The Roman Period

Old Burrow Fort from the southwest

Old Burrow Roman Fortlet (© ENPA 2009)

The Romans invaded the British Isles in AD 43, rapidly overrunning the South East of England. However, it took some years of hard campaigning before they reached the South West. Here they established a legionary fortress at Exeter around AD 55 supported by a network of smaller forts manned by a garrison of around 10,000 men. Exmoor was no exception, the best known sites from the period being two fortlets; the first, constructed at Old Burrow being replaced after a few years by another at Martinhoe. Old Burrow is the best preserved and both consist of concentric earthwork enclosures, the outer being c. 50-60 metres in diameter and housed a garrison of perhaps 65-80 men. Their purpose was probably to keep the Bristol Channel under surveillance, presumably in communication with the Roman fleet as, at the time they were in use between AD 55 and 75, the Silures of South Wales remained unconquered. 

Other, larger forts were established around the margins of Exmoor, presumably to guard routes of communication and perhaps to keep a watchful eye on its inhabitants. The remains of one of these, at Rainsbury, falls just inside the south-eastern corner of the National Park. Aerial photography first identified a rectilinear, trivallate earthwork enclosure approximately 100 metres long in the classic playing card shape of a Roman fort, which was later confirmed by geophysical survey. More recent work has shown this to be surrounded by a much larger earthwork enclosure, also trivallate, of approximately 300 metres in length. Interpreting these features without excavation is difficult, but a possible interpretation is that the larger enclosure is earlier, and was perhaps built to house a sizable force during the initial conquest of the area. In this case, the smaller fort may have contained the garrison left behind when the surrounding area had been pacified.

A relative absence of excavation in the Exmoor region make the impact of the Roman Conquest on its inhabitants difficult to assess. A first glance at the evidence suggests there was little change. The larger hillfort enclosures of the Iron Age appear to have been abandoned during the 1st century BC, but the population continued to live in enclosures and farm in much the same way as their ancestors. However, the sudden imposition of a large military garrison must have had a significant impact. Such a force required supply and it is likely that the local populace provided it, drawing them into a whole new economy, while simultaneously exposing them to new ideas and ways of doing things.

The military garrison left the region in the AD 80s and was replaced by a civilian government based in the old legionary fortress at Exeter. The inhabitants of the South West were known to the Romans as the Dumnonii, but the degree to which the local population held such a unifying identity or to which it was imposed by the Roman authorities is unclear. Whatever the truth, local leaders, probably mostly composed of men who had grown to adulthood following the Roman conquest, were co-opted to form the new government, answerable to the provincial governor. Such incorporation into the empire’s governmental system would have fueled the cultural changes already begun by contact with the military garrison which manifest as subtle changes in the archaeological record. These range from the widespread adoption of hobnailed footwear, to the introduction of different types of pottery suggesting new ways of preparing and eating food, and the consumption of new foodstuffs such as olive oil. In the Exmoor region, such change is exemplified by discoveries made in recent years on the iron-working sites at Sherracombe Ford, Blacklake Wood and Clatworthy Reservoir. Many of the cultural changes already mentioned are apparent on these sites, but the most obvious change is in the amount of iron being produced as indicated by the large volumes of smelting waste encountered. Previously, iron had been a relatively uncommon, even precious material, used for specific purposes, but the expansion in its production indicated on these sites, starting in the early 2nd century, suggests the gathering pace of cultural change. Perhaps less obviously, the sites imply the wider horizons of the iron producers themselves, almost certainly local people who, with the incorporation of Exmoor into a wider province and empire, were able to look further than their immediate surroundings and feel confident enough to devote more of their effort to their craft.

However, the best reminder of Roman rule on Exmoor is not iron production, it does not even date from the Roman period, but from its immediate aftermath in the 5th century and is represented by the inscribed Caratacus Stone on Winsford Hill, which bears the inscription: CARAACI NEPVS, “kinsman of Caratacus”. Here we most probably have a local notable declaring his descent from Caratacus, a very British hero. Yet, not only is he doing so in that most Roman of mediums; the stone inscription, critically he is able to do so for he, and the audience for which the stone is intended, is literate. Here, rather neatly, in a single monument, is the physical manifestation on Exmoor of perhaps the greatest legacy of the Romans; the Romano-British culture.

Lee Bray

N.B. The roofing material known as a 'Roman Tile' is not Roman in date but is common across Exmoor on historic buildings.