I’ve made no bones about it, in more than one previous post; Silchester is a very special place to me, somewhere I save for those walks when I have a certain amount of processing to do or when I am in need of its rare atmosphere of tranquility combined with an eerie sense of more going on there than you can see, laced with the memory of many (many) happy family times spent there over the years.
Today was such a day and I walked around its grass-edged walls in the afternoon sunshine, with almost the whole place to myself and hardly a sound except for the warm breeze playing through the crispness of pre-autumn leaves.
Imagine my surprise when, slipping through the gate at the start of the second half-circle route, I cast my eye over a view that has always…always…included a soily network of trenches, portacabins and viewing platforms and, not so long ago, the multi-coloured tents of all the archaeologists that take up residence there every summer and discovered, instead, a perfectly flat field newly absorbed into its pastoral surroundings. A farmer was trundling up and down in his tractor preparing the soil or, perhaps, spreading seed for its final assimilation with the rest of this working farm but that was it; all other evidence of human occupation there had been wiped from the landscape.
A very swift metamorphosis had taken place here and, I couldn’t fail to observe, not for the first time. Silchester was once a heaving metropolis of human existence, occupied since the Bronze Age and turned into a thriving Roman stronghold of considerable importance, yet had been suddenly abandoned in the 6th century, for reasons that still elude historians. What was once a complex town with a basilica and a complex networks of streets has been thoroughly reclaimed by Nature.
Some detective work, back at home, has confirmed that the long running dig in a portion of the ‘town’ known as Insula IX has now concluded after eighteen summers. Having regularly walked there for, well, about 16 summers (and winters) in total, I have never known it without its ‘dig’ in situ as part of the familiar landscape. Not only has it played a part in my life-story as a walking spot for all those years but ‘back in my day’ at Reading University in the late 1980s, it was already the prime area of study for the Archaeology Department that I was attached to for a year, having been a focal point of investigation for the University since 1974. This truly felt like I was witnessing the end of an era…for the place, and also for me.
Poignantly, and with the kind of metaphorical undertone that permeates the whole of my life, I had just declared to an old friend yesterday (with some firmness in my voice) that “I’m so done with digging up the past”…. and, now, this was what the very next day presented to me as evidence of the fact! Oddly enough, our eldest – now the same age as the completed dig – is due to start at university in just ten days, studying Ancient History and (guess what) Archaeology, and so embarks on his own journey of self-discovery out there in the world just as, it seems, I’ve reached a new milestone in mine.
Metaphorically grassing over trenches seems to be an appropriate theme this year, with all the hundred-year anniversary focus upon World War I and laying all that to bed, once and for all. Nature heals, assimilates and starts over like nothing else on earth; which is the very thing, I have long suspected, that I love the most about Silchester, being a living monument to the fact. I look forward to Professor Fulford (who, yes, I still remember from student days) writing up all the findings of the eighteen year dig now ended, which has unearthed some fascinating details of not only Roman life but the Bronze Age settlement that predated it, yet the reminder that the marks made by everything that ever happens in this world, no matter what, get leveled out and grassed over sooner or later is a particularly useful one to have demonstrated from time to time, to help bring things into considerably broader perspective.
You can view the amalgamated pictures I’ve taken of Silchester around the seasons HERE.
(…and by others):
The Silchester Dig Blog (an entertaining dip into the world of those archaeologists…)