Our perception of the geography of England is heavily influenced by the location of London in its south-east corner. If the Home Counties seem like the centre of the country, on that reckoning Exeter is a remote place down in the South-West Peninsula. That difference extends to the archaeological record of the South-West, which is of a somewhat different character to that found over much of the rest of lowland Britain, a fact that has led some archaeologists in the past to view the region in a less than positive light. But such generalisations hide a more interesting and richer truth. Perhaps because of its geographical remoteness from the political centre of England, Exeter was susceptible to dramatic swings in fortune throughout the Roman and medieval periods that reflect England’s changing relationship with mainland Europe, such that in some periods it was a place of major national importance, at others a modest provincial town.
Over the last five years, the ‘Exeter: A Place in Time’ (EAPIT) project has taken a fresh look at the archaeology of Exeter and its hinterland. Exeter, like so many historic towns and cities, saw extensive redevelopment in the 1970s that was preceded by large-scale excavations. These revealed complex sequences of Roman and medieval occupation and some stunning assemblages of finds. But the essential work of writing reports could not keep pace with the demands for further excavation, and a substantial backlog of unpublished sites developed – as was often the case with urban rescue archaeology at that time. Only a few of the sites excavated in Exeter were published at the time, and this has inhibited the widespread recognition of just how good the archaeology of Exeter is, and its potential for further research.
Exeter was by no means alone in this: it was an endemic problem among all the urban units, but the EAPIT project has pioneered a new approach to tackling it. Generously funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Historic England, and the University of Exeter (who supported two PhD studentships), and in partnership with the University of Reading, Exeter County Council, and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, EAPIT did not simply write up the results of old excavations. Instead, it pioneered a tightly focused approach that concentrated on the most important sites and enhanced their results through the application of cutting-edge scientific techniques (some of which had not even been thought up when the original digs took place!). This included the analysis of chemical isotopes preserved in the teeth of Roman and medieval livestock, which provide insights into where they had been grazing, as well as a wide range of techniques used to identify the source of the clays exploited by various pottery and tile industries. Exeter has one of the best surviving series of civic documents for any provincial city in medieval Britain, and for the first time EAPIT has been able to link written records to individual tenements recorded on early maps and, in turn, to excavated sites. And the results of this project have just been published by Oxbow in two books, which can also be downloaded for free as .pdfs (see the ‘Further reading’ below).
Ups and Downs
The Roman army selected Exeter as a site for a legionary fortress just over a decade after their invasion of Britain in AD 43. We can now appreciate that the fortress was but one component of a complex military landscape that included a port at Topsham, 6km downriver, and two other substantial civilian settlements, one immediately outside the fortress and another 2.5km along the road to Topsham. The population influx into the region must have been sudden and dramatic, perhaps in the order of 10,000 people, and is a vivid demonstration of the investment by the Roman state to create a supply route into the new province.
But that investment did not endure and, within 20 or 30 years, the troops had been withdrawn from the South-West to support military campaigning in Wales and the North. The former fortress site was now reconstituted as the town of Isca Dumnoniorum, the administrative centre for the region now occupied by Cornwall and Devon. Judging by the size of its basilica and forum, the initial aspiration for Isca was high, but was not fully realised. Beyond its public buildings there is little evidence for intensive occupation in the early town and the population could have been under 1,000, a fraction of that in the military heyday. Despite this lack of obvious pressure on space, the defended area was more than doubled to 37ha by the creation of a new circuit of earthwork defences c.AD 160-180, subsequently replaced by a stone wall. Exeter was the 13th largest defended town in Roman Britain, but obvious signs of wealth were few, with mosaic pavements poorly represented compared to the neighbouring towns of Ilchester and Dorchester to the east.
