2. Prehistory to the Roman Invasion

As the Ice Age receded evidence for Mesolithic and Neolithic activity, in the form of stone tools for hunting, butchery or ritual sites such as stone rows, circles and monuments, even burials etc increase in density across Devon. Settlements started to form, although only on Dartmoor is there wide survival of prehistoric hut circle villages, there is a lot of stone monument evidence on Exmoor. Evidence of temporary hunting camps in the early period is often indicated by flint flake scatters. The archaeology of this period is often very ephemeral hunter-gatherers leaving little trace behind them, until the Neolithic and the introduction of farming and the start of the clearance of the landscape. Worked flints and flake scatters found in and around Great Torrington tells us that Middle Stone Age (known as the Mesolithic) hunter-gatherers were hunting in and around the rocky outcrop which towered above the steep river valley between 10-15,000 years ago. The scatters of flakes show people were knapping (shaping/forming) stone tools, and whole tools show active use and hunting. A second scatter of flints and flakes out at Deepmoor, on the exposed downs above the town, indicates that these nomadic early peoples were widely using this area. They would have sat around their community fire and a few of them may have been knapping stones to form tools and weapons, forming the stone shards which form the scatter recorded by archaeologists.

An outcrop like that on which Torrington is built would have been a good seasonal hunting ground camping spot, due to the wide outlook it gave the hunters across the valley. This landscape would have mostly been wooded at this stage, with pines, birch, mixed deciduous woodland open heathland or rough grasslands on high ground to the north. The animals the people would have hunted would have been Elk, Auruchs, Wild Boar, Red Deer, Roe Deer. Other smaller mammals may also have been eaten in areas around rivers like our valley; Pine Martins, Otters, Beavers, as well as Fish from the Torridge river, which would have been far wider and deeper. Even small Wild Cats and Pole Cats may have been eaten as well as used for their fur. Bears, Lynx and Wolves would have been the human’s main predators, but also been hunted themselves for their fur, which would have been vital to keep the people warm seasonally and the skins to make leather for clothing all year round. Eagles, hawks and other birds of prey would also have competed and scavenged for hunting.

The diet of a hunter-gatherer would have been of nuts, berries, meat and fish; plants like nettles, wild garlic and herbs would have been processed both for food and rudimentary medecines. Peoples diets would have been very localised to the area in which they lived. The people in and around the Torridge valley would have been very lucky, with a wide variety of game and land mammals and fish from the river. Many of the plant species they encountered can still be seen on our commons, such as blackberries, blackcurrants and wild strawberries in the summer and autumn and lots of wild garlic on the river banks.

As farming developed in the Neolithic (4000-2100BC), more varied tools were needed as the people started to chop down some of the trees and clear the ground for fields, sowing early types of wheat and barley and raising newly tamed and bred animals like goats and pigs in enclosures. People started to settle in small communities, forming the first proper villages. We can see evidence of such processes happening in Torrington with the find of hand-axe from about c.4000BC (more than 6,000 years ago), which would indicated chopping and cutting was happening in and around the wooded Torridge valley, suggesting there was already a village here somewhere in the vicinity. The houses of such villages would have been very simple turf-roofed, sunken shelters and have been scattered in an open area.

By the Bronze Age (2500 – 701BC) evidence suggests the people that first settled in the Neolithic had started to claim territories; settlements were established. Settlement evidence has been found on the slopes in and around Torrington, such as under the Burwood area. Archaeological investigations have found rubbish/waste pits and postholes, embankments and ditches for enclosures; evidence of settlement and structures. This may suggest there were a cluster of smaller settlements along the top of the undulating outcrop on the north side of the valley. The subtle evidence of Bronze Age round houses and further settlement will sadly have been erased in the town by all of the later building. It is however interesting to see around the edges of the modern town evidence of settlement does still survive, which is the earliest indication of there actually being a proper community on the hill here.

