This is a series about a brief history of the former hamlet of King’s Tamerton, in St. Budeaux, Plymouth, Devon. The first part outlined definitions of King’s Tamerton (what it is and what area it compromises), and the second part outlined its possible Roman origins. Part 3 continues with speculation regarding its ancient origins.
Although not exactly a pure myth due to its discussion by Greeks and Romans, the ancient settlement and location of Tamaris remains something of a mystery. The name clearly connects with the River Tamar, and it is mentioned almost two thousand years ago in Ptolemy’s Geography (c.150 AD) and in a later text, the Ravenna Cosmography (c.700 AD). The mention of Tamaris hints at its connection to the wider known world, with Rowe (1848, p.62) labelling it ‘an emporium on the coast’ which traded in tin with places as far afield as the Mediterranean. Rowe further notes how Tamaris ‘obtained sufficient celebrity in ancient times’ to be ‘known to the Greeks and other classical nations, in the age of Ptolemy, and in all probability long before’ (pp.62-63).
Archaeologist Malcolm Todd highlights the importance of the tin trade in the Plymouth and Dartmoor areas during the Iron Age and the Roman period, stating that ‘the trade in tin between the South West and the Mediterranean world is probably the most generally famous aspect of the protohistory of the peninsula’, which led to Greek and Phoenician ‘prospectors’ becoming interested and establishing trade with the region (1987, p.185). As such, Tamaris was a fulcrum for this trade, but yet we do not know where it was actually located.
What the two key texts note about Tamaris provides us with a greater understanding on which to base speculations. Ptolemy’s Geography attempted to provide ‘representation in picture of the whole known world, together with the phenomena contained therein’ (cited in Fuechsel, 2019). Charles F. Fuechsel states that this was a ‘monumental work’, which was produced in eight volumes; it outlined the names of eight thousand places, along with their supposed locations. The website Roman Britain notes that ‘there are two clues’ in Ptolemy’s Geography which may help locate Tamaris. The first provides a description of various notable rivers in the Devon and Cornwall region, such as ‘the mouth of the Iscas river’ (meaning River Exe) and ‘the mouth of the Tamarus river’ (the Tamar). The second mentions towns of the area, such as Uxella (Launceston, Cornwall), Isca (Exeter, Devon), and Tamara, which is taken to mean at the mouth of the Tamar.
The Ravenna Cosmography – written five centuries after Ptolemy – mentions a settlement named Tamaris. As with Ptolemy’s Geography, it provides a wide list of place-names ‘covering the known world of the Roman period from India to Ireland’ (RRRA, 2018). Of course, there are limitations with the Ravenna Cosmography: the compiler was an anonymous monk, and there are a ‘plethora of corrupted entries’ along with a ‘lack of apparent logic with which the lists are put together’ (RRRA, 2018). Furthermore, the only remaining manuscripts we have date from the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries and contain many inaccuracies between them.
However, despite inaccuracies – as would be expected with such old texts in a time when little was known of the wider world – they appear to place the location of Tamaris at ‘the mouth of the modern river Tamar’s estuary, near Plymouth’ (Roman Britain, 2021). Many have attempted to connect Ptolemy’s Geography and the Ravenna Cosmography in order to obtain the true location of Tamaris, with many places being touted. These include Plymouth (such as Mount Batten), Launceston, and more recently Calstock.
Mount Batten was regularly suggested as the location due to the various artefacts discovered here over the years; it is believed that it served as a prominent trading site, connecting this region of Devon and Cornwall (termed Dumnonia) with the Roman Empire and the wider world in the Mediterranean. It was theorised that tin was transported from Dartmoor down the Plym River, before being traded at Mount Batten. Cunliffe’s excavations in the 1980s provided evidence to the importance of this location as a centre of trade during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, all of which would place it – as mentioned by Rowe earlier – ‘an emporium on the coast’. However, the Wikipedia page regarding ‘History of Plymouth’ notes that Malcolm Todd disputed the theory that Mount Batten was the location of Tamaris (Wikipedia, 2021).
Other suggestions place Tamaris further up the River Tamar. Fitzpatrick-Matthews states that Tamaris was ‘probably a settlement or fort on the river and the place named Ταμαρη by Ptolemy (Geography II.3,3), probably near Launceston, where the only known road into Cornwall crosses the river’ (Fitzpatrick-Matthews, 2013). However, Calstock has become a stronger candidate in recent years, particularly in terms of the recent archaeological discoveries; in 2007 a fort was located, and more recently evidence of a mine has been revealed (BBC News, 2019). All of this has prompted the Roman Britain website to state that Calstock ‘seems a more likely location’ for Tamaris (Roman Britain, 2021).
However, there is another theory that brings about a possible connection to King’s Tamerton, with the name connection – Tamaris and Tamerton – providing a possible clue. In terms of an etymological approach, the word Tamaris or Tamara links to similar sounding place names in the region: such as Tamerton Foliot, North Tamerton, and King’s Tamerton. This connection was enough to encourage the development of a highly speculative theory proposed by Samuel Rowe in a publication from 1848.
