Life at Roman Ipplepen

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The University of Exeter’s eighth and final season of excavation at the Roman settlement of Ipplepen in Devon has revealed more information about daily life at the site – including a quantity of 4th-century cattle bones, which provide insights into inhabitants butchering and selling meat.
Excavation of a cow skull from the ditch containing butchery waste
Excavation of a cow skull from the ditch containing butchery waste [Image: Stephen Rippon]

Ipplepen was occupied for around 1,200 years, through the Middle-to-Late Iron Age, Romano-British, and early medieval periods. It appears to have been a significant village, housing craftspeople and farmers who supplied specialist services to the surrounding area. Evidence of craft activity has been found in the form of a piece of sawn deer antler possibly used to make objects like awls, needles, or combs; a stone weight that could be connected to textile weaving; and waste from iron smithing, which suggests there was a blacksmith’s forge on the site.

Excavations in 2014-2015 uncovered a major Roman road running through the middle of the site, built in the mid-1st century, and connecting Ipplepen to the rest of Roman Britain (see CA 301). Evidence of connections with the wider Roman world also come in the form of amphora fragments related to the import of olive oil and wine from the Mediterranean, and Samian Ware pottery from Gaul.

In addition to craft activities, it appears that farming played a significant role in the lives of Ipplepen’s Romano-British occupants. The presence of buildings which may have been granaries suggests large-scale arable farming, and it is hoped that future analysis of charred cereal grains will provide information on which crops were being grown.

This season’s excavations also uncovered a large collection of 1,700-year-old Roman cattle bones, possibly the waste from an abattoir. Most of the remains found came from the animals’ heads and feet, suggesting that the cattle had been raised locally, butchered on site when they reached the prime age for beef, and the best cuts of meat then transported somewhere else for sale and consumption. Animal bones from this period rarely survive in South West England due to the acidic nature of the soil, so this find is significant for its rarity, as well as the information it provides about the meat trade at Roman Ipplepen, just one of the thriving village’s specialities.

This news article appears in issue 357 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to CA magazine, click here.

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