Old Burrow


Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument

List Entry Number: 1020809

Date first listed: 10-Aug-1923

Date of most recent amendment: 03-Sep-2002


Ordnance survey map of Old Burrow
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Devon

District: North Devon (District Authority)

Parish: Countisbury

National Park: EXMOOR

National Grid Reference: SS 78798 49344


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.

Reasons for Designation

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 parapets. 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.


Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.


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.

MAP EXTRACT 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.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number: 33033

Legacy System: RSM


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

End of official listing