Roman fort revealed in Devon

The first trench revealed the deep V-shaped profiles of the three ditches, highlighting how heavily fortified the site was

After more than 35 years of speculation, a field on a ridge top within the National Trust-owned Killerton Estate in Devon has been confirmed as the site of a 1st-century (c.AD 50-70) Roman fort.

The location, near Budlake Farm, was first identified on an aerial photograph taken by archaeologist Frances Griffith in 1984. The summer was particularly dry that year, and the outline of a triple-ditched fort seemed to be clearly apparent in the image, but after several field-walking attempts over the years, no Roman finds had ever been discovered.

RIGHT Excavating the three ditches of the fort.
Excavating the three ditches of the fort. PHOTO: Martin Papworth.

A geophysical and magnetometry survey was then conducted at the site in August 2019 by National Trust volunteers, which also revealed what the aerial image seemed to show: a triple-ditched enclosure with an apparent gateway to the south, as well as a large ditched feature to the south-west of the main enclosure. To investigate further, after a pause due to the pandemic, excavation of the site was carried out over a two-week period this past June and July.

The first trench was positioned to cut across the three parallel ditches, while a second was aimed over the probable gateway near the south-east corner, and the last trench was located at the wide ditched feature to the south-west. At first, the team of National Trust archaeologists and volunteers, led by Martin Papworth, feared that the long-held belief that this was likely to be Roman was wrong as, even after stripping back the top soil, no Roman finds were uncovered. Finally, however, on the third day of digging, sherds of pottery were found and subsequently the base of a South Devon ware Roman jar and fragments of 1st-century Samian pottery.

Slowly more of the site began to emerge. The first trench revealed the deep V-shaped profiles of the three ditches, highlighting how heavily fortified the site was, but little else was discovered. In the second trench, the terminals of the two inner ditches as well as the remains of a basalt gravel entrance track into the fort were uncovered. There was also evidence of a large post-hole containing a stone foundation slab, which was interpreted as part of the fixing for the timber-framed gateway into the fort.

The third trench contained the largest amount of pottery, including South-West Black Burnished, Poole Harbour Black Burnished, and South Devon wares. While the exact use of this area is still unclear, it may have been cut as an additional line of defence and, from the matching artefactual evidence, appears to have been decommissioned at the same time as the rest of the fort.

Now that the origins of this enclosure have finally been confirmed, it joins over 25 other Roman military sites already recorded in the county. This highlights how heavy the Roman military presence was in this area during the first few decades of their occupation of Britain.

In addition to confirming the origins of the fort, the team also found a small pit containing charcoal fragments, chert, and flint microliths. This lay beneath a deposit of red Devon soil, sealed by the Roman trackway leading into the fortress. While radiocarbon dating has yet to confirm the exact date, based on these artefacts and the stratigraphy, it is believed to be either late Mesolithic or early Neolithic. This is an exciting find as stratified evidence from this period is sparse in this area of Devon.