Ancient Monuments

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Old Burrow

A Scheduled Monument in Brendon and Countisbury, Devon

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Latitude: 51.2304 / 51°13'49"N

Longitude: -3.7373 / 3°44'14"W

OS Eastings: 278797.925179

OS Northings: 149343.908179

OS Grid: SS787493

Mapcode National: GBR L5.2P22

Mapcode Global: VH5JT.5BMM

Entry Name: Old Burrow

Scheduled Date: 10 August 1923

Last Amended: 3 September 2002

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1020809

English Heritage Legacy ID: 33033

County: Devon

Civil Parish: Brendon and Countisbury

Traditional County: Devon

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): Devon

Church of England Parish: Countisbury with Lynmouth St John the Evangelist

Church of England Diocese: Exeter


The monument includes Old Burrow, a Roman fortlet sited on the north Devon
coast above the Coscombe valley on the seaward fringe of Exmoor, with
extensive views across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Erected by the Roman
army in the mid-first century AD, Old Burrow survives as a series of
concentric earthworks and below ground remains which together comprise an
inner fortlet defended by two ditches and a rampart encircled by a further
rampart with a single ditch.
Old Burrow, together with a very similar Roman military installation at
Martinhoe some 18km to the west, was the subject of some detailed
excavations which took place in the early 1960s with publication in the
Devon Archaeological Exploration Society proceedings in 1966. These
excavations confirmed the site at Old Burrow as a Roman fortlet which, it
was argued on coin evidence, was occupied, perhaps only briefly, before
the end of the reign of the Emperor Claudius in AD54. It is considered
likely that the fortlet was placed to observe and warn against any hostile
intent originating from South Wales which, at this relatively early stage
of the Roman occupation of western Britain, was inhabited by a native
tribe (the Silures) who were considered to be hostile to Roman control.
Old Burrow was also suggested by the excavators to be slightly earlier in
date than Martinhoe which was believed to have been occupied first only in
the time of the Emperor Nero (AD54-68). They argue further that there was
no need for two contemporary fortlets to observe the same stretch of Welsh
coast. The design and size of the two fortlets is virtually identical.
The outer defences of Old Burrow are defined by a rampart and ditch which
form a near circular enclosure some 98m in diameter. An earlier excavation
in 1911 established that the ditch was about 1.5m deep and had a V-shaped
profile which is characteristic of Roman military work. The rampart was
recorded as being just over 4m wide at the base and about 1.5m high. A
single gap of about 5m exists in this outer circuit on its south western
landward side. Excavation failed to locate any associated structure and it
was suggested that this entrance was never defended, although the nature
of any barrier may have left no trace. The outer enclosure either acted as
an additional defence or, as was suggested by the excavators, provided a
temporary defence whilst the inner enclosure was being constructed.
Lying in the centre of the enclosure, and surrounded by a flat 15m wide
strip of ground between it and the outer rampart, is the double-ditched
inner enclosure of the fortlet. This is square in shape rather than
circular and its entrance faces seaward. This means it could be approached
only by making a half-circuit around the inner defences from the entrance
through the outer enclosure and the arrangement appears to have been
designed to forestall any direct attack on the inner gateway. The two
ditches of the inner enclosure were excavated in 1963. Both were found to
be V-shaped in the Roman military fashion, the inner ditch having a
maximum width of nearly 2m and a depth of about 1.8m whilst the outer
ditch was narrower and shallower with a maximum width of 1.7m and a depth
of under 1m. Behind the ditches was a 3m wide and 1.5m high rampart of
soil revetted with turves. Excavation in 1963 also revealed the post-holes
of a timber gateway which would have guarded the single entrance to the
inner enclosure. The entrance, which was formed by a causeway across the
ditches, was found to have been metalled and was about 3m wide.
Part of the interior of the inner enclosure was also excavated in 1963.
Built against the northern rampart was a circular field oven and against
the inside of the southern rampart were the remains of a cookhouse which,
from its burnt clay flooring, was interpreted as a large oven. Elsewhere,
post-holes and stakeholes were interpreted by the excavators as evidence
for tents; no post-trenches for timber barracks were located although
these could yet lie in the unexcavated areas. If the accommodation was
tented then some form of protective framing might have been employed to
offer shelter to the tents in such an exposed location. Evidence for this
kind of arrangement has been suggested from archaeological evidence
recovered from Roman military sites on the Continent; this might account
for the post-holes discovered at Old Burrow.
By analogy with the fortlet at Martinhoe, where the remains of two timber
barracks were excavated within a near total excavation of its interior, it
seems possible that Old Burrow was designed to hold a similar unit,
presumably of auxiliary troops. At Martinhoe, a total of 65-80 men was
postulated under the command of a centurion, this number being compatible
with a Roman century (which by the middle of the first century AD
comprised a maximum of 80 men). No evidence for a signalling beacon has
been recovered in association with the fortlet at Old Burrow although such
evidence was recovered at Martinhoe. The precise timescale for the Roman
military occupation of the South West following the invasion of AD43 is
yet to be fully understood but a base at Exeter for the legion of Second
Augusta appears to have been under construction either side of AD55. This
legion would have been accompanied by auxiliary troops who would most
likely have occupied temporary camps, forts, and fortlets in the
countryside of which Old Burrow appears to be an example.
All fencing, gates, and fixed information boards are excluded from the
scheduling, although the ground beneath all these features is included.

The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.
It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features,
considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

Roman fortlets are small rectangular enclosures with rounded corners defined
by a fortified rampart of turf and earth with one or more outer ditches. The
ramparts were originally revetted at the front and rear by timber uprights in
shallow trenches and were almost certainly crowned with timber wall walks and
Fortlets were constructed from the first century AD to at least the later
fourth century AD to provide accommodation for a small detachment of troops
generally deployed on a temporary basis of between one to two years and
supplied by a fort in the same area. The function of fortlets varies from
place to place; some were positioned to guard river crossings or roads,
particularly at vulnerable points such as crossroads, whilst others acted as
supply bases for signal towers. Roman fortlets are rare nationally with
approximately 50 examples known in Britain, half of which are located in
Scotland. As such, and as one of a small group of Roman military monuments
which are important in representing army strategy and therefore government
policy, fortlets are of particular significance to our understanding of the
period and all surviving examples are considered nationally important.

The Roman fortlet at Old Burrow is a very rare example of a coastal
fortlet which also survives exceptionally well with a full circuit of both
inner and outer defences. It illustrates design features, such as the
offset entrance ways between the outer and inner enclosures, which are
extremely rare in Roman military planning and which in Britain are
believed to be usually associated with early Roman forts.
The fortlet represents a well-preserved example of an early coastal Roman
military installation of which only one other comparable example is known
in the South West. The monument will provide archaeological information
about Roman military strategy, the progress of the Roman occupation of the
South West and Wales, and the lives of the garrison of soldiers who manned
the fortlet.

Source: Historic England


Books and journals
Griffith, F, Devon's Past: An Aerial View, (1988), 54
Riley, H, Wilson-North, R, The Field Archaeology of Exmoor, (2001), 76-77
Fox, A, Ravenhill, W L D, 'Devon Archaeological Exploration Society' in Early Roman Outposts On The North Devon Coast, Old Burrow, , Vol. 24, (1966)
Gray, H G, 'Transactions of the Devonshire Association' in Survey of Old Burrow Camp, , Vol. 44, (1912), 703-717
Morel, J M A W, 'International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, Canterbury' in Tents Or Barracks?, , Vol. 15th, (1991), 376-86

Source: Historic England

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