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The discovery of the first ditch of the Roman fort. Source: Exeter City Council.

Roman Fort Discovered Hidden Beneath English Bus Station

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A long-lost Roman fort has been uncovered during a construction project in the British town of Exeter. The discovery stunned archaeologists as there was no record to indicate that there was a fortification in the area. This find is helping researchers to better understand the region in Roman times when it was an important military and administrative center.

The remarkable find was made during the construction of a new bus station in the southwest English town of Exeter. The discovery was made by workmen employed by the Kier Construction company. The “Exeter Office of Cotswold Archaeology who are working with Kier” at the site, began to investigate the find according to the Construction Enquirer .

The area of construction where the Roman fort was found. (Exeter City Council)

The area of construction where the Roman fort was found. ( Exeter City Council )

Long-Lost Roman Fort

The construction workers found a deep ditch and then another trench running parallel to it, shortly after. The two trenches were identified as being from a Roman fort or defensive position. The outer ditch is a “V-shaped ‘ankle-breaker’ pit designed to slow down any charging attackers” reports the Daily Telegraph .

The second or inner ditch was cut into a slope. It was designed to slow down attackers and leave them open to the javelins and arrows of the Roman legionnaires.

Drawing of what the Roman fort would have looked like. (Exeter City Council)

Drawing of what the Roman fort would have looked like. ( Exeter City Council )

The workers had uncovered a fort or military position that had not been documented in the past. Archaeologists found locally minted coins and shards of pottery that were once possibly owned by legionnaires. Also uncovered was some red Samian tableware that was made in Gaul (modern France), which would have been very expensive at the time.

The recovered artifacts were from “the first decades of the Roman conquest of Britain” according to Archaeology.com. This meant that the fort was built and used during the Roman conquest of Britain.

Other artifacts were discovered at the Roman fort. ( Exeter City Council )

The Roman Fort was Built During the Roman Invasion of England

The Roman invasion of 43 AD, ordered by Emperor Claudius quickly captured most of southeast England. When they moved into the southwest of England they were attacked by local war-like Celtic tribes. In order to secure their control over the region, the Romans built a large “fort, called Isca Dumnoniorum, which was established at Exeter garrisoned by 5,500 legionaries” in 55 AD reports the Daily Telegraph .

The fortification was located on the Fosse Way, a major Roman road . Over time a town grew up alongside the fort, populated mainly by Roman-Britons. The town became an important administrative center for southwest England in the 2nd century AD.

Route of the Fosse Way, the Roman road the newly discovered Roman fort is on. (Carlog3 / Public Domain )

The find of a Roman fort in the city proves once again the strategic importance of Exeter in the 1st century AD and later. In the 1970s another fortress and its baths were uncovered under some streets.

There were also some later important discoveries and “these include large buildings, forts, and military depots” according to the Chester Standard . The latest fort unearthed, shows “how pivotal a role the Exeter area played in the first decades of the Roman conquest and subjugation of Britain”, reports the Daily Telegraph .

A map of Exeter in 1563 showing the city walls, the settlement of Isca Dumnoniorum was developed around the Roman fortress. (Smalljim / Public Domain)

A map of Exeter in 1563 showing the city walls, the settlement of Isca Dumnoniorum was developed around the Roman fortress. (Smalljim / Public Domain )

The discovery of the fort is remarkable considering that the city was heavily bombed by the Germans in WWII. The area was also completely redeveloped in the 1950s. An archaeology office with Exeter City Council, Andrew Pye, stated that the recent find of a Roman-era fort “demonstrates just how much of the city’s history can still survive in unlikely places” according to The Guardian .

The present bus-station was built in the 1960s and it is possible that other Roman remains could have been destroyed during its development. Construction companies were not obliged to report possibly important historic finds at that time.

The Difficult Study of the Roman Fort

The unrecorded nature of the fort and its location in a busy urban area has presented problems for the archaeologists. The Guardian reports that Dereck Evans of Costwold’s Archaeology called the dig both “a challenging and interesting project”.

Archaeologists are continuing to work on the site of the fort, even while construction continues in the area. It is expected that their work will not disrupt the project to redevelop the bus station.

The experts hope to find more material related to the fort and its garrison. This can help them to better understand the site’s development and the history of the area during the Roman era .

Top image: The discovery of the first ditch of the Roman fort. Source: Exeter City Council .

By Ed Whelan

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