Although much of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s collection is from other parts of Europe and beyond, there is a large collection of objects that were crafted and manufactured in the South West. The local archaeological exhibition at the RAMM provides a fascinating insight into the southwest of England, including trade and exchange across the centuries. Jason chose a rare blisteringly hot day to wander around the museum. As a Devon local himself, here he shares his ten favourite artefacts, which represent Devon and the southwest over a broad time period.
A collection of 230,000-290,000 year old stone handaxes found near Axminster in Devon, on display at the RAMM
Elephant Tusk – Sidmouth (Late Pleistocene)
It’s difficult to imagine a gigantic elephant plodding along the modern-day seaside town of Sidmouth. Yet, it was here that this impressive fossil tusk was discovered. The species, known as a straight-tusked elephant became extinct in Britain around 110,000 years ago, at the beginning of the last glacial event. Remarkably, it is not entirely uncommon to find archaeological evidence of megafauna in this part of Devon (hippopotamus remains have also been uncovered locally). During the Ice Age, large mammals migrated across the region during periods of climatic change. It is believed that this particular tusk was preserved underneath an ancient riverbed.
Flint sickle – Hembury (Neolithic)
Next on the list is this carefully crafted flint sickle – thought to be around 5,400-5,750 years old. The blade would originally have been hafted to a wooden handle, making it an ideal tool to harvest crops. It was found at the multi-period site of Hembury, where a Neolithic settlement once stood. Note the skill of craftmanship used to produce symmetrical edges – I have experimented with flintknapping myself and it is no easy task! The maker of this tool would have used a combination of hard hammer percussion to begin with, followed by a technique known as pressure flaking to achieve such a smooth finish. Because of its technical merit, this little blade is definitely worthy of a place in my chosen ten.
Shale Cup – Farway (Early Bronze Age)
This shale cup from East Devon was discovered by a reverend in 1868 (a chap called Kirwan). Appropriately named as the ‘Farway Cup’, it was carved entirely from one block of Dorset shale approximately 4000 years ago. The barrow, from which it was crudely excavated (not uncommon for 19th century archaeology), was placed with a cremation burial. The vessel was likely to have been ceremonial, as the only evidence of hard wear is the damage to its rim, caused (ironically) by a pick-axe during excavation! When visiting the museum yourself, look for the modern replica of this cup – set slightly behind the original. Manufacturing an artefact of this kind is estimated to have taken about 120 hours to complete.
Cremation Urn – Upton Pyne (Early Bronze Age)
Having myself discovered Early Bronze Age pottery during excavation – my eyes were instantly drawn to the familiar zigzagged patterning of this burial urn. I suspect the vessel may be missing a rim of some kind, although this takes nothing away from the object’s charm. It was excavated (along with others) from within barrow 248b, located at Upton Pyne in East Devon. Dating from between 3,300-3,500 years old, the urn contained a human cremation, and was deposited beside a central chamber. Burial practices changed significantly during Bronze Age Britain, and urns from this period come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Personally, I am rather fond of the tiny lugs on either side of this one.
Wooden Figure – Kingsteignton (Middle Bronze Age)
Probably the most unique local item I came across, was this mysterious wooden figure. Carved from oak, and dating back to 426-352 cal BC (around 2,400 years old), it was discovered by workmen at a South Devon quarry site in 1867. Wooden artefacts rarely survive in the archaeological record, but fortunately this object was preserved in waterlogged ground close to a river. Although missing arms, it is (quite obviously) an interpretation of the male form and is incredibly rare. If you look closely, the prehistoric sculptor has carved lines representing head hair. The function of this eerie chracter remains unknown (a ritual item perhaps?): this for me, only makes it all the more intriguing.
