What can the environment tell us about ancient life at Ipplepen?

Intern Sophie with Hub visitor 2017

Here’s the second of Sophie’s blog posts. Sophie is our intern who is based at the Hub in Ipplepen Methodist Church weekdays from 10am to 4pm until 29th June 2017. Do drop in to find out more about this year’s excavation.

The charred grains found by wet sieving soil

What can the environment tell us about ancient life at Ipplepen?

The historic landscape is a term used to describe the environment that Ipplepen’s inhabitants would have lived within in the past. There are many ways in which modern archaeologists can attempt to rebuild this environment with one of the most common being to study the remains of agriculture such as seeds from ancient crops and animal bone which have been preserved. Crops, the most common being various kinds of wheat, barley and oats, can be used to shed light on many things in the ancient world. They can be used to show trends in popular foods, tastes and preferences within communities, and even soil conditions and therefore the state of the environment at the time in which they were grown. For example, wheat, though the most common crop is also the least tolerant to poor soil conditions and waterlogging. It is therefore uncommon to find large amounts of it anywhere with thin, or exhausted soil. Barley is a little more tolerant and so may be found in a wider variety of conditions but it is oats, tolerant of both bad soil quality and saline conditions, which can be grown almost anywhere.

Student Josh carefully looking for grains in 2016

Furthermore, each plant had different used with wheat being more in keeping with Roman tastes, barley being used for brewing and oats being used to feed animals. By working out how much land at a given site was dedicated to which crop it is possible to reconstruct what the environment may have looked like at the time but also how much value was placed upon each crop. For instance, wheat (most commonly of the Spelt variety) was common in Roman Britain and seems to have become a Romanised taste. Lastly, charred seeds can be radiocarbon dated and in this way they are very valuable when it comes to establishing the environment chronologically. In a similar manner animal bones, most commonly cow, pig and sheep/goat (sheep and goat are almost indistinguishable from each other archaeologically) can also be used to reconstruct both the ancient environment and life in a broader sense. Like crops they can also be used to show the preferences of a community, the status of a community and whether that community farmed animals for their meat or secondary products (such as wool or milk). However, they also show more obviously to what degree a community has accepted Roman influence into their life style. Roman tastes show a preference for beef and pork as can be seen in high status and military sites. Conversely, sheep/goat seems to indicate a more traditional lifestyle which has not been affected by the presence of the Romans to such a high degree. As such, the consumption of these meats has become an indicator of status and another way in which to reconstruct ancient lives from environmental evidence. However, there are problems when trying to relate this information to Ipplepen specifically. Ipplepen, like the rest of Devon, has quite acidic soil meaning that bones are badly preserved, if
they even survive at all. This makes it difficult to identify them with certainty. Seeds are often only preserved through accidental charring, such as if they were dropped into fire accidentally during cooking. As such it is impossible to be sure just how representative of daily life our assemblages are.

But this doesn’t mean that there has been a lack of environmental data found at the Ipplepen site! Though seeds have been found before on this site it was in 2016 when their collection really took off. Through the painstaking efforts of students and volunteers alike who went through dirt samples by hand (armed only with a paintbrush and a pair of tweezers!) hundreds of examples were found, whilst the excavators carefully removed and bagged all possible animal bone evidence. Though full assemblages from the site are not yet available both wheat and cow bones have been found which carries interesting implications for how Ipplepen fits into the wider Romano-British landscape. If you’re interested in finding out more come and visit the Hub before the 29th of June and bring any questions you have with you!!

Update on week two of excavation

Professor Stephen Rippon

After last week’s rain, we experienced scorching-hot weather on site during week two of our excavation. Nevertheless, our team of students and volunteers persevered and we are beginning to piece together more clues of what life was like at the settlement at Ipplepen. Thanks to radiocarbon dates taken last year, we now know that there was activity at our site since at least the middle Iron Age, and this activity continues in the Romano-British period- and beyond- into the Early Medieval period (sometimes referred to as the ‘dark ages’). This makes our site the longest period of activity currently known in Devon!

On Friday, Professor Stephen Rippon gave a site tour to students and volunteers of our findings on the excavation so far.

