1. Aerial view of the temple site at Silchester

Tiles and Temples

A Roman temple uncovered in a Hampshire farmyard by archaeologists from the University of Reading may be the first building of its kind in Britain to be dated back to the reign of Emperor Nero.

The temple remains were found within the grounds of the Old Manor House in the Roman town at Silchester, along with rare tiles stamped with the name of Nero, who ruled from AD 54–68.

This temple was found to join two others when it was investigated in Silchester in autumn 2017, and it is the first to be identified in the village for more than 100 years. The three temples are inside a walled sanctuary, numbered Insula XXX by Victorian archaeologists.

Four fragments of tiles stamped with Nero's name were found in a ritual pit on the temple site, along with another three at the kiln site (above and below) at nearby Little London where the tiles were made. These provide further evidence that the temples could all have been part of a Nero-sponsored vanity building project in Silchester.

Professor Mike Fulford of the University of Reading, who leads the Silchester archaeology team, said: 'These findings are a crucial piece of the jigsaw, as we look to solve the mystery of Nero's links to Silchester. This is something that has puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. Only a handful of Nero-stamped tiles have ever been found in the UK, so to unearth this many was very exciting. It adds to the evidence that Nero saw Silchester as a pet project where he could construct extravagant buildings like those seen in Rome, to inspire awe among his subjects in Britain.'

2. Fragments stamped with Nero's name were found at the kiln site.

The three temples, the earliest known masonry constructions in Silchester (which was known as Calleva in Roman times)would have been the most prominent buildings in the city, erected decades before others, such as the great complex of the forum basilica in the centre of the town, were rebuilt in masonry. They were aligned north to south at the eastern end of the Roman town.

The remains of the first two temples on the Insula XXX site were first found during grave-digging in St Mary's churchyard in 1890. Evidence of the third building was unearthed in 1902, but was not identified as a temple until now.

Ground-penetrating radar and a follow-up excavation confirmed three temples once stood on the site. They had a typical 'double-square' plan, with a central cella (shrine) surrounded by a walkway.

This design originated in the late Iron Age, and is rare in Britain but more common in France and Germany. The foundations suggest that the temples could have been up to 15m high. The dimensions of the third temple are 15m by 17.5m. Although the religious purpose of the temples remains a mystery, evidence uncovered at the most recent temple site suggests it was built in the 50s or 60s of the 1st century AD – within Nero's short reign. Often associated with brutality and extravagance, Nero was known for the persecution of Christians as well as his grand building plans, some of which were realised after Rome's great fire four years before his suicide. His buildings were in high-quality stone, as well as ceramic brick and tile, but only the tiles found at Silchester are stamped with his name.

The existence of one of his buildings in Roman Britain, as well as evidence that he might have visited, has always remained elusive. However, the find of the seven tiles, adding to 14 previously found (only in Silchester and Little London), validates the theory that Nero was keen to sponsor a building project in Silchester.

Another Nero tile found close to the public baths in Insula XXXIIIA in the south-east of the Roman town suggests that the baths were built early in its development. Excavation to test this will take place this summer.

• (Visit http://www.reading.ac.uk/silchester)
Lindsay Fulcher