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Suspected Roman mine pits were uncovered, which would have intersected with a lost Roman road. Source: University of Exeter / Fair Use.

Roman Fort Excavation in England Reveals Lost Road and Ancient Mine

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Setting this discovery in context, an article on the National Trust website declares that in 2006, the Cornwall and West Devon mining landscape achieved World Heritage Status recognized by UNESCO and say, “This places Cornish mining on a par with the Egyptian pyramids , Stonehenge, and the Acropolis in Athens”.

The team of excavators, led by Dr. Chris Smart of the University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology reported on the University of Exeter’s website that it had included “over 20 local volunteers during each day of the dig, including refugees and asylum-seekers from Plymouth”. What’s more, “100 children from four local primary schools have attended workshops on site”.

An earlier 2007 team from the University of Exeter first discovered the Calstock Roman fort when they were investigating medieval silver mining in Bere Ferrers on the River Tamar in Devon, and they discovered that it was operational in 50 AD “with a garrison of about 500 men for 30 years,” according to the website report.

Digging in an area located outside the fort’s west gate, which was originally the fort’s front gate, the current team found previously-unknown pits connected by arched tunnels, and while samples are being analyzed it is thought “highly-likely” to be a mine “worked many hundreds of years ago when this area of South East Cornwall and West Devon was famed for having some of the richest mineral deposits in the world,” according to the University of Exeter article.

The Roman road was discovered 12 years after the Calstock Roman fort was found. (University of Exeter / Fair Use)

The Roman road was discovered 12 years after the Calstock Roman fort was found. ( University of Exeter / Fair Use)

A Roman Road To Ruins

Not only has the team ‘most probably’ discovered an ancient mine, but they might also have unearthed evidence of a Roman military road running to and from the fort. Dr. Smart told reporters at The Sun “The excavation has revealed a rare glimpse of timber-built Roman military buildings constructed outside of the fort” and he added “We are very pleased to have found such a well-made Roman road and the possible mine workings have proved a real unexpected bonus. While we still do not know their age, it is possible that they are from the medieval period”.

The line of the Roman road is to the west of Calstock Fort, an ancient Roman defense built around 50 AD. (University of Exeter / Fair Use)

The line of the Roman road is to the west of Calstock Fort, an ancient Roman defense built around 50 AD. ( University of Exeter / Fair Use )

While no objects were discovered in the possible mine and it’s hard to date when it was first cut and last used, the team observed that one of the deep pits cut into the Roman road supports the thought that they are probably medieval. Furthermore, remains of a medieval timber longhouse were found suggesting the site was occupied between the 8th and early 13th century which also explains why the parish church is located where it stands today, which at one time stood in the heart of the small village.

Britain’s Mining Origins

Roman mineral experts applied advanced technologies to first locate, then extract valuable minerals on a mass-scale unequaled in Britain until the late Middle Ages, and mining was arguably the most prosperous activity in  Roman Britain . Mining gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, salt, and tin is thought by many historians to have been one of the main reasons for the Roman conquest of Britain.

Mining in Roman Britain. (Notuncurious / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mining in Roman Britain. (Notuncurious / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

A 1932 research paper on Roman mining in Britain, written by a Mr. G. C. Whittick and published on Nature, argues that “Though the Roman invasion cannot be ascribed chiefly to the desire to gain possession of the country's mineral wealth, after the initial seizure of the southeast of the island, there followed the inevitable accompaniment of the exploitation of minerals, particularly lead” during the first century and a half of the Roman occupation .

But it wouldn’t be fair or balanced to lay all the credit for mining on the Roman invaders, for according to a 1999 paper, written by scholar C. N. French and published in Geoscience, in the southwest of England, “the exploitation of tin in Britain started before 2000 BC” and there developed “a thriving tin trade with the civilizations of the Mediterranean who forging bronze weapons brought the southwest of Britain into the Mediterranean economy at an early date.”

The remains of the wheelpit at Huntingdon mine on southern Dartmoor, where tin and cooper were mined. (Herbythyme / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The remains of the wheelpit at Huntingdon mine on southern Dartmoor, where tin and cooper were mined. (Herbythyme / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

English Metals In Ancient Phoenician Weapons and German Sky Disks?

Originally, alluvial deposits would have been exploited in gravel streams leading to shallow underground mining to extract ore. From these humble origins, Britain was traditionally one of the places proposed for the Cassiterides, ‘Tin Islands’ first mentioned by  Herodotus, and 20th century thinking had Cornwall being visited by  Phoenician metal traders .

However, this was all put to bed in 2003 by Timothy Champion’s paper in which he observed, "The direct archaeological evidence for the presence of Phoenician or Carthaginian traders as far north as Britain is non-existent”. 

But let’s admit that Devon’s ancient mineral deposits are of an archaeological point of the greatest significance, for the tin content of the bronze used to make the  Nebra Sky Disc , dating from 1600 BC and found in Germany; embossed with gold leaf symbols representing a crescent moon, the sun or full moon, stars, a curved gold sun boat, and a further gold bands around the edge representing a horizons - was mined in Cornwall.

Top image: Suspected Roman mine pits were uncovered, which would have intersected with a lost Roman road. Source: University of Exeter / Fair Use .

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

Cousin_Jack's picture

The history of mining in Cornwall is written, granted maybe written decades ago but what is being discovered is matching what is written. I think you just proved how little it is publicised. And is this fort and mine protected? Because I’m doubting it is.

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