Professor Stephen Rippon pictured with a jawbone.

Archaeology project will uncover Exeter’s hidden secrets

Secrets from Exeter’s past will be fully uncovered for the first time as part of a major archaeology project.

Experts from the University of Exeter will use science to discover more about the lives of city residents hundreds of years ago as part of the four-year study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Historic England, and with help from Exeter City Council and academics from the University of Reading.

Using the latest technology they will show where the city’s food came from, what its “food miles” may have amounted to, and how far goods were traded with the rest of the world from the 1st to the 16th centuries.

The findings will be displayed in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.

Previous archaeology projects in the city have uncovered animal bones and pottery fragments from the Roman and medieval periods, most of which are kept in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. These finds can now be analysed using the latest scientific techniques. This will show where the pottery was made, and where the animals were grazed.

Historians know that animals were brought “on the hoof” to Exeter to be slaughtered, and discovering how far away they were grazed, through analysing the chemistry of their teeth, will show how sophisticated the local economy was.

These findings will show the development of Exeter across both the Roman and medieval periods, and the part that the wider regional landscape played in the city’s fortunes.

The project, which begins in June, is a partnership between the University of Exeter, the University of Reading, Exeter City Council, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Historic England, and a large national archaeology company, Cotswold Archaeology, which has an office in Exeter.

Project leader Professor Stephen Rippon, Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Exeter, said: “There was a huge amount of excavation in Exeter in the 1970s, due to big building projects at the time such as the Guildhall shopping centre. Now we have sophisticated techniques to analyse the findings from those digs.

“This will show the relationship that Exeter had with its local area, the South West and Europe.

“It will allow us to understand the economy in Exeter in the past, and what the Roman equivalent of what we describe now as our food miles were.”

Cllr Rachel Sutton, Lead Councillor for City Development, said “The city council is delighted to support this project as it will enable the important discoveries made by the council’s archaeologists in the 1970s and 80s to gain the wider recognition that they deserve, and the city’s pivotal role in the history of the South West, and its wider links abroad, to be more fully appreciated.”

Cllr Rosie Denham, Lead Councillor for Economy and Culture, said “Using the latest scientific techniques, this project will add to the myriad stories that RAMM’s collections tell about Exeter: about its origins, history, people, natural history and place in the world. Ancient objects excavated decades ago then catalogued and stored at RAMM can now reveal details of the local economy through the millennia; details that were unimaginable when the objects were found. Ingenuity, skill and science are key to Exeter’s future prosperity. It is wonderful to also see them helping us understand our past.”

There were excavations on 89 sites within the city between 1970 and 1990. This work played a key role in understanding the city’s history, revealing its origins as a Roman legionary fortress. The remains analysed as part of the project will include those from Friernhay Street, behind Fore Street, from the Guildhall Centre in central Exeter, and Rack Street on the edge of the city.

Date: 25 February 2016

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