Exeter: A Place in Time

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Archaeology


The relationship between town and country has played an important role in shaping British society for much of the past two millennia. Britain's assimilation into the Roman world led to the creation of a network of towns as centres of administration, trade, industry and service provision although the decline of Roman Britain led to the disappearance of urban life in most areas. It was only from around the 10th century that true towns once again re-emerged, and they have been integral to British life ever since. This project will examine the fluctuating fortunes of the most important town in SW England - Exeter - and how it interacted with its local, regional and international hinterland.

Exeter began in the Conquest period (c.AD55) as a Roman legionary fortress, and following its abandonment (c.AD75) it was transformed into a town (civitas capital) serving the local region of Dumnonia. Unlike many other lowland areas, Dumnonia was slow to adopt aspects of Roman life, there being very few villas and other forms of Roman influence in the countryside. As such, this project will use Exeter as an example of the development of urbanism at the fringes of Romanised Britain. Although large parts of the town appear to have been abandoned in the early medieval period, a thread of continuity is indicated by radiocarbon-dated burials from the Cathedral Close. Urban life in Exeter resumed around the 10th century, and the town continued to flourish throughout the medieval period when it established extensive trading connections with Atlantic Europe, once again demonstrating a model of urbanism that was different from the centres of power to the east that looked towards NW Europe.

Exeter's archaeological importance is two-fold: firstly, it is representative of urbanism in western Britain, well away from the political, social and economic centre of London; and secondly, there have been particularly extensive excavations the results of which have only partly been published. The 'Exeter: A Place in Time' project therefore aims to produce the first ever synthesis of the archaeology of Exeter and undertake a series of themed research strands, based upon scientific analyses of previously excavated assemblages (animal bones, pottery, and metallurgical debris) that shed light on how the city developed and interacted with its hinterland. The project will be strongly collaborative and involve:
1. the Universities of Exeter (already undertaking the post-excavation analysis of the Cathedral Close cemetery) and Reading
2. English Heritage (through their Centre for Archaeology, and funding for Cotswold Archaeology to write up key unpublished excavations)
3. Exeter City Council who run the City's Historic Environment Record and Royal Albert Memorial Museum

A partnership with English Heritage and Cotswold Archaeology will enable selected unpublished excavations to be studied, along with a programme of radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating and metallurgical analysis. AHRC funding will use existing excavated material to explore Exeter's relationship to its hinterland through further analysis of animal bones and pottery. In particular scientific analysis will be used to characterise where animals were grazing before they were brought to Exeter, and the extent to which livestock were moved from the fertile lowlands onto the uplands during the summer. A new analysis of the pottery will explore Exeter's trading networks both within the SW of Britain and continental Europe. Key outputs of the project will include two books and an academic conference presenting an analysis of Exeter's development and its relationship with its hinterland from the Roman period through to the 16th century, a conference session aimed at professional archaeologists that highlights this innovative partnership approach, a one-day workshop for the public, and enhancements to the Museum's Making History gallery, online Time Trail, and Historic Environment Record.

Planned Impact

Due to the pressures of 'rescue archaeology' in the 1970s/80s many important large-scale excavations in British urban centres are unpublished and Exeter is no exception. The traditional approach towards writing-up this backlog - one organisation attempting to prepare full reports - has been extremely complex, costly and often unsuccessful with projects grinding to a halt. This partnership project will provide a new research-driven way forward in which the writing up of stratigraphic sequences (funded by EH) is only carried out for carefully selected sites, while summaries are produced for the rest. This selective approach will also be adopted for artefactual and environmental material as an EH-funded assessment by Cotswold Archaeology (CA) has highlighted the animal bones, pottery, and metallurgical debris as having the greatest potential for further work.

Progress has already been made in making existing archive reports available via the ADS (a CA project funded by EH) and to write up the excavated cemetery within the Cathedral Close (through a collaborative AHRC studentship at the Univ. of Exeter with Exeter City Council (ECC)funding). The aim of this new project is to fully realise the potential of this work by conducting new research into the relationship between Exeter and its hinterland through an innovative partnership between the Universities of Exeter and Reading, and three non-academic organisations (EH, CA, and ECC including its HER and Royal Albert Memorial Museum). Such is the recognised importance this project, that EH have agreed to fund CA to write up the key sequences of the excavations in Exeter as part of their commitment to realise the potential of the 'rescue archaeology' backlog in England. EH see this partnership as piloting a new way of working (see Letter of Support): rather than grant aiding a single organisation to carry out a limited programme of work, the 'Exeter: A Place in Time' Project will provide a model for more holistic partnership working involving the higher education, national and local government, and commercial archaeology sectors, providing maximum benefit by enabling additional world-class research within a wider research agenda. In order to promote this new partnership-based approach towards dealing with the backlog of unpublished urban excavations, the project will organise a session at the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists' annual conference.

