Devon excavation extends boundaries of Roman Empire


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A team of archaeologists, students and local volunteers have unearthed evidence of a Romano-British settlement in a rural Devon village.

Devon excavation extends boundaries of Roman Empire
Archaeologists working on the site at Ipplepen 
[Credit: Steven Haywood/BBC]

The finds shed new light on how the county’s inhabitants lived during the Roman period. Until now little evidence of the Romans had been found outside of Exeter and it had been thought that rural areas had not been particularly affected by Roman influence.

Now the discoveries at Ipplepen, which is 20 miles south west and at least a good day’s walk away from Exeter, is causing archaeologists to re-think assumptions previously made about Roman Devon. Dr Sam Moorhead, an expert at the British Museum said: “This has lifted the lid off a whole series of new questions which need to be asked about Roman Devon”.

The Ipplepen Archaeological Project’s 2016 fieldwork season began two weeks ago and the team have already uncovered archaeological features and significant amounts of imported Roman pottery, along with locally made vessels.

The site was first discovered by metal detectorists Jim Wills and Dennis Hewings who reported their finds to archaeologist Danielle Wootton, who is the Devon Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This led to the formation of the project, a collaboration between the University of Exeter, Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is run from the British Museum, Devon County Council and Cotswold Archaeology.

Last week the team discovered a complex series of archaeological Late Prehistoric features which relate to an Iron Age settlement established years before the Romans came to the South West. This includes several large circular shaped water drains- known as ‘ring ditches’, which were often dug around the outside of Iron Age round houses.

Devon excavation extends boundaries of Roman Empire
Archaeologists have unearthed Roman pottery which was imported to
Britain from the rest of the Empire 

[Credit: Steven Haywood/BBC]

The team also uncovered later Romano-British features and Roman pottery. This was made in other parts of the Roman Empire and imported into Britain in ships, and demonstrates that the people who lived at the Ipplepen settlement must have had links with the Roman empire. The pottery includes fragments of large storage jars – known as amphorae – which contained goods such as wine, olives, olive oil and fish sauce.

Fine table wares or ‘Samian wares’, imported into Britain from modern France and fragments have also been found at the Ipplepen site.

Danielle Wootton said: ‘The presence of these kinds of vessels demonstrates that the people living here were at least influenced in some way by the Romans – they have adopted Romanised ways of eating and drinking which shows that at least some of the locals developed a taste for Mediterranean products such as wine and olives.

“However, the settlement is still puzzling as it does not really compare to other known Romano-British settlements in neighbouring counties to the east such as Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire. Sites from those counties produce much more finds such as coins and brooches and a greater amount of pottery. We are wondering whether the Dumnonii, the tribe who lived in the area now known as Devon, still retained their traditional identity rather than becoming entirely Romanised.”

This pattern is also reflected in the team’s research into the crops being grown during the Roman period.

Devon excavation extends boundaries of Roman Empire
The Ipplepen Archaeological Project began its fieldwork for this year two weeks ago 
[Credit: Steven Haywood/BBC]

Landscape archaeologist Professor Stephen Rippon, the project’s lead academic, said: “Environmental evidence shows a distinctive pattern of arable cultivation in Devon which is different to the rest of lowland Britain. The areas further east were growing huge amounts of wheat, probably to supply the Roman army with bread. But environmental analysis from Ipplepen and other sites in the South West has shown that, although some wheat was being grown, there were extensive areas of other crops such as oats and barley being cultivated.”

In previous years, the team discovered a Roman road complete with wheel ruts, as well as pot holes which had been repaired, demonstrating that the road had been well used and maintained.

A visitor centre is open at Ipplepen Methodist Church Monday to Friday until 30 June, where people can drop in to find out more about the excavation and see some of the discoveries from the site. There will be a free public open day on Saturday, 25 June where visitors can come and see the finds, as well as talks and re-enactments. To find the site follow the signs on the A381 between Newton Abbot and Totnes.

The project has a major programme of public engagement which involves working with local schools, hosting visitor centre and exhibition throughout the excavation, organising a free Open Day each year and the opportunity for local volunteers to participate in the excavation each season.

Danielle Wootton said: ‘The local community are very supportive of the project and really interested in our research. Our open day last year saw 930 visitors in just six hours and our visitor centre at the Hub received over 500 visitors- it’s great to be able to involve the community. Until recently, who would have thought that Ipplepen village was once ‘plugged in’ to the Roman empire?”

For further details, visit the project’s blog.

Source: The University of Exeter [June 22, 2016]



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