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22.05.01 Rippon/Holbrook (eds.), Exeter

22.05.01 Rippon/Holbrook (eds.), Exeter

Isca, Isca Dumnoniorum, Caerwysg, Escanceaster, Excester: these are a few of the many names which the modern city of Exeter has been known by since its establishment as a fort by the Romans around AD 55. As with many other archaeological excavations within the United Kingdom at major Roman and medieval sites, much of the research and scholarship since the late nineteenth century remains unpublished. In this particular case, the city of Exeter was no exception until this publication. The unpublished excavation backlog related to Exeter has recently been made freely available online by Historic England and the Exeter City Council, and this massive two-volume tome takes advantage of these resources along with modern scientific investigations of artefacts in Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

The first volume focuses on historical and background information related to the southwest region of the island from the late Iron Age up to the mid-sixteenth centuries, i.e., the counties of Somerset, Devon, Dorset, and Cornwall, and the history of Exeter itself during that time period. The Introduction details the enormous amount of research and archaeological data and reports on the Exeter area both published and unpublished, specifically on excavations within the city itself. A table and maps of these locations is provided. Chapter 2 provides an extensive examination of the landscape of southwest England: its soils, geology, topology, and natural resources. Chapter 3 details the historical development of this region from the late Iron Age through the Roman period. The Durotrigian British tribe and its relationships with the Roman legions, and the development of various districts based upon landscape, provide interesting discussion around societal and political dimensions up to the late fourth century. Chapter 4 examines the region from the fifth through seventh centuries, particularly in relation to imported pottery from the Mediterranean. The development of the West Saxon kingdom in the mid-seventh century and its expansion into Somerset and then Devon includes some discussion related to the influence of both Roman and Celtic Christian missions during this period. Chapter 5 is devoted to the Roman fort at Exeter, now generally considered the most extensively explored plan of any Claudio-Neronian fortress in the Roman World. Much of the Roman archaeological and historical research on the city is provided in this chapter, along with an exploration of the population of Exeter during the first century A.D. Chapter 6 then looks at Exeter as the capital of the Dumnonii British tribe from the second century up to the beginning of the fourth century, stating that the population was between 2,000-5,000 people by the late Roman period, making Exeter the thirteenth-largest town in Roman Britain. Chapter 7 examines the early historical period surrounding Exeter when it first appears in recorded history and literature, along with the conflicts between the local British/Celtic tribes and the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the West Saxons. People such as Wynfrith/Boniface, Aldhelm, and King Alfred and his sons Aethelred and Aethelred II are introduced, and the history of Exeter moves into the twelfth century. Discussion around the British, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman cathedrals and their archaeological research are included here. Chapter 8 focuses on late medieval Exeter from the twelfth through sixteenth centuries, with various historical dates and key facts provided and expanded upon. The Conclusion pulls all of this fascinating research together and summarizes the findings and data about Exeter and southwest England as it is known thus far.

The second volume is a series of specialist chapters on various unpublished archaeological digs and excavations which provided the detail and background from which the first volume was constructed. Chapter 1 summarizes the information provided in the first volume, moving to a number of short summaries of Exeter and its surrounding region produced by the Exeter Archaeology Archive Project contained in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 focuses upon the excavations of the Roman legionary fortress, along with gazetteers of the Roman military streets, the civilian streets, and various buildings. Chapter 4 uses Exeter’s rich medieval archives to explore evidence related to St. Pancras parish, from which three excavation reports are available. Chapter 5 presents the excavation report of Trichay Street in central Exeter, Chapter 6 the excavation report at Goldsmith Street Site III in central Exeter, and Chapter 7 the excavation report at 196-7 High Street in central Exeter. The three chapters cover the most extensive archaeological evidence of the Roman legionary fortress, the civilian town, and the Late Saxon and later medieval city. Chapter 8 looks at a fourth excavation report on Rack Street which documents sections of the Roman fortress’s defenses and the early Roman town. Chapters 9 through 11 examine multi-period analyses of three categories of materials: Roman and medieval animal bone assemblages and the diet of medieval Exeter, metallurgical debris and tree-ring dating on the mineral resources of the region, and dendrochronological evidence from structures within Exeter and subsequent research on the supply of timber. Chapters 12 through 16 focus upon Roman culture in Exeter and the surrounding regions: the pottery supply to Roman Exeter, Roman ceramic tile production in the Exeter region, quernstone manufacture and distribution along with Roman coin excavations and Claudian bronze copies as support for the foundation date of the fortress, and the patterns of coin loss during various phases of Roman occupation in Exeter as compared with other Romano-British cities. Chapter 17 discusses various scientific analyses of ceramic fabrics in Exeter imported from local and northern European sources, while Chapter 18 examines the same topic related to imports from southern Europe. Finally, Chapter 19 presents the summary of 463 human burials from four excavated medieval cemeteries from the Late Saxon minister and Cathedral Close, the Dominican friary, the Franciscan priory, and St. Katherine’s Priory in Polsloe, all of which reveal that Exeter’s medieval population was very healthy, had a proper diet and nutrition, and that life expectancy increased over time.

This published research is a testament to the power of collaboration, partnership, and grant initiatives as a solution to deal with the huge volume of unpublished archaeological data and knowledge on various Roman and medieval sites within the United Kingdom. The Exeter region in particular, as these two volumes indicate, has amassed a substantial amount of unpublished archaeological research and data which has not been available publicly nor sufficiently analyzed as a collection until now. The rich variety of figures, tables, maps, and photos, many in color, are a testament to the hard work of the editors and scholars of this project. This work on southwest England and the city of Exeter in particular provides a blueprint for how to approach other unpublished research related to Roman and medieval archaeology within the United Kingdom and indicates how important this contribution can be to our ongoing knowledge and understanding of Britain’s increasing presence in the historical, political, and ecclesiastical events of the known world from the early first century to the sixteenth century.