Other non-academic impacts will be achieved through engagement with ECC whose Chief Exec Karime Hassan and Deputy Leader Rachel Sutton were involved in planning this project. The project will update existing HER GIS layers and database entries, and Andy Pye, Principal Project Manager for Heritage at ECC, will be a full member of the project team. The enhanced HER will improve advice given by ECC as part of the planning process at a time when increased development within the city centre is expected. Exeter is the leading urban centre in the South West which has had, and will continue to have, considerable commercial and residential development. This project will assist in the more effective management of redevelopment within the city's historic core, such as plans currently being developed for the regeneration of the Bus Station, South Street, and for the permanent display of the Roman legionary bath house by Exeter Cathedral. The latter will not only generate further archaeological work but will also provide a regenerative stimulus in the surrounding area, and future planning decisions will greatly benefit from the enhanced HER that this project will provide.

Wider public engagement will be achieved through a one-day workshop jointly hosted with the Museum (including presentations, a panel discussion, and artefact displays), enhancements to the Museum's permanent Making History gallery including a digital interactive panel, and enhancement of their existing online TimeLine (http://www.rammtimetrail.org.uk/).


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Description The Exeter: A Place in Time (EAPIT) project explored how the Roman fortress/town and medieval city of Exeter developed over time in a region that at times did not show the same patterns of socio-economic development as seen in other parts of lowland Britain. This was achieved through four strands of research: the writing up of key unpublished excavations; analysis of the faunal assemblages in order to understand Exeter's meat supply; work on various categories of material culture (most notably the pottery, but also the archaeometallurgical debris, dendrochronological samples, Roman ceramic tile, querns and coins, and medieval human burials); and the writing of a synthesis that describes the evolution of Exeter and how it developed within its local, regional, national and international contexts. The synthesis is presented in the first of two books to be published (Roman and Medieval Exeter and Their Hinterlands [Exeter: A Place in Time 1]), with the other (Studies in the Roman and Medieval Archaeology of Exeter [Exeter: A Place in Time 2) containing a series of specialist contributions that underpin the discussion in EAPIT 1. Exeter began life as a Roman legionary fortress in c. AD 55 whereupon for around two decades it was one of the most important places in Roman Britain until it was abandoned in the early AD 80s. The cumulative result of many city-centre excavations is that Exeter has the most complete plan of a Claudio-Neronian fortress in Britain. It was soon converted into the only major town within the Dumnonian civitas, and the size of its forum/basilica and the area enclosed by its later 2nd-century AD defences suggest that the civil authorities had high hopes for its development. These hopes were, however, never realised as Exeter itself and its rural hinterland failed to develop to the same extent as areas further east. The town appears to have become largely deserted in the early 5th century, although two burials radiocarbon dated to somewhere in the 5th to early 7th centuries hint at the presence of a church before it is first documented in the late 7th century. Exeter's Roman defences saw it become a burh and mint under King Alfred in the late 9th century, although there is no sign of renewed urban life until the 10th century when its growth was rapid. In part this expansion appears to have been due to its role in the exploitation of Devon's rich mineral resources, as well as its development as a port. Exeter maintained its high ranking within English towns into the 11th and 12th centuries, although a decline in tin production on Dartmoor led to a fall in its prosperity. Its fortunes were, however, restored during the 15th century through the rapid growth in East Devon's woollen cloth production and by the early 16th century Exeter was the 6th wealthiest and most populous city in England.

The two books are being published by Oxbow this Spring. The third and final proofs of EAPIT 1 have been signed off, and the second proofs of EAPIT 2 have been returned to the publisher.

The key work strands were:
The project has written up four of the most important yet previously un-published excavations in Exeter, reports on which will appear in our second volume.

Analysis of the Roman and medieval pottery has revealed where a series of the fabrics found in Exeter were produced, revealing Exeter's use of ceramics produced in the immediate vicinity of Exeter, more widely across Devon, and further afield. Key discoveries include that South West Grey Ware jars were made close to Exeter in the Ludwell Valley, that South West Black Burnished Ware Category 1 pottery was being produced along the western side of the Blackdown Hills, and that the so-called 'Fortress Wares' were made from clays quarries in Teign Valley in south Devon (although they clay may have been transported to Exeter).

Analysis of the Roman tile has suggested a series of different sources (two kilns - Princesshay and St Davids - immediately outside Exeter; a kiln at Hatherleigh in western Devon; and as yet unlocated production centres in central, eastern and southern Devon. Topsham appears to have been either a kiln site or a point of importation.

The isotopic analysis of faunal remains (undertaken at the University of Reading) shows that in the Roman military period significant numbers of cattle and sheep (or goat) were driven to the legionary fortress on the hoof from areas east of Exeter, whereas as the civilian town developed greater use was made of local pastures, including Devon's uplands.

