• Aerial reconstruction of Silchester © Historic England

Becoming Roman  Silchester, a Town of Change

Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery, Basingstoke

10 Feb – 28 April 2024

Over 2000 years ago, an offshoot of the Atrebates, a tribe from northern France, settled in the uplands of what is now Hampshire, establishing Silchester, a thriving Iron Age town. With the advent of the Romans, life in Silchester changed. 

50 years on from the start of an archaeological dig by the University of Reading to uncover the secrets of this major site, visitors to Becoming Roman – Silchester, a Town of Change, will be transported back 2000 years to discover what life was like for the Iron Age Atrebates and how this life changed after the Roman Conquest of Britain. The new exhibition, which begins its tour at the Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery in Basingstoke on Saturday 10 February, showcases incredible finds from these ongoing excavations at the ancient Roman site.

Silchester was a wealthy capital with its own Iron Age mint, and evidence from the site shows that it traded not only with other tribes in Britain but also across Europe to the Roman world of the Mediterranean. Alongside their skill in trade, visitors will be able to discover how adept they were at metal work, with chariot fittings and a smithy uncovered during the dig. Other discoveries give a more emotive insight into Iron Age life: these include the skeleton of what is thought to be the first lap dog in Britain, imported from across the Channel. Buried with care and purpose, the dog evidently belonged to a person of high status, and its skeleton will be among the 150 objects from the site on display.

Professor Michael Fulford of the University of Reading commented: “It is wonderful to contribute to an exhibition which showcases some of the great discoveries from the University of Reading's excavations at Silchester. The objects on display range from those illustrating the international contacts of the Iron Age town beneath the Roman to those that show how life changed after the Roman conquest.”

With the Romans came inevitable change. At the exhibition, visitors will learn how the Iron Age settlement with its signature round houses transitioned with the introduction of a Roman street grid and buildings such as a forum and a bath house. How a Roman bath house worked, with its complex underfloor system of heat and gas, will be explored at the exhibition, and on display will be hair pins and jewellery, personal items lost or left behind by bath house users. Visitors can learn about parasitic ailments that residents suffered from such as whipworm and see medical instruments and many examples of Roman writing instruments, or styli, unearthed at a healer’s house, which suggest that the town’s healer was also a teacher, passing on writing skills as well. 

Nick Suffolk, Head of Heritage Experience at Hampshire Cultural Trust, commented: “Becoming Roman – Silchester, a Town of Change contains so many objects that give us a frozen moment in time; from a footprint on a drying floor tile to hairpins lost in the Roman baths and coins dropped in the forum. These little, everyday occurrences and misfortunes allow us to connect emotionally with the daily life someone living thousands of years ago.”

Among the 150 objects on display will be terracotta floor tiles which still retain the footprints of dogs, weasels, birds and children from when they were left out to dry, a huge Roman grain storage jar which will be on display for the first time since undergoing major restoration, exquisite examples of carved gemstones and a Roman roof tile with a Nero stamp on it. Interactives to engage all ages will include a mosaic repair, a Roman measuring game, animal print tracking and a healing cure. Alongside will be a behind-the-scenes look at an archaeological dig that, 50 years on, is still revealing the secrets of the people of Silchester.

Becoming Roman – Silchester, a Town of Change, will tour to the Red House Museum in Christchurch, Andover Museum, Reading Museum and Reading University Library.

For more information, please visit - https://www.hampshireculture.org.uk/event/becoming-roman-silchester-town-change.

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