University of Reading archaeologists have discovered a fragment of a Roman inscription that matches a piece unearthed in 1891. Both pieces of the marble slab were excavated from the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum next to the modern village of Silchester in Hampshire. The first and larger fragment was discovered by the Society of Antiquaries of London which excavated the entirety of the town within the Roman walls between 1890 and 1909. The piece had two truncated lines of text, “IN” on the top row, “AT” on the bottom. It was added to Reading Museum’s Silchester collection where it has remained for nearly a century and a quarter. The second fragment was found by the university team in 2013 during the excavation of Insula III, a block of the Roman town, just 10 meters (33 feet) away from the find spot of the first piece. The second piece has only one truncated row extant inscribed with the letters “BA.”
While just a small piece of a marble slab, it’s of considerable archaeological significance on its own because it’s likely a remnant of a plaque erected on a building to commemorate its construction or the deity to whom the structure was dedicated. Archaeologists believe the dedication was broken when the building was destroyed in the middle to late 1st century A.D., and very little material evidence of the destruction of an important building has been found in Britain.
The fragment was analyzed by Oxford University’s Dr. Roger Tomlin, an expert in Roman inscriptions. He’s the one who made the connection to the first fragment, finding they were both inscribed with the same style and size lettering on a slab of the same material — Purbeck Marble, a limestone native to Dorset that was extensively quarried in Roman Britain — and dimensions. Tomlin believes they are adjacent pieces, that the “BA” comes after the “AT” on the bottom row of the first fragment to spell out the word “At(e)ba(tum)” meaning “of the Atrebates,” the Gallic founders of the town of Calleva in the 1st century B.C.
Despite this amazing occurrence there could be more revelations to come. The name of the building is yet to be revealed but previous work at Silchester has connected the site to the infamous emperor Nero, as well as queen Boudica who led a famous rebellion against the Roman Empire.
Professor Fulford added: “We now know what the bottom line of the sign reads – however the top line remains a mystery. It’s a tantalising thought that this might link to Nero himself who is known to have commissioned major building projects in Silchester. Our work to uncover the origins of Silchester continues next year — perhaps a name could emerge. It’s unlikely — but this story goes to show that when it comes to archaeology, anything is possible.”
Calleva was a fortified settlement or oppidium that was the Atrebates’ seat of power. Numismatic evidence suggests that it was something of a mini-kingdom first ruled by Commius, a chieftain who at first had been Julius Caesar’s ally in the conquest of Gaul but who then turned on him and fought with Vercingetorix in his revolt against Rome in 52 B.C. According to Caesar’s legate Aulus Hirtius who wrote the eighth and last book of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, in 51 B.C. Commius finally struck a deal with Mark Anthony: he’d take his troublemaking ass out of Gaul on condition that he never had to see a Roman again. Anthony agreed and Commius crossed the Channel to Britain with a small group of followers.
It was that group which built the oppidium of Calleva. Coins have been found with Commius’ name and the names of his successors, so it seems Calleva was something of a city-state with him as its ruler. The Atrebates was added to Calleva’s name in a nod to its founders when the Iron Age oppidium was converted into a proper Roman town with streets on a grid pattern and solid stone walls after Claudius’ conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. The city was at a crossroads leading to important Roman urban centers, so it prospered and was known to have several large public buildings any one of which might have had a relevant inscription slab affixed to its walls.
Both inscription fragments will be on display in the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life through November 27th.