Evidence of burials on Darracott Moor, on the ridge north of Torrington, (which we drive across in the B3232 today on the road to Barnstaple), indicate a powerful local tribe associated this lands as their territory and claimed it through concepts of burial, ancestry and ownership; creating large visual monuments to their important deceased community members on the highest local ridge of ground, visible for miles around. The placing of the barrows suggest this was not the location of the settlements in the area, rather the barrows were positioned so they could be seen from the settlements and clear views between Torrington and the high ridge remain today, indeed modern landscape installations such as wind turbines and communication masts are set up here as it is such a high open spot in the landscape.

Influential members or even multiple people were buried in pits, lined with stone (cists), in earthenware pots or under small organised piles of stones, called cairns. Large mounds of stone (cairns) or earth (barrows) were built over these graves. Often the bodies were cremated on a pyre first, or exposed to be de-fleshed by the weather or scavengers, the bones collected later. There are six known barrows at Darracott, which are scheduled monuments, protected by the government, a possible seventh more damaged barrow and others may be unrecorded, forming a barrow cemetery.

One of the barrows was excavated by an amateur archaeologist and Torrington Town Council member and official, Mr George Doe in 1875. The burial contained; charcoal, a cremation, burnt leaves and organic remains and a fine dagger, with part of its scabbard and hilt. This is a very high status grave good. This dates to 1650-1400BC. This is a type known in Britain particularly from Somerset, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, known as an Ogilval form and may be evidence of trade between regional groups. Another find from the Bronze Age, near Burwood, just east of Torrington was a hook-tang spear. This is a spear head, which could be used practically, for example for fishing but also as a weapon. This particular find is of a type known from Cyprus, so may be evidence of the tribes in this area trading with coastal communities and exchanging goods or even pan-European trade or travellers. So the yearly summer holidays many people in Torrington make to sunny islands in the Mediterranean are not as modern a social development as we may think. A copper alloy flat axe head was also found in Great Torrington and is evidence of more everyday use of tools for hunting and craft or building work.

By the Iron Age (700BC- 43AD) people were living in larger communities and tribal groups had formed larger territories across the landscape. Often these larger communities formed proto-towns enclosing their settlement with ditches and banks, to make a statement, for protection and for convenience, enclosing and securing their larger herds of animals etc; known as hillforts by archaeologists, although they may not have had a military use. Torrington sits on a tall hill, perfect for a settlement which was focussed on defence, with wide views across the surrounding landscape. The town is framed by hundreds of acres of open common land today and upon this we see evidence of many phases of earthworks, banks and ditches, paths and tracks. A comprehensive earthwork survey has not been carried out but there is a North Devon pattern of hilltop ‘hillforts’ in the Torridge and Taw valleys and it is likely the evidence lies beneath Torrington’s streets, obscured by all of the later development. Many of the larger ‘hillforts’ in the UK landscape are now believed to be centralised seats of power for local communities, often surrounded by smaller embanked settlements; these were known as Oppida; we know from the Romans as they invaded that it was vital to take out these proto-towns in order to conquer and area. Torrington is flanked by a number of small Iron Age or Romano-British round enclosures, which could either be domestic or for animals. They appear to cluster in the wider landscape around the modern town today, again indicative of an important local centre be focussed on the same spot as it is today. There is a very good surviving example of a smaller hillfort at Huntshaw, just c.3miles from Torrington. Berry Castle is an example of the type of settlement the people of the Torrington would have occupied and is very much worth a visit! The people would have lived in round houses in enclosures with ditches and banks with palisade fences.  Torrington has a lot of earthworks around the top of the hill, you can see some down the slope. Although some are walkways for the commons and some relate to later military battles, others may date to the defensive settlement of this outcrop. If you walk down to the river and look up you can imagine how hard the hillfort would have been to defeat.