Rowe outlined the work of ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, who around 40 BC outlined elements of tin mining and trade in southern England. Diodorus noted how after tin was mined it was carried to ‘an adjacent island, which is called Iktis’ (cited in Rowe, p.57). Some have argued that ‘Iktis’ is actually the Isle of Wight, however, Rowe believed that this is not the case due to how impractical it would have been to take tin mined in Dartmoor all the way to the Isle of Wight simply to sell it off. Others have suggested locations in the opposite direction, such as the Isles of Scilly or St. Michael’s Mount; but again, Rowe dismissed these due to the distance involved. All of which led Rowe to state that Iktis was located in Plymouth Sound:
‘…the geographical position of Plymouth Sound, at the mouth of two navigable rivers, running down from the heart of the tin districts of Devon and those of East Cornwall, would offer facilities, common to both counties, which no other place presents’ (p.58).
Iktis itself could be Drake’s Island. The island itself has been known under other names; previously it was called St. Nicholas Island, and a thousand years ago some have theorised that it went under the name Tamarworth. Rowe provided further cause to consider this theory by noting how ‘weorth’ in Saxon means river island, which would encapsulate Drake’s Island (p.59).
However, Rowe himself also ruled out Drake’s Island due to logistical reasons; again, it would make little sense to transport tin across to the island to simply sell onward. His argument is that Diodorus was discussing Plymouth itself, particularly a location that branched from the Tamar on one of the numerous creeks. This is where he concluded on King’s Tamerton as the location for Tamaris. He outlined this argument:
‘…we may conclude that there was a district of some extent, known by the name of Tamara, comprehending, perhaps, the tract of country bounded by the Tamar, the Dartmoor Hills, the Plym, and Plymouth Sound; and that within these boundaries, at the village of King’s Tamerton, in the parish of St. Budeaux, the true site of the Tamara of the ancients, will probably be found, opposite to Saltash, on the Roman road to the ferry, and from its commanding situation, in full view of the estuary of the…. (p.63).
Rowe highlighted the qualities of the location of King’s Tamerton: of its expansive views (from Plaistow Hill), its connection to Dartmoor, and its handy location on the Tamar River. However, just how accurate is this claim?
Despite the various reasonable points, Rowe’s argument does not fully hold up to scrutiny. The old medieval settlement of King’s Tamerton wasn’t located beside the water, which raises questions as to its actual suitability as a trading centre. The closest water outlet to the medieval settlement would have been Weston Mill creek; this water stretched much deeper into Plymouth prior to modern expansion in the twentieth century. In a recent publication, Chris Robinson writes as to how two hundred years ago the creek was known as Weston Mill Lake, and how ‘barges were still being sailed up to unload corn for the mill’ (2020, p.95). This raises a possibility that it may have been used similarly for tin two thousand years ago, but it is not conclusive proof.
Ultimately, there is a complete lack of evidence to support Rowe’s theory. Whereas plenty of evidence of ancient artefacts have been found in other locations – notably Calstock – there is nothing at King’s Tamerton that is comparable on this scale. All of which means that despite the speculation there is no way to firmly link the location of Tamaris with King’s Tamerton.
However, I have quite enjoyed reading into Tamaris and the various theories regarding its supposed location. The next time I walk along at Victoria Park or down at Ham Woods I will attempt to imagine Phoenician sailors on the water heading towards this fanciful Tamaris.
BBC News (2019) ‘Calstock Roman dig reveals “unexpected” mine’. 3 July 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-48841598 (Accessed: 13 July 2021).
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, K.J. (2013) Britannia in the Ravenna Cosmography: A Reassessment. Available at: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/Ravenna_Cosmography/index.html (Accessed: 12 July 2021).
Fuechsel, Charles F. (2019) ‘Map’. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5 March 2019. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/map (Accessed: 12 July 2021).
Furneaux, Robert (1992) The Tamar: A Great Little River. Ex Libris Press.
Robinson, Chris (2020) Then & Now Around Plymouth. Pen & Ink Publishing
Roman Britain (2021) ‘Tamaris (Tamar)’. Available at: http://www.roman-britain.co.uk/places/tamaris/ (12 July 2021).
RRRA (2018) ‘The Ravenna Cosmography’. Roman Roads Research Association. Available at: https://roadsofromanbritain.org/ravenna.html (Accessed: 12 July 2021).
Rowe, Samuel (1848) A Perambulation of the Ancient & Royal Forest of Dartmoor, and the Venville Precincts, or a Topographical Survey of the Antiquities and Scenery. JB. Rowe & Hamilton. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=zDwJAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA63&lpg=PA63&dq=%22king%27s+tamerton%22+history+%22roman%22&source=bl&ots=zKTK-Rhv6U&sig=ACfU3U2xzC_jM0Zz6t1x7TGJ5qonwwfKNw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjM7pnJrKnxAhWUEWMBHWqeCaQQ6AF6BAgKEAM#v=onepage&q&f=false (Accessed: 07 July 2021).
Todd, Malcolm (1987) The South West to AD 1000. Longman Books.
Wikipedia (2021) ‘History of Plymouth’. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Plymouth (Accessed: 10 July 2021).
Thanks for the thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Make me think that finding “lost” places is an interesting activity… but the temptation to stretch the evidence to fit a pre-concieved theory can be very strong!
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Yes, a bit of a stretch! This Rowe chap didn’t seem concerned about evidence. The more I think about it the less this theory makes sense. But it is a nice theory all the same.