We have scanned two of the out-of-print Exeter Archaeological Reports that are now freely available on the project's webpage: John Allan's volume on Medieval Finds from Exeter, and Mark Maltby's study of animal bones.
Exploitation Route The project's finding will be used to update the 'Making History' gallery at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter but this has been delayed due to periods of Lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic and the key member of staff being of furlough.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/place_in_time/
Description The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) has produced its new Minecraft maps (eg one based upon the Roman legionary fortress that lies beneath Exeter), and 'Meet the Experts' and 'RAMM Late' events were hosted by RAMM in Februray 2020. The results of the project will feed through to revisions to the museum's 'Making History' gallery (although this has been delayed by Lockdowns and furloughing of key staff during the Covid-19 pandemic), and the planned conference was cancelled. Of the RAMM's various projects, Exeter: A Place in Time was chosen to be presented to HRH The Princess Royal and Sir Nicholas Serota during their visits to the Museum, reflecting the high esteem with which they regard the project. See my response under 'Engagement' for my current work as part of the University of Exeter and Exeter City Council 'Creative Arc' initiative
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Economic

Description Exeter: A Place in Time publication grant
Amount £31,000 (GBP)
Organisation Historic England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2021 
End 03/2021
Title Exeter: A Place in Time online appendices, notably ICP-AES and ICP-MS raw data 
Description EAPIT 1 ONLINE TABLES 12.3.1 online Fabric descriptions of South-Western BB1 12.3.2 online Summary of the fabric descriptions for South-Western BB1 12.3.3 online Fabric descriptions of Fortress Wares 12.3.4 online Summary of the fabric descriptions for Fortress Wares 12.3.5 online Fabric descriptions for South-Western Grey Ware Storage Jars 12.3.6 online Grey ware sherds checked for main mineral components compared with the summaries of sherds given a more detailed assessment. 12.4 online Normalised REE values using values for chondritic meteorites 12.5 online ICP-MS data for Exeter Fortress Wares 17.4 online Full list of ICPS analyses (both atomic emission and mass spectrometry) of north French wares from Exeter17.6 online ICPS Analysis of Exeter fabrics 40 and 42 17.7 online Average chemical composition of sherds of Exeter fabric 40 and 42 compared with analyses of pottery and clays from the region 17.8 online Plasma Spectrometry analyses of three early 16th-century 'Normandy' tiles from sites in Devon 18.6 online List of elements by ICP-AES and ICP-MS of all samples analysed as part of this study 18.9 online ICP analyses of all samples of Italian and Low Countries pottery studied in the EAPIT programme EAPIT 2 ONLINE APPENDICES 13.1 online An analysis of the Roman ceramic building material industry in Devon using pXRF: catalogue of sites examined 17.1 online Sample descriptions of the petrology of the UGSD sherds, by Roger T. Taylor 17.5 online Petrological descriptions of probable Breton sherds, with a revised inventory of such finds from Exeter, by Roger T. Taylor 18.3 online Catalogue of Spanish and Portuguese ceramics found at Exeter by Alejandra Gutiérrez 18.4 online Italian and Italian-influenced maiolica found in Exeter: descriptions of fragments analysed by ICPS by Hugo Blake 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Various datasets appear as online appendices for both volumes published. 'Summaries of the Excavations within the City of Exeter 1812-2019' appears as Chapter two in the second of the edited books (and have been fed through to the Exeter City Council Historic Environment Record): they do not have a DOI. 
URL https://doi.org/10.24378/exe.1983
Description Exeter: A Place in Time (Cotswold Archaeology) 
Organisation Cotswold Archaeology Limited
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Cotswold Archaeology are leading on the work funded by Historic England.
Collaborator Contribution Cotswold Archaeology are leading on the work funded by Historic England.
Impact The project has only just started and there are no outputs as yet.
Start Year 2016
Description Exeter: A Place in Time (Exeter City Council) 
Organisation University of Exeter
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Partner in AHRC award
Collaborator Contribution Advice
Impact The project has only just started and there are no outputs as yet.
Start Year 2016
Description Exeter; A Place in Time (RAMM) 
Organisation Royal Albert Memorial Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Collaborator in outreach programme
Collaborator Contribution Collaborator in outreach programme
Impact The project has only just started and there are no outputs as yet.
Start Year 2016
Description 'Meet the Experts' Public engagement event at RAMM (Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A family-orientated public event during half-term in
February 2020 enabled RAMM's 783 visitors that day to
'Meet the Experts' and find out about EAPIT and Exeter's
archaeology more generally.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description 'RAMM Late' public engagement event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 350 visitors attended a 'RAMM Late' event featuring the results of EAPIT (organised by the RAMM's Youth Panel, many of whom are students at the University). These evening events are aimed at an adult audience, when the museum is open late and there is music and a bar. They are extremely popular as they allow an interested audience, who often cannot get to RAMM during the day due to work pressures, to come and see the museum in a relaxed, informal atmosphere.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Creative Arc initiative between University of Exeter and Exeter City Council (including Royal Albert Memorial Museum) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I am a member of the University of Exeter Working Group that is currently planning a programme of activities under the 'Creative Arc' umbrella to promote awareness of heritage in Exeter and its hinterland (a collaboration with Exeter City Council). One specific activity planned for May 2022 will be a temporary exhibition in a vacant retail unit on Exeter High Street that will feature the results of the Exeter: A Place in Time project, and which I will be attending as part of a 'meet the experts' day.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Public lecture (online) 5th February 2022: Devon and Cornwall Records Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Online lecture about the results of the Exeter: A Place in Time project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022