Roman settlement in rural Devon unearthed

Posted on: 27 June 2016

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

The finds at the dig in Ipplepen, 20 miles south west of Exeter, is causing archaeologists to re-think previous assumptions about Roman Devon.

Ipplepen dig 4Dr 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.”

Although many Roman and native Romano-British sites have been discovered west of Exeter in Devon and Cornwall – including forts, roads, industrial sites and many rural farmsteads – Ipplepen stands out.

Bill Horner the County Archaeologist for Devon said that the quality, complexity and date range of the archaeological evidence from this extensive settlement site provided a welcome opportunity to answer many questions about the Roman period in 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, collaboration between the University of Exeter, Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is run by British Museum, Devon County Council and Cotswold Archaeology.

Bill Horner, the County Archaelogist for Devon, said: “This is the first major excavation to be undertaken in Devon by Exeter University since the mid 1980’s. This is great for the students, the local community and for better understanding our rich heritage.”

Ipplepen dig findLast 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.

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.Ipplepen pots

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.

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 cIpplepen dig2ultivated.”

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. 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 added: “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.

Posted in: Environment