The three trenches (trenches 13, 14, and 15) that we are currently excavating have all brought up Roman pottery. Some of this pottery has been made in Britain, but much of it has been imported from the Mediterranean area.  These imported wares include fragments of amphorae- large storage jars containing goods such as olive oil and wine, and Samian ware- ‘fancy’ decorated table ware. This type of imported pottery suggests that the inhabitants at Ipplepen were very much connected to the Roman world.

In trench 13, we have discovered the remains of a curvilinear ditch- which is probably a ‘ring ditch’ associated with a roundhouse. A ditch was often dug around the outside of a roundhouse so that the rain would soak away into it, in order to prevent the floors of the house itself becoming damp and muddy. As roundhouses were made of organic materials (thatched roofs, wattle and daub walls) which do not survive, often the only indicator of a roundhouse is the deep ditch which was cut out around the house. Also in trench 13, there is at least one deep pit- not yet fully excavated -which might possibly be a well for water (watch this space!). In the same trench, we have discovered four post holes in a square shape, measuring about 1m square so there is a working hypothesis that this might indicate a store for grain, (termed a ‘granary’). Granaries were often  raised above the ground (a bit like a very large roofed bird table- but four posts instead of one!) which would prevent rats and mice from getting in and eating the food supplies.

In trench 14, there are several linear ditches which contain pottery dating from the Roman period. One of the ditches contains a lot of charcoal, so we hope to be able to take some radiocarbon dates, which would date the fill of the ditch. In other ditches and pits, we have found lots of iron working slag. Finding so much iron slag demonstrates that there must have been some industrial processing activities carried out nearby.

In trench 15, we have discovered two linear ditches which might possibly represent two ditches either side of a trackway (similar to ditches often seen on Devon country lanes today). Unlike the nearby robust Roman road we excavated in 2014 and 2015, this does not have a metalled surface, and was unlikely to be a ‘major’ routeway, but possibly served the local community of people living at the settlement.

We still have another two weeks to excavate so our interpretations (and dating) of the various features we have might change over the next few weeks- but we are certain that we are finding more evidence of Roman trade and influence, that we have uncovered another roundhouse and, due to the presence of iron slag, have some form of iron working nearby.

We are probably looking at many phases of settlement spanning hundreds of years. However, from our finds so far this season, one might start to imagine everyday life at this multi-period settlement- people digging ditches to keep the rain out of their house; storing grain above the ground so that it isn’t eaten by rodents; making iron for tools such as spades to dig drainage ditches around houses, or perhaps making iron ploughs to furrow fields in which to grow grain or scythes to cut silage; using trackways to herd animals, or to walk along – maybe to visit family and friends whilst taking with them imported wine or olives in amphorae to celebrate a special occasion!

To find out more about the site visit our excavation open day on Sunday 25th June, 10.30am to 3.30pm.

Archaeology at University of Exeter Arts and Culture ‘The Observatory’ exhibition

Danielle Wootton meets Will from Exeter City Football Club’s The Grecian Archive Project

On Saturday 17th June, Chris Smart and Danielle Wootton attended the ‘Think-Art’ family open day organised by the University of Exeter Arts and Culture team, which was organised as part of the University’s ‘The Observatory’ exhibition (details below). Alongside some beautiful, amazing and thought-provoking artwork by artists, we displayed brilliant community paintings made by pupils from both Ipplepen and Abbotskerswell Primary Schools, pottery from Sands Secondary School in Ashburton, and our dig ‘mascots’ painted by Ipplepen Dramatic Society’s set painters. The day was very inspiring and it was a great opportunity to engage with the different research projects taking place across the University as well as having the opportunity to talk to the public about our exciting excavation and forthcoming open day.

Info on The Observatory:

The Observatory: perspectives on landscape, society and spirit is an exhibition of artistic responses to the key research themes of the University.
The University is a place of learning and also a place of research. Artists from across the region were invited to submit works for this exhibition that respond to the idea of ‘observatory’ as a channel for exploring a certain type of vision, investigation or view. The theme is open to interpretation and artists explored and investigated specific areas of research at the University of Exeter as inspiration for their work.

