, and I was not looking forward to the prospect of hiking for miles along country lanes in search of old rocks. Maybe I should just head south to the coast, I thought, take a day off and just enjoy the seaside. I’d already seen plenty of sites for The Pendragon Chronicles, and I wasn’t even sure if I was going to use the setting of post-Roman Calleva in A Wasted Land.
But then, when would the next chance come along for me to try to find Calleva? So off I went to Basingstoke again.
And I am so glad I did. Wandering around in the middle of nowhere, I was a bit worried I’d headed off on a wild goose chase. Instead, I ended up getting a personal tour of an archeological dig. If I’d gotten the train I wanted the day before, my experience of Calleva would have been completely different. The dig only started the day I went, and I would have missed it. Talk about a lucky mistake!
For the average tourist, there isn’t much to see in Calleva, so it probably is no wonder that it’s not a big draw and is so hard to find. Walking from the Mortimer station, it took me longer to get there than Google Maps said — there were no signs anywhere, and I stopped and asked people a few times along the way. Apparently, the way from Bramley is better marked, so that would be the way to go, but Google Maps told me Mortimer was closer, so that’s the way I went.
After over an hour, I found the first sign to Roman Silchester, which led me to the former amphitheater outside of town.
From there, I was finally able to find the still impressive remains of the Roman wall.
When I got to the path on the top, I could see what looked like a campsite in the opposite corner of the wide field. Other than that, the only residents of the former thriving Romano-British town were a bunch of cows.
I knew there’d been regular digs at Calleva over the years, and I was pretty sure that was about the only thing the tents could be. I headed over to the site along the top of the Roman walls, and some of the students (I presume) having lunch pointed me in the direction of an makeshift information center set up for visitors. There, a friendly young woman by the name of Zoe, an archeologist working on her Masters at Reading University, asked me if I would like a tour of the dig. Duh!
The present digs are in Insula IX and Insula III, and platforms had been set up next to each. Zoe took me to the closest first, Insula IX, and showed me what I was seeing — the remnants of the main road going north and south, postholes for the buildings, bigger holes for the wells, a floor — and explained that here in most places they had already reached the layer of Pre-Roman settlement and were nearly done with what they had set out to do. One of the things they’d been hoping to learn more about was when the town was abandoned and what might have caused it, and she said they’d uncovered evidence that it might be later than originally thought.
Naturally my ears perked up at that. I’ve repeatedly come across such theories in my research for the books of The Pendragon Chronicles, and it’s one of the main historical elements I’ve based my world on.
Anyway, looking at the carefully dug up dirt, Zoe and I had a great conversation about how new information keeps cropping up and theories keep changing. She took me over to Insula III, where I saw a hearth or stove made out of old Roman roofing tiles — most likely evidence that the site was still in use after Roman materials were no longer being manufactured.
It was more fun than I ever could have imagined. Zoe and I obviously shared a fascination with the mysteries of history. She said her masters thesis was actually on magic and ritual in the archeological record in late medieval times (which sounds absolutely fascinating too!), but she wanted to be at Calleva for the last year of the dig, since she spent several summers working on it while she was an undergraduate.
After I saw the two Insulae and thanked her heartily, I headed for the church that was just within the Roman walls. There, I was lucky enough to walk in on a lecture by the head of the dig for some of the newest students. He mentioned that one of their most significant finds from the previous year was pottery fragments from the sixth to eighth century. In the Q&A session, I asked what he thought that meant for the end of Calleva. He answered that they might have to revise their ideas, that rather than disappearing, perhaps the town shifted to the area around the church. He postulated that the medieval town may have been a victim of the Black Death, since there were references from the 12th century, but little thereafter. (The amphitheater was converted into a medieval hall and King John was recorded as visiting there.)
While I ended up with two new blisters for a total of three, it was a thoroughly excellent outing.
You can see the rest of my pictures of Calleva here.
Other posts from my trip to England:
– Indulging in a research trip to England: Salisbury and Amesbury
– Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral
– Old Sarum
– Winchester / Venta