From Isca to Excester

6 mins read

Tracing the fluctuating fortunes of Roman and medieval Exeter

Excavations of the legionary bathhouse within what would later become Exeter’s Cathedral Close. Exeter became the site of a legionary fortress just over a decade after the Roman conquest of AD 43. CREDIT: Exeter City Council

The 1970s were an exciting time for British archaeology, with large-scale open-area excavations in many historic city centres revealing a previously unsuspected wealth of well-preserved remains. But this was also an era when post-excavation programmes were under-resourced, and large backlogs of unpublished sites built up. So, is it worth publishing sites that were excavated around 50 years ago? The team behind the ‘Exeter: A Place in Time’ project, led by Stephen Rippon and Neil Holbrook, think it is – and here they explain why.

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.

Overlooking the head of the Exe Estuary, looking north-west towards Exeter, with Topsham in the foreground.
CREDIT: Exe Estuary Management Partnership

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work of writing reports could not keep pace with the demands for further excavation, and a substantial backlog of unpublished sites developed – as was often the case with urban rescue archaeology at that time.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.

Excavations within the historic core of Exeter (drawn by David Gould). The 1970s saw large areas of the city investigated by archaeologists, shedding invaluable light on its Roman and medieval past, but only a handful of excavations were published at the time – something that the ‘Exeter: A Place in Time’ project is working to remedy.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 374. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World Archaeology, Minerva, and Military History Matters.

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