Like most former Roman towns, Exeter was seemingly largely deserted in the 5th and 6th centuries, with occupation perhaps restricted to a British (as opposed to Anglo-Saxon) church in the vicinity of the present-day cathedral. If the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed, the West Saxon kingdom expanded as far as Exeter in the 660s, and a minster church was established some time after this. There was a dramatic rise in Exeter’s fortunes in the late Saxon period: in the late 9th century it was refounded as a fortified burh by King Alfred and it soon became an important mint. At least part of the old Roman walls were refurbished at some stage before the Norman Conquest, and pottery attests to international trade with northern and western France and the Low Countries. Exeter was besieged by William the Conqueror in 1068 and a castle was built at Rougemont very soon after, with work on its magnificent new cathedral beginning in 1114. Exeter was about the fifth- to seventh-wealthiest town in England during the mid-12th century, but had sunk to 27th or 28th place by 1334. While Exeter remained the largest city in the Peninsula, it had been eclipsed as a port by the rapid rise of Bristol, yet its fortunes would rise again as it became the sixth-ranked town in England in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Town and Country
Exeter therefore experienced dramatic swings in prosperity during the Roman and medieval periods. How is this to be explained? No individual settlement should be viewed in isolation, and the development of Exeter can only be understood within the context of its wider hinterland . The South-West was rich in a range of easily accessible minerals – notably tin, silver, and iron – and is not, contrary to some popular views, a predominantly upland region: eastern and southern Devon, in particular, have large areas of rich agricultural land. The immediate hinterland of Exeter is characterised by soils that afford good arable and pasture, as well as an abundance of meadow on the river floodplains. It is tempting to think that the Roman army was already aware of the region’s rich tin deposits as it headed to the South-West, although evidence for the army having been involved in their extraction is currently lacking.
The same strategic and defensive qualities that initially attracted the Roman army to the site of Exeter – such as it being at the lowest crossing point of the River Exe – may also have been recognised by King Alfred when he used it as the location of his burh. Exeter became the major nodal point within the communication networks of the South-West Peninsula, drawing in the area’s produce along a series of roads that radiated from both the Roman town and the medieval city. Exeter was also ideally located for trade with other ports along the Atlantic coast of Europe, although in any market-based economy the success of one place will be reliant on the economies of others. Exeter’s decline in the 13th and 14th centuries, for example, was tied to changes in the tin industry, as competition from Germany and the establishment of a series of rival stannary towns on the edge of Dartmoor weakened Exeter’s control of tin exports. Devon, however, had a well-developed rural economy in the late Middle Ages, and from the 15th century the production of woollen cloths expanded rapidly. This was the cause of Exeter’s rise to once again become the sixth-wealthiest and sixth-most-populous place in England when international trade resumed following peace with France in 1475.
During the short-lived period of Roman military occupation in the 1st century AD, cattle provided the greatest amount of meat. The very small size of the cattle and sheep suggests that they were British stock rather than ones brought over from the Continent, but where had they been grazing before being driven to Exeter on the hoof? EAPIT came up with the answer, as they analysed the chemical isotopes preserved in the animal teeth from Exeter and showed that a significant proportion of the animals eaten by the soldiers were brought in from grazing lands some way to the east of Exeter. In contrast, isotopes demonstrate that the animals eaten by the residents of the later Roman town were reared far closer to Exeter within the South-West Peninsula.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, the fertile lowlands of eastern Devon were quite densely populated, although population growth during the 12th and 13th centuries was modest across the South-West Peninsula and was accommodated within a landscape characterised by predominantly dispersed settlements. The large number of small new towns was another distinctive feature of the landscape. The analysis of animal bone and charred cereal assemblages from across the wider South-West supports the documentary sources in suggesting the continuation of some marked regional variation in agricultural practices, such as a greater emphasis on cattle and a wider diversity of crops, including oats, in Devon and Cornwall compared to Dorset and Somerset. While the immediate hinterland of Exeter was agriculturally fertile, other parts of the wider South-West, such as the high moorland of Devon and Cornwall, were far less suited to arable agriculture. These areas were used as summer grazing by communities living in the surrounding lowlands. EAPIT’s isotopic analysis of cattle and sheep teeth has not only yielded archaeological evidence for this seasonal movement in the medieval period, but has shown that it was the case in the Roman town as well.
Exeter’s wider hinterland was rich in a range of other resources beyond foodstuffs. The South-West Peninsula was well-known in the pre-Roman period for its tin, and there is growing evidence for peaks in its exploitation during the Roman period and from the 8th century onwards. Exeter’s growth in the late Saxon period seems to have been closely linked to exploitation of the region’s mineral resources. From c.AD 300 to 1240, south-west England was Europe’s only source of tin, and an author writing c.1130 describes Exeter as Excestra clara metallis (‘bright metal’, presumably tin). The first direct documentary evidence for tin production in the South-West dates to the later 12th century, when Dartmoor was the main source, and there is good documentary evidence for the presence of goldsmiths in Exeter in the medieval period, although in practice they will have worked primarily in silver. Even today there is a ‘Goldsmith Street’ in Exeter, leading off the High Street.