The University’s research takes placed in teams combining a wide variety of topics from the distant reaches of the universe, to conditions in our own localities or our own minds, bodies and societies. This free exhibition showcases selected works from those submitted, reflecting the diversity of research at the University.

Thank you to our week two volunteers, and ‘Hello’ to our visitor from Dallas!

Our week two volunteers 2017
Kristen and her mum

A big thank you to all our volunteers this week- it’s been hard work in the hot weather but everyone said they’d had a great time. We hope to see you again soon! Also, today we had a special visitor from Dallas- Dr Kristen Leith’s mum! It was her first time visiting an excavation- we hope you enjoyed your day with us!

Our 2017 Hub Intern Sophie Pallett on ‘What makes Ipplepen unique?’

Here’s a blog from our Hub Intern Sophie Pallett. Sophie is on hand to discuss the site with visitors at the Archaeology Information Point at the Hub, Ippelpen Methodist Church, East St, Mondays to Fridays 10am – 4pm until 29th June 2017.

  ‘What makes Ipplepen unique?! ! Ever since Ipplepen was first reported to the Portable Antiquities scheme in Devon in 2009 it has raised many questions. What were the Romans doing this far down in Devon? How long had this settlement been occupied? And most importantly: why is Ipplepen so different from other sites in Britain?! Though there are many exciting features of Ipplepen, perhaps the most perplexing (at least from an archaeologists point of view) is what it was doing all the way down in Devon. Traditionally, it was thought the Romans never ventured much further west than Exeter: there are certainly less of the famous villas in the south west than the more densely populated south east. However, apparently nobody told this to the inhabitants of Ipplepen! Evidence of the Roman lifestyle has been found in many forms within this rural village in Devon, everything from amphorae to coins to finely decorated pottery has been found. Not to mention the example of such a well constructed Roman road which was repaired and maintained throughout many phases! Another recent discovery from the 2016 excavation has even raised eyebrows at the site: the site which appears to have been inhabited for a over 1000 years. While the Romans tend to stand out with their decorated samian ware and cleverly made roads it cannot be forgotten that Ipplepen existed long before Julius Caesar even set foot in England. Last year a human cremation was dated to the 4th-3rd century BC (Middle Iron Age) but burials from the 2015 excavation date to the AD 7th century: 200 years after the Romans withdrew from Britain! What is clear is that Ipplepen doesn’t just offer Roman history but also the history of the people of Devon. Overall, it appears that the more we find out about Ipplepen the more there is to investigate. As it was put best by Dr Sam Moorhead, from the British Museum, the site raises “a whole series of new questions” about Roman Devon. The only thing we can say is that each new season of excavation holds the possibility of new and exciting discoveries. Come and visit us in the Hub to see the latest finds and learn more!’

Sunday 11th June- Young Archaeologists Club visit

On Sunday two Young Archaeologists Clubs visited the site for the day. Members, parents and group leaders of both the Torbay Club and Somerset MAYA (Mick Aston’s Young Archaeologists) Club were given a site tour by John Davey and then divided into three rotating groups to help with various archaeological tasks. Under the supervision of John Davey, the Young Archaeologists brushed up on their troweling skills and helped to clean back an area in Trench 14. With Kristen Leith, the group sieved the spoil using hand sieves to look for any finds in the topsoil which might have been removed by the machine in the first week. With Danielle Wootton, the groups then looked at replica Roman pottery in order to learn about different pottery types and then helped to wash the finds, and to sort pottery sherds by type.

Members from both Clubs were very enthusiastic and said they’d had a fantastic day. Thank you everyone- we hope to see some of you at our open day on the 25th June!

Here are some quotes from Club members:

‘I really enjoyed it!’
‘It was exciting to be there when a find was found.’
‘I learned how to dig- I really enjoyed the digging.’
‘I learned how to dig.’
‘I enjoyed sieving and finding artefacts.’
‘I learned to always clean pottery carefully so experts can look at it.’
‘I learned what an amphora looks like.’
‘I learned about the different types of pottery, especially the baby feeder.’

9th June update- 115 Hub visitors in our first week!

