[NB. The reader will probably find it easier to understand this page if he or she has already acquainted himself or herself with the contents of Chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 concerns the basic building-blocks used in Romano-British place-names and Chapter 2 explains how those building blocks were assembled by the Celts to form compound names. In addition, the reader should not worry about any identification made below - all identifications are explained on other pages of this website, more particularly in Chapters 10-16, which concern the Romano-British place-names in different regions of Britain.]
Place-names with an essa-type ending
1 There are in Ravenna some ten names with an ending of the essa-type. These are:
Camulosessa, Certisnassa, Demerosesa, Raxtomessa
Abisson, Devionisso, Duabsissis, Tuessis
2 Leaving Raxtomessa on one side, the one feature all of the places concerned have in common - and all of the names can be identified - is that they were located on raised ground overlooking a river, and in all cases, so far as can be seen, the drop down to the river was steep. It has been suggested in the past that at least some of the above names include a hypothetical British element sessa thought to mean ‘seat’. But that is evidently not true for Certisnassa and Raxtomessa, and in the case of Beg(s)esse and Ypo(s)cessa it is clear that the first s is the hill-letter s, this being qualified by the adjectives b, changed to p in the case of Ypo(s)cessa, meaning ‘high’ and c meaning ‘steep’. One can be fairly sure of the position of the s in Begesse because the first part of Begesse (194) at Seabegs is almost certainly the same name as Pexa (193) at Mumrills, and Pexa will have been Becsa originally. In the case of Ypocessa (60) at Y Gaer the position of the s is not quite so clear, but since the river is called the Yscir and the ysc of this name will have been transferred from the fort-name, it is likely that the form of the fort-name was Yposcessa rather than Ypocsessa. And of course there is no question of an element sessa being present in Abisson, Devionisso and Tuessis.
3 Certisnassa appears in Ravenna’s river-list but is in fact a land-name. It was the name of a fort at Berwick-on-Tweed/Tweedmouth, presumably in the Antonine period, and the name was presumably originally of the form Certisonassa, this being a place-name in the hill-letters r and s, where cert means ‘steep hill high’. The Iron Age hillfort/settlement called Certisonassa was presumably up on the hill where the castle later stood – and now the railway station! The Romans simply transferred the name to a fort/harbour which they built down on the low ground close to the river, either at Berwick or Tweedmouth, and later transferred the name of their fort/harbour to the river, now the Tweed, as they did in a number of other cases. But note, too, that the river-letters corresponding to the hill-letters r and s in Certisonassa are s and b, both of which are present in the river-element Duabs in Duabsissis, which is another name for Berwick-on-Tweed, this name presumably being used in the Flavian period. And now one can see very clearly that place-names with an essa-type ending have as the first part of the name, the part before the ending, either a land-name including the hill-letter s or a river-name including the corresponding river-letter b, this being changed to v in the case of Devionisso and Tuessis (should be Tvessis or Tavessis, where Tv or Tav was the Celtic proper name of the river Tay).
4 One can thus see that the name Camulosessa is not derived from the name of a Celtic war-god called Camulos, as has been suggested by various scholars in the past. It is a topographical name in the hill-letters m, l and s. Note, too, that the river-letters corresponding to the hill-letters m, l and s are r, t and b, all three of which are present, though with the b changed to v, in the river-name Derventione, this being the name of the river, now the Derwent, flowing past Camulosessa at Malton. It is also clear, of course, that the river-name Derventione has nothing to do with oak trees, as has been assumed in the past.
5 Raxtomessa is not itself a river-name, though it appears in Ravenna’s river-list. It belongs together with the next-following Ravenna name, Senua, as one name Raxtomessasenna. This form is actually present in all three known Ravenna manuscripts, but nonetheless Richmond and Crawford split the name up into the two separate names, Raxtomessa and Senua. However, Raxtomessasenna is a river-name of the kind having a river-element, in this case senna, used as a suffix to a land-name, in this case Raxtomessa. The senna element was probably serna originally, the river-letters s and r of this river-element corresponding to the hill-letters r and m of Raxtomessa. The river may have been the Adur, earlier called the Sore, which reaches the sea at Shoreham. The elements of Raxtomessa are Rac sto m essa, where rac means ‘hill steep’ and st means ‘hill high’. Raxtomessa will thus have been at the top of a steep, high slope at a point overlooking the river Adur, thus most likely at Old Shoreham or somewhere between Old Shoreham and Steyning/Upper Beeding. But note another possibility. If Ouse, the name of a river a little east of the Adur, is a genuine old name and not a relatively modern creation, then it is possible that it is derived from the serna of Raxtomessaserna, just as the river Ouse in Yorkshire is believed to be derived from the Celtic river-name Isur. In this case the Raxtomessasenna may have been the East Sussex Ouse and Raxtomessa, the Celtic settlement at the top of a steep, high hill and overlooking the river, may have been in the Newhaven area, where there are steep, high hills on both sides of the river, or at or near Lewes, where there are also steep, high hills close to the river. The most likely candidate for Raxtomessa is then the hill-fort on Mount Caburn, just east of Lewes.
6 Demerosesa was the fort at Drumquhassle, this standing on high ground overlooking the Endrick Water, the drop down to the river being steep.
7 The four names in the third of the three lines of names at the beginning of this chapter all include a river-element or name followed by the essa-type ending. The Ab of Abisson is just the river-letter b, and the dev of Devionisso is a compound element in the river-letters t, changed to d, and b, changed to v. The Dev has become the Taw and Devionisso was presumably the fort at North Tawton.
7.1 Duabsissis, apparently the name of Flavian Berwick-on-Tweed, contains the Celtic river-name Duabs and it is this name which has survived in the modern river-name Tweed. The d of Duabs is the river-letter t, changed to d, applied by those settlers who coined place-names in the hill-letter l1. The b is the river-letter used by those settlers who coined place-names in the hill-letter s, and the s is the river-letter corresponding to the hill-letter r. And the d at the end of the modern river-name Tweed is the river-letter t, changed to d, applied by those who coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter l2. The b of Duabsit changed to v, the s was omitted and by AD730 the river was apparently being called the Tvidi, the v later being anglicised to w to yield the modern name Tweed. The development was probably along the lines of Duabs → Duabsit → Tuavit → Tvidi → Tweed.
7.2 The Tu at the beginning of Tuessis is also a river-name. It will originally have been Tv or even Tav, Tv/Tav being the Celtic proper name of the river Tay. The ending essis added on to this river-name yielded the name of the Roman fort now known as Bertha, at the confluence of the Almond with the Tay. The Romans then transferred the fort-name to the river, the river then being – for the Romans – the Tvessis and of course the Firth of Tay was then the Tvessis estuary of Ptolemy, this name, rewritten as Tuesis, simply being in the wrong place in Ptolemy’s coastal list.
NB. For further discussion of Romano-British place-names with an essa-type ending, and of similar names on the Continent, see Updates: 19 October 2015.
[This page was last modified on 07 March 2021]