East Cloister Walk and Chapter House Excavations, Exeter Cathedral, Exeter; Soil Micromorphology and Geochemistry

Richard Macphail, Chris Carey

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


These two Exeter Cathedral profiles were studied using 6 thin sections each and 22 bulk
samples, employing soil micromorphology, including SEM/EDS (Energy Dispersive X-ray
Spectrometry), organic matter estimates (LOI), particle size, carbonate (CO3), magnetic
susceptibility (MS), and ICP-MS elemental analyses, including phosphorus (P). The basal
Roman levels have similar characteristics – use of lime mortars tempered with basalt, ground
raising with burnt earth-based building materials – leading to an enhanced magnetic
susceptibility and high CO3 and Ca. The Dark Earth at the East Cloister profile is typical of
Dark Earth soils formed in the Later Roman and early Medieval periods, and developed
through midden accumulations (dumping of hearth ash, food waste and scavenging probably
by dogs of waste associated with consumption of fish for example) reflecting the lifestyle of
local populations; the area was not abandoned. Middening also occurred at the Chapter House
location, and although fish bone remains occur, there seems to have been greater amounts of
residues from artisan activity, namely, iron working/smithying with numerous fine iron
fragments, and iron slag as well as non-ferrous metal working (copper-lead alloy example),
as also demonstrated by ICP-MS data. At the Cloister site, the medieval deposits are
dominated by constructional activity, with peaks in Ca (e.g. use of limestone) and Pb (lead
windows and soldering). The later deposits at the Chapter House are moderately
homogeneous and much more humic and phosphate- (P) rich compared to the Cloisters
location. Although this is consistent with a gardening use of the area, it does not fully explain
the dark staining of the soil and ‘muddy’ downwash features that affect the underlying Dark
Earth. It can be suggested from studies elsewhere that the ground was used for inhumations
and their decomposition has led to a ‘body stain’ effect. The report is supported by 5 tables
and 131 illustrations.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages71
Publication statusPublished - 8 Dec 2021


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