The Romans on Dartmoor - Tom Greeves

It is well known that the Romans had a substantial presence at Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) from about AD50 – 400. But Romans on Dartmoor? Surely not? In 1953 it could be asserted by a leading scholar that there is ‘no evidence that the conquerors found it necessary to proceed beyond the Exe’. In Dartmoor – A New Study, published in 1970, it was stated ‘There is…no evidence at present for settled habitation on Dartmoor between about 400 BC and the period of the first Anglo-Saxon settlements about AD 700’, and the moor therefore remained ‘an uninhabited region for several hundred years’.

Today this unlikely scenario has been radically transformed, as we now know of settlements on the fringes of the moor occupied in the last few centuries BC and first few centuries AD, as well as inferential evidence for tinworking. Around the edge of the moor and elsewhere in the county, the traces of a Roman military and civil presence are expanding all the time.

Two major routes passed north and south of Dartmoor, perhaps prehistoric tracks in origin, but modified by the Romans. One follows roughly the line of the A30, at least west of Okehampton, with a branch (or perhaps the most important route) represented roughly by the A3072 north-east of Okehampton towards Bow and Crediton (where a Roman villa was discovered in 1984). On the south, a key route from Exeter seems to have crossed the River Teign by means of a stone bridge at Teignbridge itself, just north of Newton Abbot.

roman ancient history

Each of the major rivers of southern Dartmoor (Tavy/Tamar, Plym, Erme, Avon, Dart and Teign) were likely to have been used as communication routes to the moor, from coastal markets. The somewhat garbled Roman placenames given in the Ravenna Cosmography of c. AD 700 list no fewer than 15 names west of Exeter. ‘Duriarno’  means’ fort on the river Arnos’, which may be the R. Erme. UxelisVerteria and Melamon may all have been on the south side of Dartmoor.

As in prehistoric and more modern times, Dartmoor was probably used as a rich summer grazing ground for cattle. But it also possessed mineral resources which the Romans cannot fail to have been interested in – primarily tin but also significant deposits of copper, silver-bearing lead and iron. There is also a little gold in Dartmoor streams.

Traders and prospectors

There can be no doubt that there were people on and around Dartmoor in the last few centuries BC and in the early 1st century AD who had links to the Romanised Mediterranean world. The finding in a cave at Teignmouth of Greek pottery of the 4th century BC and, at Court Farm, Holne, the separate finds in ploughsoil of two Greek silver coins dating to the late 4th and early 1st century BC, suggest trading links, as do the iron ‘currency bars’ found in Holne Chase itself. A hugely important trading centre was located at Mount Batten at the mouth of the River Plym. The Trendle, an earthwork on the north-east side of Tavistock, has produced finds of the 1st centuries BC/AD.

A 1st century AD gold coin of the Dobunni found on Bellever Tor on central Dartmoor suggests contact with the Gloucestershire/ Somerset area. A hoard of Roman coins dating to AD 37-42 has recently been found at Roborough, north of Plymouth, and a 1st century AD coin was found at Yelverton in 1840.

More directly connected with exploitation of tin deposits on the high moor was the discovery in 1823 of ‘several Coins of Julius Caesar’ (i.e. 1st century BC) in an ‘Ancient Tin Mine’ in the vicinity of Headland Warren/Challacombe Down in the parishes of North Bovey and Manaton. The location is marked on a mine plan (Devon Record Office 36652/P1) which suggests one or more findspots associated with the massive openwork gullies ranging from Chaw Gully to Scudley Beam. This is the area referred to as ‘The Roman Mine’ by Sabine Baring-Gould in his novel Guavas the Tinner (1897). In the parish of North Bovey, on the moor edge at about 1400ft, roundhouses were excavated in the mid-1980s at Gold Park and found to have been occupied until the 1st century BC.

Romanising Dartmoor (1st – 4th century AD) and the lure of tin

The suite of evidence to support Roman interest, activity and contact on and around Dartmoor during their period of occupation of Britain is now convincingly broad – aerial photography, domestic pottery and tiles from excavations, coin hoards and single finds, exotic objects, tin ingots, beach market sites on the coast, and environmental evidence.

A small but wide range of Roman material from the 1st – 4th centuries AD is now known from Plymouth itself, and especially from Mount Batten. We even know the name of a Roman there – Lucius Mancus scratched a version of his name on a sherd.

At ‘Blackey Tor’, probably to be identified with Blakey Tor (SX 61307366) in Tor Royal Newtake near Princetown, a small hoard of coins, likely to have been deposited in the mid-4th century AD, was found in a crevice in 1863. Some 200 coins were found in 1897 under a rock in Okehampton Park and closely dated to AD 320-330. At Furzeleigh, just north of Bovey Tracey, a coin hoard of the late 3rd century AD was found in 1837 and an early 4thcentury coin has been found at Lustleigh. Most recently a 2nd century coin has been found at Hunter’s Tor above Lustleigh Cleave. An early 2nd century coin was found in a hedge at Treable near Whiddon Down. Third century coins have been found at Christow and one of c. 300 AD at Ivybridge, besides miscellaneous coins elsewhere.