The tribes of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, known as the Dumnonii and Durotriges resisted the Romans when they invaded in 43AD. Indeed so fierce were the Dorset, Devon and Cornwall tribes that future Roman Emperor Vespasian as legate led the notorious 2nd Augustan legion in a campaign of subjugation across Devon destroying Oppida and hillforts, scattering the population and kidnapping people as slaves. The violent military campaign was run from a new base at Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) the Dumnonii tribe’s main settlement which had been taken and fortified by the Romans. There are many small Roman temporary army camps and marching camps, or signal stations sited close to hillforts and defended settlements in the Westcountry; showing a process of control and surveillance followed by attack, then a need to maintain control via a military presence. There is just such a Roman signal station which has been recorded at Gammaton, so this legendary legion or associated roman army battalions were active in and around Torrington during, c.49-50AD.

We also have evidence of enclosures, pits and other earthworks just east of the current town, indicating settlement in the later Iron Age. A rectangular regular sided enclosure, with defined entrances has been recorded by archaeologists with geophysical surveying methods and it may possibly even be from the Roman invasion period, a military camp. What do you think the people would have though seeing the Roman army approach over the hills or up the valley from Exeter, in all of their armour, carrying their standards??


Stone Age to Palaeolithic

Early Humans – Hominids (900,000/500,000 years ago – 9,500BC – sporadic visits from nomadic hunting groups between Ice Ages. Britain attached to mainland Europe via Doggerland (north sea and channel), Britain was not an island.)


Hunter-Gatherers (9,500BC – 4000BC – continuous mobile occupation of Britain by groups travelling from Europe) Seasonal hunting grounds, largely the southern areas occupied.


Early Farmers/Sacred Landscapes (4000BC – 2500/2300BC – a new wave of European settlers bring new skills/knowledge) Territorial arrangement of landscape and complex belief systems and ritual landscapes, monumental building in the north, ie Orkney and south, ie Stonehenge.

Copper Age/Bronze Age

First metal tools (2500/2200BC – copper) (2200 – 800BC – bronze) – trade and migration brings new smelting knowledge) Influx of new European peoples, such as the ‘Beaker people’ from eastern Europe/steppe plains.

Iron Age

(1500/800BC – 79AD) Technology evolves, settlement coalesces and settlement pattern starts to develop, territories start to coalesce into kingdoms/regions – hillforts and oppida, early dense defended settlements, proto-towns, centres of trading, administration. Knowledge travels through trade/travel, less mass migration in this period until Roman invasion. Expansion of mining and growing mineral wealth, fine metalworking; tin, iron, copper and gold traded on a large scale.

Roman Invasion

(43-87AD) Gradual process over several years, individual campaigns raided, then invaded, then expanded territory. Expanded trade links brought new forms of housing and settlement in the Mediterranean pattern. Increased road networks and links around the country, created a system of districts region etc. Britain was a safe haven for rebels and also had great mineral wealth and strong tall tribespeople who sold well as slaves, so was sought after financially by the Empire, despite the difficulties of invading an island of disparate tribal kingdoms.

Roman Conquest of Devon

(c. AD 50 – 410) Cornwall remained independent in the south-west far longer and retained its links to Brittany. Devon and the tribes of the region, were conquered in Emperor Claudius campaigns in the West against the Durotriges and Dumnonii peoples. The Legio II Augusta or Second Augustan Legion were led by their legate (commander) Vespasian (who went on to be Emperor himself in AD69). The Legion swept through south and south-west Britain and was based out of Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum – an extant Dumnonii oppida or town) which became a massive military fortress and walled town between 55-66AD. There were further large bases at Okehampton, North Tawton and Tiverton, but there is a Roman signal station/marching camp at Gammaton, c.3 miles north of Torrington.

Further reading and Links

Historic England prehistory page – https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/prehistory/

Devon County Council prehistory page – https://www.devon.gov.uk/historicenvironment/devons-historic-environment/prehistoric-devon/

Downloadable PDF publication – Prehistoric Burial Mounds English Heritage – further reading


Prehistory Schools Resources – Devon County Council

Key Stage 2 – Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age
Teaching docs on Bursdon Moor Bronze Age burial mounds, Hartland, Torridge

Dolbury Iron Age hillfort Killerton, Nation Trust, Exeter

Teaching docs on Bronze Age track-way and Iron Age village at Clyst Heath, nr Exeter

Roman teaching resources – Devon County Council KS2 – The Roman Empire and its Impact on Britain

Teaching resources on Roman Topsham – https://www.devon.gov.uk/historicenvironment/schools-resources/roman-topsham/


Devon Historic Environment Records – Prehistoric Records for Torrington

HER Number: MDV112004
Name: Possible Penannular enclosure in Beam Wood
Text: Round embanked enclosure in woods visible on LiDar

HER Number: MDV111470
Name: Possible Enclosure on Pollard Hill
Text: Small ovoid enclosure on Pollard Hill, east of Cleave, suggested by Lidar, Royal Air Force aerial photograph and extant field boundary.

