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Upscale Butcher Shop Suggests Romans Were More Widespread in Britain Than Previously Thought

The animal remains at Ipplepen are part of mounting evidence that Roman influence stretched deep into Devon

A cow skull being unearthed at the Ipplepen site. (Ipplepen Archaeology Project)
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The remains of a high-end Roman butcher shop in south Devon indicates that the influence of the Roman Empire stretched even further into Great Britain than previously believed.

As Steven Morris at The Guardian reports, archaeologists in Ipplepen recently came across the 4th-century butcher shop, which specialized in beef, along with several stalls run by craftspeople that worked with leather, deer antlers and textiles.

The animal remains found in the butcher shop came primarily from the head and feet of cattle and indicate the animals were processed when they were one-and-a-half to two years old, the right age for producing the highest quality meat. Stephen Rippon of the University of Exeter, leader of the Ipplepen dig, tells Morris the remains are an indication that the shop was a professional operation that served a wealthy clientele. That’s because peasants would have worked their cattle in the fields until they died of old age before processing them as food. And they wouldn’t have left anything behind for archaeologists to sort through.

“They would have boiled down the bits that have been thrown away and made something like brawn out of them,” Rippon says.

The stall is the first commercial farming and butchery operation found in the southwest of Britain. It’s likely the meat was taken to markets along the Roman road that runs through Ipplepen.

The find is part of mounting evidence that the Romans had more influence in south Devon and possibly Cornwall than previously believed.

Though Julius Caesar briefly chased some tribes through Britain in 54 and 55 B.C., the Roman conquest of Great Britain did not begin in earnest until 43 A.D. under Emperor Claudius. Over time, the Romans conquered all of present-day England up to the Scottish border. It was believed that the Roman frontier also stopped in south Devon near the modern city of Exeter, leaving most of Devon and peninsular Cornwall free from Roman influence.

The Ipplepen Archaeological Project’s findings, however, suggest otherwise. Back in 2007, two metal detectorists found Roman coins in Ipplepen south of Exeter, a rarity in that part of the country. In 2011, archaeologists began excavating the area and the following year, they came across the remains of a Roman road in the region dating from 43 to 70 A.D. during the early occupation of the island. Coins found at the site also range from 49 B.C. to 408 A.D., suggesting a very long period of Romanization in the area. Shards of pottery found at the settlement also suggest luxury trade goods were bring brought into the area. It's believed the military likely built the road and maintained it for over 300 years.

Instead of rural backwater, the evidence, including the new butcher shop, indicates that Ipplepen and, likely, the surrounding area were integrated into Roman Britain culturally and economically.

Exactly how Romanized the Dumnonii, the people who lived in the area now known as Devon were, however, will take more research. “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 Romanized ways of eating and drinking which shows that some of the locals developed a taste for Mediterranean products such as wine and olives,” Danielle Wootton, archaeological liaison for Devon, tells Morris in a separate article in the Guardian.

“However,” she adds, “the settlement is still puzzling as it does not really compare to other known Romano-British settlements in neighboring counties to the east such as Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire. Sites from those counties produce more finds such as coins and brooches and a greater amount of pottery.”

Archaeologists believe the Roman road did not stop in Ipplepen but probably traveled farther south and west, likely as far what is now the town of Totnes. It’s possible that the road led all the way to Cornwall, meaning several tribes beyond the Dumnonii may have interacted with the Roman world as well. Almost a decade ago, the remains of a Roman fort that was occupied from 60 to 250 A.D. were found in Cornwall, though it may have protected a remote iron works and is not proof that Roman cultural influence had spread that far south.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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