In an unprecedented discovery, archaeologists have uncovered a massive Roman road network that once crisscrossed Devon and Cornwall in Britain, linking key settlements and military forts. This article examines the methodology, results and significance of this archaeological breakthrough.
Using laser scanning from the Environment Agency’s National Lidar Program, researchers from the University of Exeter have discovered new sections of the Roman road west of Exeter. Using advanced geographic modeling techniques that take into account gradients and flood hazards, they mapped the entire network, shedding light on its purpose.
Rethinking history: North Tawton at the center
The study reveals an unexpected twist: North Tawton, not Exeter, appears to have been the main center providing important links to tidal estuaries north and south of Bodmin and Dartmoor. The results of the study are detailed in the article ‘Remote sensing and GIS modeling of Roman roads in southwest Britain’.
The research was led by Dr. Christopher Smart and Dr. Joao Font, Roman heritage specialists in the Department of Archaeology and History at the University of Exeter. The modeling was led by geospatial expert Dr. César Parcero Ubinha from Spain.
Turning point: changing understanding
Dr. Smart notes that despite more than 70 years of study, this lidar technology has changed the understanding of Roman roads, especially in Dumnonium territory. Previously, roads west of Roman Isca (Exeter) were virtually invisible on maps.
The lidar program, conducted from 2016 to 2022, covered the whole of England. Previously, only 11% of Devon and Cornwall had been mapped. Working with volunteers, the Exeter team discovered around 100 kilometers of additional roads.
Intelligent modeling: filling in the gaps
While this was significant, many gaps remained. The team developed a predictive model of a geographic information system that intelligently determined the expected network structure using methods such as least cost path and other strategies, identifying major and minor nodes.
The network connected permanent military forts such as Old Barrow and Beacon in Martinho, as well as the settlements of Exeter and North Tawton. The researchers were able to identify the 13 kilometers of Roman road predicted by the model.
Final stages: expanding the network
In the final phase, the team extended the road network beyond the known Roman sites, suggesting alternative routes. This led to the discovery of new endpoints, particularly in west Cornwall.
Dr. Font notes that the network likely includes prehistoric paths, Roman military roads and civilian trails. This network served more than just military purposes, facilitating the movement of animal-drawn transport and avoiding flood zones.
A new frontier for research
The discovery may predict unknown settlement sites and prompt reconsideration of infrastructural investment and the hierarchy of the settlement network of southwest Britain in Roman times. It provides an invaluable foundation for future archaeological research in the region.