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Widecombe History Group Talk
The Roman Army in Devon was the title of a talk given to us by John Allan
John was Curator at Exeter Museum and archaeologist for Exeter Cathedral.
It is fair to say that Exeter is the core centre of Roman life in Devon particularly for a very intense period of 25 years from AD50 to AD75. We are talking about a 25 years period 2000 years ago and what the Romans achieved and did during that comparatively short time is immense. If we consider what the majority of us were told when at school just 50 years ago or so, can be completely rewritten now as a result of finds, excavations, aerial photography and observation on the ground. In fact a complete re-look at the evidence around us has taken place as a result particularly of digs in Exeter prior to redevelopment of part of the centre of the city. Exeter was a very successful and well run fortification with about 6000 men. Surrounded by a wall and ditch. Designed as a rectangle with rounded corners, the barracks were placed just inside the walls so creating a system, that if attacked the army were immediately available for its protection. In the middle was the administration centre where the stores, hospital, workshops and finances were all gathered and the military pay chests were stored. This meant that the important administration department of the fort was totally protected. Exeter was a very wealthy place from where complete control of the surrounding area could be maintained. For years it was thought that the Romans did not venture further west than Exeter but we can now see that there were several outlying forts scattered about the South West. One particularly well known on Exmoor (Old Burrows), Somerset clearly seen from the air has given archaeologists an example to work from, helping them to notice elsewhere similar field marks, that when explored on the ground, have revealed many interesting sites. The Romans were in control of Europe and they adapted the same style of government here. Carvings for example on Trajan's Column in Rome shows that when building barracks or constructing their camps, the soldiers were always in uniform, ready in an instant to defend the area should an attack take place. Pictures of Gold coins of different eras were shown, found in the county, included one of the Emperor Vespasian who was in fact a 'Caesar' with considerable power, having come across from Europe. A photograph of Maiden Castle, Dorset showing what a fantastic construction it must have been and the war cemetery uncovered there. Another interesting fact gleaned from aerial photographs was how straight the road from Exeter to Topsham was, ideal for foot soldiers in armour. The Legionnaires were considered as they were in full uniform, and had to march in the minimum of time. Topsham no doubt being a place to unload provisions from Europe for the garrison. 1971-5 major excavations in Exeter took place and the Cathedral Green was one place that gave up amazing information. A Roman bath house of wonderful detail was found and this has since been buried and covered with sand to preserve it. There is now a move to uncover it again, to turn it into a tourist attraction and visitor centre. Evidence of workshops also found where repairs must have taken place of armour and weaponry. Buckles, scabbard and examples of daggers etc were mentioned. Circa AD 75 it is thought much of the garrison moved to South Wales. Newport to be exact. The Exeter excavation that took place in 2006-7 of the Exeter Shopping centre brought to light hundreds of artefacts, pottery, glass and fragments of archaeological interest. Some of this glass and pottery had association with Southern Europe from where much of the Roman supplies must have come from. Herculaneum, that impressive site of Roman history was mentioned, and the associated coloured mosaics found there. Other places of interest in Devon were mentioned. Ide, Chudleigh, North Tawton, Cullompton, Calstock on the Tamar and recent excavations at Ipplepen. Aerial photographs showing sites of forts at various situations around the county were mentioned. The final interesting fact was the straightness of the road from Exeter to Lincoln, demonstrated by a map. Other Roman roads the Fosse Way, the road from Exeter to North Tawton, all showing what an influence the Romans had on this county of Devon.
We thank John for whetting our appetite about the Romans in this county of ours.
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