Most significantly, recent palaeoenvironmental work on alluvial deposits in ancient river channels on the R. Erme has identified an increase in tin-bearing sediments from the 4th-7thcentury AD, indicating a surge of tinworking activity on the moor then.

Of great interest was the discovery in 1991-2 of 40 tin ingots from a wreck site off the mouth of the R. Erme. These are most likely to be of Roman date, and one possibility is that the boat had just set off with a cargo of Dartmoor tin. The variety of shapes suggest independent tin smelters.

Three probable Roman tin ingots were found recently near Lewtrenchard on the north-west edge of Dartmoor, not far from the main land route leading to and from Cornwall so they could have been of Cornish origin heading eastwards, but might be of Dartmoor provenance.

A Romano-British sherd from a flanged dish was found in excavations in 1992 associated with tin slag of distinctive ‘early’ type at Upper Merrivale on the R. Walkham at a height of 1100 ft.

In 2002-3 several sherds of Roman pottery dating to about AD 100 were found in excavations of a roundhouse (hut circle) on the edge of the moor at Teigncombe above Chagford. A Roman sherd has also been found near Rushford Barton.

On the site of Okehampton Castle, a Roman sherd plus 16 pieces of tile, including one from a bath hypocaust, and building mortar, ‘strongly suggest the presence of a Romanised building in the immediate vicinity’.

Not far beyond the moorland edge, numerous important sites with evidence of occupation in the first few centuries AD have come to light. The best known is a remarkable complex at North Tawton, just east of the R. Taw which comprises two large Roman marching camps, two phases of a large military fort, a smaller fort, an annexe and a road, with finds extending to the 4th century AD and including evidence of a civilian bath-house. This may well be the location called Nemetostatio in the Ravenna Cosmography of c. AD 700. The first element of the name refers to a nemeton, a sacred grove or area. A cluster of ‘nymet’ names around Bow (formerly Nymet Tracy) preserve this element even today, and a fine prehistoric henge (a ditched enclosure with an oval ring of massive posts in the centre) just south-west of Bow, discovered by aerial photography, may be the most sacred core of the nemeton. The element ‘statio’ may indicate a tax-collection point.

At Chichacott, just north-east of Okehampton, a 1st -2nd century Roman fort has been confirmed. In South Devon, native settlements occupied in the Roman period include sites near Stoke Gabriel, Littlehempston, Dartington, Ipplepen, Dainton  and Thurlestone. At MountFolly near Bigbury, Roman pottery up to the 3rd century AD has been found, some of it from the continent.  Exotic items have also been found not far from Dartmoor – at Spreyton a gold ‘snake’ ring of around AD 200, probably made by ‘an itinerant British goldsmith’, and at Loddiswell a bronze figure of Jupiter of similar date.

The lasting influence of Rome

An indicator of the extent to which the Dartmoor region came under the influence of Rome is demonstrated by the survival of an educated and Latin-speaking community in the centuries after the withdrawal of troops. Around the fringes of Dartmoor is a cluster of ‘memorial’ stones inscribed with names in Latin – these may well date to the 6th century AD. They have been found at Stowford, Sourton, Tavistock, Sampford Spiney, Buckland Monachorum, Cornwood, Lustleigh and East Ogwell.

A superbly crafted porphyritic stone bowl dating from the 5th-7th century AD was found at Holy Street near Chagford in 1987, buried in a field which shows traces of possible house platforms. This high status object must reflect a relatively wealthy settlement.

The importation of amphorae from the Mediterranean, presumably containing oil and wine, in the immediate post-Roman period (5th and 6th centuries AD) is now known from two coastal locations which seem to have been the sites of beach markets at the mouths of the Erme (Mothecombe) and Avon (Bantham), two Dartmoor rivers rich in tin, which is likely to have been traded in exchange.

In summary, we can now be confident that in the Roman period Dartmoor was not an abandoned wasteland, but was probably settled rather more extensively and at a higher altitude than it is today. High quality civilian Roman buildings existed at North Tawton and at Okehampton. The Chagford area may also have had a high status building, yet to be found – pottery and the stone bowl certainly suggest it.

Tinworking remains the most likely focus of Roman interest in Dartmoor – with contacts predating the 1st century invasion, the Romans certainly knew the potential of the region. Native ‘warlords’ could well have controlled tinworking, but the influence of Roman culture clearly spread, with distinctive pottery, exotic goods and coins filtering out even onto the high moor. Dartmoor can now be seen as an integral part of the Roman province of Dumnonia, and new discoveries are bound to reinforce this picture in the next few decades.


Most recent volumes of the annual Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society have reports of Roman discoveries in the county. Volumes of Transactions of the Devonshire Association are worth searching too. The Historic Environment Record at County Hall, Exeter, is the central archive for all archaeological finds in the county.