The weather was much kinder to us on Friday so the team were able to continue the task of cleaning and planning Trenches 13, 14 and 15. Archaeological features are now visible in all three trenches and the next task will be to begin excavating them in order to understand their function, date and how they relate to each other. Trench 13 contains a curvilinear feature which may be a ring ditch associated with Iron Age activity. There is a spread of rubble in trench 14 which is being carefully cleaned, and trench 15 contains many amorphous features which need to be excavated before we can further understand their age and purpose. Professor Stephen Rippon gave a site tour to students and volunteers on Friday afternoon which enabled everyone the opportunity to see how each trench was developing.

Meanwhile in the Hub, we welcomed 115 visitors in the first week! On Friday afternoon we were visited by families from the after school club and children designed their own Roman coin to go on display. One of the youngsters commented ‘Ipplepen is a small place- who would have thought there’d be SO MUCH history!’. Danielle Wootton then showed the headmaster of Abbotskerswell Primary school around site in preparation for their visit to the excavation. We look forward meeting more visitors in the Hub next week!

A special mention and a big ‘thank you’ to all the volunteers who helped on the excavation in week one- we hope you enjoyed your time with us and look forward to showing you our progress at the open day on June 25th.

8th June update

The team at the Hub on Thursday morning: Danielle shows students how to mark pottery.
Cleaning back in Trench 15
Marking last year’s pottery with Torquay Museum accession number, Ipplepen site code and archaeological context number

 

The team at the Hub on Thursday morning: Kristen shows students the pottery handling collection.

Due to a rainy start first thing, our students and volunteers headed to the Hub at Ipplepen Methodist Church where Stephen Rippon, Kristen Leith and Danielle Wootton talked to the students and volunteers about identifying different types of pottery and pottery marking. Working with the handling collection, students tried their hand at sorting pottery into finewares and coarsewares and identifying fragments of rims, body sherds and handles.

Then, using a fine nib and ink, students and volunteers carefully marked pottery from last year’s excavation, which had previously been washed, dried, bagged and labelled. The pottery is marked with the accession number allocated by Torquay Museum, along with the site code from last year and the archaeological context number. Marking individual pieces of pottery is a painstaking but necessary task, enabling the each pottery sherd to be linked to the site and archaeological context within which it was found.

Stephen Rippon took groups around the Hub exhibition, showing the team the finds from this year’s excavation which are now on display there.

The skies brightened after lunch so the team headed back to site to continue cleaning back our three trenches which were opened up on Monday. Before excavating any archaeological features, the team will make a scale drawing of each trench in plan. We have started to plan trench 13, and hope to plan trench 14 and 15 by the end of the week.

First finds of the excavation!

First finds of 2017! Amphora handle fragment (right) and queen stone fragment (left).

Hello everyone, a quick update- this year has started where last year finished off! We have discovered an amphora handle fragment within the cleaning layer (ie not yet within an archaeological feature) which would have been used to store and transport food products such as wine or olive oil. The amphora would have been made in the Mediterranean area, demonstrating further evidence of the contact Devon had with the wider Roman world. We have also discovered a fragment of a quern stone, used for grinding grain into flour. Both objects have been whisked off site to go on display at the Hub, Ipplepen Methodist Church on East Street where visitors can see them now! Do drop in today to see the latest finds from Ipplepen village!

2017 excavation is underway!

Our 2017 excavation season is underway! Welcome to our first 2017 excavation blog- we will be bringing news of the Ipplepen Archaeological Project’s 2017 excavation, events, updates, notes on finds and so on throughout June.

Today was a very rainy start to the season but we have successfully opened up our three trenches which we’ll be excavating for the next month. We started by machining off the turf and topsoil to a depth of around 50cm and then the team began straightening trench edges and then cleaning back the trench surfaces with trowels to enable us to see any archaeological features. A big hello to all the team including Exeter University students and local volunteers who braved the heavy rain today- and learned quite quickly that archaeology isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds!

We have also set up our displays today at the Hub at Ipplepen Methodist Church on East Street and will open the doors to the public tomorrow at 10am. Please do pop in to find out more about this season’s excavation. The Hub will be open weekdays 10am- 4pm until 29th June.

We hope you’ll enjoy following our blog throughout the excavation!