Excavating the CA Archive: Devon

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I am now on the home stretch of my explorations of the counties of Britain through the pages of Current Archaeology. I will begin this month in Devon, before moving on into Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and finally Wiltshire in subsequent columns. When I sat down to write about Devon, I assumed that there would be more content from there than I could contend with. But, in comparison to other counties, surprisingly little has been published down the years. So I begin with a plea – if you are digging in Devon, then do please drop us a line: we would love to report more from there.

CA 8 visited the island of Lundy, just north of the mainland, where fieldwork revealed human occupation dating back to the Mesolithic.

I start in a part of Devon that most of us have never been lucky enough to visit: Lundy, an island lying ten nautical miles from the mainland, north-west of Bideford. These days it is a carefully managed nature reserve and marine sanctuary, but it has a long history of human occupation dating back to the Mesolithic, as examined through fieldwork undertaken by Charles Thomas in the late 1960s, which was reported in CA 8 and 16 (May 1968 and September 1969). From there, we head to the mainland, and to modest pickings in the north- west of the county. The bulk of the coast and its settlements are unvisited across the decades of Current Archaeology’s coverage, with the notable exception of Barnstaple, where CA 45 (July 1974) paused to explore its medieval castle and post-medieval industries, especially its potteries. My final stop in this part of the county is then on the Devon/Somerset border, where CA 192 (June 2004) explored the multi- period landscapes of Exmoor through the eyes of its environmental archaeology. But this was a rare visit to an important landscape, so – as above – if you have more to share with us about Exmoor, then do get in touch.


Heading south from Exmoor into central Devon, you reach Burlescombe, ten miles to the east of Tiverton. CA 199 (September 2005) reported on a great piece of fieldwork from there – the recovery of an exceptionally well- preserved Iron Age shoe within a waterlogged well. After that, my next stop is in Exeter. There we have regular updates down the years on the Roman, medieval, and modern history of the city, commencing in CA 28 (September 1971), when there were investigations under way in and around the cathedral. Compare this to a visit made to the same site 50 years later in CA 401 (August 2023).

Similarly, in CA 39 (July 1973) there is a superb multi-period survey of the development of the city at this time that can be usefully read in conjunction with a similar such assessment in CA 374 (May 2021). In both these cases, the ability to review the changes that occurred over the intervening decades is one of the great benefits of Current Archaeology’s coverage – and of its digital archive. Finally, I also flag CA 296 (November 2014), which explored Exeter underground: its medieval water- management systems and their later uses, as well as myths of misuse by saints and sinners, smugglers and shopkeepers alike.

Exeter made the cover of CA 39 and CA 374, which both featured multi-period surveys of the city.

The ability to move easily from a bustling town or city to a remote coastline or upland is one of the enduringly appealing features of Devon. Of this last kind of landscape, Dartmoor is one of the most fascinating examples, as well as being among the most beloved – and much in the news in the present day as campaigners fight to maintain long-held rights to wild camp there. Such conflicts speak to the continuity of settlement down the ages. The first significant visits to Dartmoor by the magazine came in CA 55 and CA 67 (March 1976 and June 1979), reporting on a long-running piece of fieldwork undertaken at this time into Dartmoor’s Bronze Age farming communities. Somewhat strangely, coverage then goes quiet, bar occasional short notes, for some 30 years. The next and very welcome return is not until CA 266 (May 2012), again focusing on the Bronze Age, visiting a superbly well-preserved set of roundhouses discovered near Lakehead Hill (right in the middle of the National Park), when a winter storm knocked down trees in a plantation and uncovered the site.

Next, I flag another, more-recent Bronze Age story from CA 322 (January 2017), examining cists (stone-lined graves) at Whitehorse Hill that were exposed by weathering and erosion of the peat there. And, before you ask, later periods – although, notably, not from the post-medieval or modern eras – are also covered, for example, the evidence for medieval tin-mining in CA 260 (November 2011). I then make one final stop in mid-Devon, at Ipplepen, four miles south of Newton Abbot. There fieldwork reported in CA 301 (April 2015), CA 318 (September 2016), and CA 357 (December 2019) has transformed our understanding of the formal presence of Roman (or at least heavily Romanised) communities along the empire’s western frontier.

Kents Cavern, and some of the earliest evidence for human occupation of Britain, was highlighted on the cover of CA 262.

Along the south coast of Devon, we encounter the heaviest density of CA coverage for the region. Starting in Torquay, we arrive first at a unique location, one of the oldest sites of human occupation in the county: prehistoric Kents Cavern. At the time of writing in the summer of 2023, this had just changed ownership for the first time in more than a century, when it was sold (as a package of visitor attractions and housing) for more than £2.5m. CA 236 (November 2009) first visited when new fieldwork was under way, and CA 262 (January 2012) followed up on this in depth, when it was widely reported that a human tooth, originally excavated in 1989 and at that time dated to 36,400-34,700 years BP was actually far older, in the range of 44,200-41,500 years BP. More recently, CA 330 (September 2017) went back for an update.

Heading south down the coast, CA 399 (June 2023) reported on an intriguing story that is also mentioned in CA 405, and which I am sure the magazine will follow up on in more detail in a future edition: the search for a First World War submarine buried beneath a playing-field in Dartmouth on what were, formerly, mudflats. Not much further on from there, an earlier edition of the magazine had examined stories of the Second World War at Slapton Sands in CA 350 (May 2019). Further south still, we head back in time to a site that wins the prize both for the largest number of mentions in Devon and for the largest number of mentions of maritime archaeology in the magazine: the fascinating, still unfolding, story of the Moor Sand Bronze Age site near Salcombe, which is currently Britain’s oldest known shipwreck. CA 197 (May 2005) first reported from there, with follow-ups in CA 242 and CA 243 (May and June 2010) and CA 286 and 295 (January and October 2014), as well as, most recently, in CA 385 (April 2022). This is a site of the highest national importance, to which I am certain the magazine will return.

I conclude my travels through Devon, though, in Plymouth. This city often suffers a raw deal in the mainstream media: post-war development and post-modern economics alike have not been kind to it. But three visits made over the past few years shine a light on some of its hidden gems. First, CA 342 (September 2018) visited work then under way at Sherford on the eastern edge of the city. At this time, a multi-period landscape was uncovered in advance of housing development, offering a rare slice through time for the area. Second, CA 357 (December 2019) reported on the conservation and display of a collection of figureheads from 19th-century ships at the city’s new museum and art gallery, the Box. Third and finally, CA 369 (December 2020) explored the city’s connections with the European colonisation of North America as part of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower, and the foundation of the Plymouth Plantation in what became the modern-day state of Massachusetts. That, then, is it for Devon. Next month I will head east to neighbouring Dorset to dig into its delights.

Projects in Devon again made the cover of CA 342, which visited excavations at Sherford on the outskirts of Plymouth, and CA 369, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of the sailing
of the Mayflower.

Joe Flatman

About the author
Joe Flatman completed a PhD in medieval archaeology at the University of Southampton in 2003, and since then has held positions in universities, and local and – most recently – central government. Since March 2019, he has been a Consultancy Manager in the National Trust’s London and South-East Region, leading a team working on Trust sites across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. You can follow him on X: @joeflatman.

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