Calleva Atrebatum

If you were to walk out on the lush green fields of Silchester, Hampshire, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that it had been any other way, so pristine its hills and promontories, a few scattered parishes the only sign of civilization amongst the pastoralia. But then you would be wrong, and greatly so. For 2000 years ago, this land was the site of one of the largest industrial centers of Gallic Britain: the city of Calleva.

Origins and Influence

The Romans annexed southern Britain in 43 BC and began building townships immediately. This leads to the first mystery of Calleva: the placement of the town itself. The Thames was ten miles away from the site (and thus was born Londinium), and without waterways, sustaining a community would prove challenging. But the spot was not without its merits. Underground wells provided ample potable water, and the high promontory proved an excellent watchspot for invading armies.

Calleva - a Celtic word translating to "a wooded place" - stayed true to its name, becoming not only a major source of timber for the surrounding Roman communities, but also becoming one of the few communities in the world to rely heavily on timber rather than stone for much of its construction and architecture.

Like most Roman towns of the time, Calleva was surrounded by a large protective wall. Inside, the typical features could all be found: an ampitheatre for viewing plays and contests, temples for the Gods, large manor homes for the wealthy, storefronts and a central market, and a large basilica for government administration. In fact, Calleva served as the administrative capital of its region for a long period of time ("Atrebatum" being an epithet for "of the Atrebates", the Gaul tribe that ruled the area) eventually having its power reduced during the Roman decline.

As evidenced by the town's layout, it was essential that Calleva retain a distinctly Roman feel despite its distance from that storied city. To this end, olive oil, wine, Mediterranean fish and nuts, Roman pottery and mosaics, and of course Roman coins and government seals were all kept in fresh and frequent supply. Many of its residents emigrated from modern-day France and Switzerland; others still arrived from Ireland and Scandinavia. By the 2nd century AD, Calleva was one of the busiest commercial cities in the Roman empire.

Decline and Abandon

The first victims of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire were its furthest colonies, of which Calleva certainly was one. By the 3rd century the basilica had been converted into a metalworking factory, and by the 4th century the town was reduced and another, smaller wall built inside the existing fortifications. As the Anglo-Saxon influence grew out of Northern Britain, cities such as Calleva were left with no choice but to assimilate with this new force. But this of course is the final mystery of Calleva.

Sometime around the 6th century, the citizens of Calleva filled up their natural wells with rocks, packed their belongings, and left the town forever. To date, archaeologists have been unable to determine the exact date or cause of this final abandonment. But what is truly remarkable is that, despite Calleva's seemingly prime location and prior success, no peoples moved into it after its abandonment. While Winchester, Norwich, and of course London all thrived in their post-Gallic days, Calleva lay untouched and uninhabited for centuries, centuries in which the remainder of the town crumbled and was eventually buried in the hills of Hampshire.

Discovery and Recovery

Despite its disappearance, the location and basic knowledge of the town was not unknown to the Victorian scientists who had only recently embarked on the studies of geology, anthropology, and archaeology. In 1860 the Duke of Wellington, who owned the land underneath which sat the lost city, set up a fund to excavate parts of the town for the historical record. Eventually the Society of Antiquaries of London took over, and by 1909 the layout of the town had been excavated in full. Their job complete, they left their work aside for other projects. How wrong they were.

The current excavation, being undertaken by the University of Reading, suggests that up to 90% of the original site remains intact and unexcavated. This is primarily due to the fact that the original archaeologists did not consider the possibility that wood was a major construction material and thus had abandoned areas without stone buildings prematurely. Subsequently, a wealth of new artifacts, architecture, and information has been brought forth by the new excavation, which takes place in the summer months every year (any person may volunteer for the Field Group which oversees the site.)

Today, visitors can view (free of charge) the intact town wall and basilica of the ancient city and the ruins of the roads and streets that adorned Calleva, along with numerous artifacts and art stored at the Museum of Reading. You can also watch a fairly fascinating documentary on the city and its exacation at

My primary source is Calleva chief excavator Professor Michael Fulford's summarizations for the BBC and the Silchester town website.