In addition to tin- and silver-rich areas of Dartmoor and Cornwall, there were several other parts of the South-West that were rich in natural resources, such as iron- ore deposits on Exmoor and the Blackdown Hills. It has been known for some time that the Blackdowns were the location of a major medieval pottery industry, but from scientific analysis carried out through EAPIT we now know that these clays were also exploited for pottery production in the Roman period (having been identified as the source of South-Western Black Burnished Ware Type 1 vessels). Another revelation that came out of EAPIT’s analysis of the pottery fabrics found in Exeter is that the so-called ‘Fortress Wares’ were actually made from fine-quality potting clays that had been found in the Teign Valley, east of Dartmoor, some 20km from Exeter. This suggests that the Roman potters scouted quite widely around Exeter’s hinterland in the search for good-quality materials to work with.
It is a common perception that the South-West is a maritime region, although that may not be an appropriate tag before the late medieval period. The coastal fishing villages that are such a distinctive part of the Devon and Cornwall landscape are no older than the 15th century, and it is very striking that medieval churches within coastal parishes are invariably located well inland, at the centre of agricultural fields. This suggests that even for communities whose parishes lay next to the coast, it was farmland that was their major preoccupation, not the sea. Exeter was the pre-eminent regional centre for trade in marine fish from the late 14th century onwards, but it was not itself a fishing port. The main fish traded were initially herring, a large proportion of which came from the North Sea, although over time this was replaced by cod, hake, and conger eel fished off shore around the South-West Peninsula, which were brought to Exeter from small fishing ports all around Devon and Cornwall. There was very little trade in freshwater fish. We know relatively little about the importance of fish during the Roman and earlier medieval periods, although oyster shells are a common find in Roman deposits in the town.
Exeter: A place in time
Exeter is just one city, in one county, but it illustrates many of the themes that are common to so many archaeological sites in the Roman and medieval period: the importance of place, politics, economics, and society. The foundation of Exeter as a legionary fortress was part of a political and military strategy to conquer new territory, and for two decades it was one of the most important places in Britain. There appear to have been plans for it to become a beacon of urban life in the far south-west of the newly civilian province, but these ambitions were not quite realised, as the locals do not appear to have been very keen on the idea. Exeter was, however, an eminently well-placed town for both internal and international trade, which is seen both in the Roman period and especially in the medieval period, with the late 10th-12th and late 15th-16th centuries seeing Exeter ranked within the top ten English cities. We cannot, however, understand this prosperity simply by looking at Exeter itself. Rather we need to understand the rich natural resources of the South-West Peninsula alongside the entrepreneurial Devonians who exploited them.
The project took as its starting point the unpublished excavations undertaken in Exeter in the 1970s and 1980s, but it used those results as the basis for a more wide-ranging study that encompassed the whole of the South-West Peninsula. There was some doubt at the outset whether the old archives would repay the effort of further analysis half a century later, but the answer has been an emphatic ‘yes’, most notably through applying scientific techniques – methods that were not even dreamt of when the excavations took place – to the finds that have been carefully curated in Exeter’s museum ever since. The heroic work of excavators in Exeter to rescue what they could ahead of development has not been in vain.
Source Stephen Rippon is Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Exeter. Neil Holbrook is Chief Executive of Cotswold Archaeology. The other partners in the EAPIT project were Exeter City Council, Historic England, the University of Reading, and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery. The project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Historic England, and the University of Exeter.
Stephen Rippon and Neil Holbrook (eds), Roman and Medieval Exeter and their Hinterlands: from Isca to Excester (Oxbow, ISBN 978-1789256154, £35).
Stephen Rippon and Neil Holbrook (eds), Studies in the Roman and Medieval Archaeology of Exeter (Oxbow, ISBN 978-1789256192, £35).
Both books can be bought from Oxbow, but are also available open access and can be downloaded from Oxbow’s website.