Gold Bracelets – Colaton Raleigh (Late Bronze Age)
Now, no list is complete without its ‘bling’ – and this Bronze Age hoard is, no doubt, the stunning show piece. The three gold bracelets are around 2,650-3,000 years old, and were discovered in 1986 near the village of Colaton Raleigh, in East Devon. Amazingly, they were found one inside the other – the careful placing signifying that these had been deliberately buried. There was also a small gold fragment recovered as part of the assemblage. What I find most interesting about these prehistoric bracelets, is that they show evidence of heavy wear – and probably hide an exciting story that we will never know about. This was once upon a time, someone’s very special ‘treasure’.
Samian Ware – Exeter (Roman Period)
In my opinion, archaeology becomes incredibly special when an artefact reveals the traces of an individual’s life. So when I spotted a damaged cup with the owner’s name scratched along the side, I was overjoyed! It is made from a type of pottery known as Samian Ware which is diagnostic of the Roman period. Found in Exeter, it dates to around 55-65 AD. The inscription reads ‘L IVLI IPPONIA’, and translates as the name ‘Lucius Julius Hipponicus’ (unmistakably Roman). It is believed that this fellow was a soldier as there was once a fortress, barracks, and a large garrison at the former town here called ‘Isca Dumnoniorum’. What we have then is a rare surviving mark of a Roman living in Exeter.
Pitcher – Mermaid Yard, Exeter (Medieval Period)
We now move to Medieval Britain. This large jug, although damaged when it was found, has been carefully reassembled. This is a stark contrast to the previous artefact as it does not have a personal story to tell. However, I feel it represents the overall ‘dumbing down’ of vessels styles during this period. Simplistic, practical, and far less ornate – it is the most common type of Medieval pottery found in Exeter. Discovered during archaeological excavation at Mermaid Yard, this handled pitcher dates to about 1150-1250 AD. It appears to be formed of stone ware clay (I could be mistaken), and was most probably made in East Devon or South Somerset. The final verdict: this jug is robust and full of character – just like the locals.
Common Seal of Exeter (Medieval Period)
This rather fine item bears the inscription ‘SIGILLVM CIVITATIS EXONIE’ – meaning ‘the seal of the city of Exeter’. It is made from silver (though now somewhat tarnished), and is currently the oldest surviving seal of any town and city in England (1170-1200 AD) – always nice when a local artefact has a claim to fame. There is also a depiction of an impressive building with towers either side, a symbol which proclaims power and status when stamped on important documents (normally approval of a financial transaction). The seal would have been used at the Guildhall here in Exeter. In my eyes, this artefact illustrates nicely the emergence of administrative processes within Medieval towns and cities in Britain.
Harvest Jug – North Devon (Georgian Era)
So here we are: saving the best until last? well not really (I place all of these artefacts on a level pegging). I am however, finishing with a more recent object. This harvest jug from 1798 AD is one of thousands manufactured in North Devon from the 17th century through to Victorian times. Traditionally, they were used to carry cider or ale during harvest time. The carved images on this particular jug show birds and flowers: there is also written verse and a date inscribed on one side. The body is made from brown earthenware clay, and has been decorated with cream slipware panelling (if you want to get technical). It’s good to know that Devon’s alcohol was safe from spillage in these well crafted vessels.
Although our swift journey exploring the artefacts of Devon and the South West has come to an end, there are plenty more remarkable objects on display at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Hopefully, you now feel inspired (as I was) to find your own treasures and stories – I really do believe there is something here to suit everyone’s taste within this wonderful ‘Alladin’s cave’ of archaeology.
Go on, have a look and let us know what you find.
Explore More of the Past in Exter
The capital city of Devon in the south west of England is both vibrant and modern, but still has many fascinating places of interest from 2,000 years of history from the Romans to World War 2. A world-class museum provides an engaging introduction to Exeter and its surroundings, for visitors of all ages. There are many fascinating attractions around this beautiful city, including Medieval underground passages unlike any in other cities of England, a magnificent catherdal with the longest, single stretch of vaulting, a Roman and Medieval wall, and a historic quayside that has served the city since Roman times. Visit Exeter >>