of the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford
R K S H I R E
as a consolidated area still did not exist in the
Roman period, the county made up the majority of
the Civitas Atrebates. This Roman administrative
unit, which also spread into North Hampshire, covered
the Northern hinterland of the old capital of the Atrebates
tribe at what we now call Silchester. The Romans knew the town as
Calleva Atrebatum and it was here that they
collected taxes and meated out justice to the local
population. Silchester, of course, now stands just over the
county boundary in Hampshire, but, in those days, it
was the precursor of Berkshire's county-town of Reading,
only eight miles away. Though some Iron Age people had lived
in roughly organised oppida, their society was
essentially rural and urban developments such as Calleva
brought a completely new way of life to Britain:
drains, streets, markets, shops, inns, temples, theatres and amphitheatres.
The amphitheatre at Calleva no doubt held goary public
entertainments, as at the Colloseum in Rome, but on a much
smaller scale. Some think they were probably not much more
than bull or bear baits, though somewhere in between is likely. This
fascinating building actually stands in Mortimer West End which,
until relatively recently was part of the tything of Stratfield
Mortimer in Berkshire.
As the major population centre in the area, Calleva became an
important hub in an unprecedented communications network which
emerged across Britain. Roads radiated out from here
through Berkshire towards Dorchester-on-Thames, St.
Albans (along the Camlet Way), London (along the
Devil's Highway), Cirencester (along the
Ermin Way) and Bath, opening up the province
like never before. The B4000 above Wickham still
follows the old Roman Ermin Way almost exactly,
while stretches of the so-called Devil's Highway
still exist (modernized of course) at Stratfield Mortimer,
Beech Hill, Riseley, Finchampstead and across the Crown
plantations at Crowthrone and Bracknell; stretches of
the Dorchester road are probably identifiable at Brightwell,
Cholsey and Moulsford.
This road system also linked Calleva to the various small towns more common to the Berkshire landscape.
These lesser settlements grew up as centres of trade or other
activities. Thatcham and Wickham Bushes (Easthampstead)
appear to have been manufacturing bases for metal smelting and
the production of ironwork. Frilford was
a religious centre surrounding an
important walled pagan complex, possibly containing as many as five temples.
There were certainly at least two: one circular apparently
with a sacred fire at its centre, the other of the more
usual Celtic arcaded-cell type. Immediately to the east
has been discovered a huge amphitheatre which was probably
used for religious ceremonies rather than gladiatorial shows.
A second religious settlement surrounded a temple on Weycock
Hill in Waltham St. Lawrence parish. Finds have led to the
suggstion that this vast octagonal building may have been dedicated to
the Roman goddess Vesta. The name Waltham is Saxon for "Dilapidated Homes,"
apparently referring to the ruins of the Roman souvenir shops and pilgrims' hostels there.
There were other more rural temples at Lowbury Hill
(Aston Upthorpe), Hampstead Norris, Finchampstead and St. Leonard's Hill (Clewer).
Wickham and Wickham Bushes derive their
Saxon names from the borrowed Latin word Vicus
meaning "settlement" or "small town". This gives us
some idea of their size and status. However, only
Speen, then called Spinis,
is mentioned in contemporary records. It was the site of
an Imperial posting station, but its exact location is unknown.
Archaeology has revealed other settlements at Abingdon, Streatley, Newbury and Bray.
The luxuries of civilization associated with town
living also spread to the countryside: interior decoration,
heating and washing facilities are aspects of Roman life that
bring the Roman Villa immediately to mind.
In fact, though many of Berkshire's
villas, like those at Cox Green and
Aldermaston, had colourfully painted walls, underfloor
heating systems and steam bath suites, few have
produced evidence of the height
of Roman luxury: a patterned mosaic floor. Tiny fragments
have been excavated in villas at Kintbury and near
Eling, but only the Woolstone and Lower Basildon Villas have produced
near complete survivals. The latter depicted an ornate geometric
pattern, apparently worked by the finest of mosaicists
from the so-called 'Central-Southern School'
probably based in Winchester. Unfortunately, the
Victorian workmen who discovered it destroyed this
mosaic soon afterward.
The relative mediocrety of villas in Berkshire,
betrays the real potential which the Romans saw in the county.
For the majority of these buildings were not the country homes of
the rich, but very much working establishments at the centre
of farm estates. Barton Court Farm (Radley) is a good example
of a simple corridor-type Roman farmhouse villa. It was surrounded
by ditched paddocks which were probably used as livestock pens.
Excavation has shown that cattle and sheep were both kept on the farm and appear
to have been butchered locally. The meat may have been stored
in the villa's (relatively unusual) cellar. Draught
oxen and working dogs were also in evidence.
The farm produced spelt, club wheat and barley, while activities
on site included corn drying and probably milling nearby.
More recent investigations around a simple villa at Maddle Farm in the
Lambourn Valley have identified
a large agricultural estate based on long narrow fields of the
Roman type: 47 hectares of arable land with an additional
850 hectares of pasture. It is estimated that this could have
supported between forty and eighty people (including a
workforce of about thirty). They apparently lived in the
associated Roman village at Knighton Bushes.
Dark Age & Anglo-Saxon Times