HER Number: MDV120932
Name: Enclosure off Burwood Lane, Caddywell Lane, Great Torrington
Text: Large rectilinear Late Iron Age or Roman enclosure, geophys and evaluation trenching confirmed, with multiple entrances

HER Number: MDV121068
Name: Cluster of Postholes at Land off Burwood Lane, Caddywell Lane.
Text: A cluster of postholes identified by a trench evaluation. Suggested prehistoric date.
(Bronze Age – 2200 BC? to 701 BC? (Between))

HER Number: MDV11842
Name: Enclosure in the Parish of Great Torrington, Castle Hill, off Caddywell Lane
Text: Field name castle field. Gaze castle, a simple defensive enclosure, destroyed by cultivation (1905) but about 15 feet still traceable through crops. Castle Field occupies a ridge. No trace of an earthwork is to be seen at either of the suggested sites on the ground or on ap’s. The e-w ridge at ss495215 seems more likely than suggested site at ss488209.

HER Number: MDV120937
Name: Pits at land off Burwood Lane, Caddywell Lane
A number of discrete pit-like responses were identified by the geophysical survey.

HER Number: MDV12391
Name: Prehistoric Axe Head from Great Torrington
Text: A polished Neolithic stone axe head was found in Great Torrington
(Neolithic – 4000 BC to 2201 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV42338
Name: Cypriot Hook-Tang, Great Torrington
Cypriot weapon of Bronze Age date ploughed up ‘near Torrington’
(Bronze Age – 2200 BC to 701 BC (Between))
Further reading: Branigan, K., 1983, A Cypriot Hook-Tang Weapon from Devon, 125-8 (Article in Serial). SDV11792.

HER Number: MDV67696
Name: Deep Moor Flint Scatter
Prehistoric worked flint found during fieldwork in 1998
(Bronze Age – 2200 BC to 701 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV76312
Name: Flint Scatter, Deep Moor
Text: Early Bronze Age flint tools recovered during field walking.
(Late Neolithic – Early Bronze Age)

HER Number: MDV452
Name: Worked Flake, Enfield, Great Torrington
Prehistoric worked flake found in a garden at Enfield, Torrington
(Prehistoric – 698000 BC to 42 AD (Between))

HER Number: MDV120628
Name: Possible barrow, Darracott Moor
Text: A circular cropmark bank interpreted as a possible prehistoric barrow is visible on aerial photographs taken in 1947, on Darracott Moor, Great Torrington.

HER Number: MDV361
Name: Bowl Barrow on Darracott Moor, Great Torrignton
Bowl barrow visible as an earthwork mound and ditch to the north-west of Three Oaks, forming part of a round barrow cemetery on Darracott Moor, Great Torrington.
Scheduled Monument: 1012445
(Bronze Age – 2200 BC to 701 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV360
Name: Bowl Barrow on Darracott Moor
Text: Bowl barrow to north of Three Oaks, forming part of a round barrow cemetery on Darracott Moor.
Bisected by road (though visible as a bump when driving along it), with greater part lying to west.
Scheduled Monument: 1012443
(Bronze Age – 2200 BC to 701 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV359
Name: Bowl Barrow on Darracott Moor
Text: Bowl barrow to west of Three Oaks, forming part of a round barrow cemetery on Darracott Moor.
Cut through on north side by boundary ditch.
Scheduled Monument: 1013652
(Late Bronze Age – 2500 BC to 701 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV358
Name: Bowl Barrow on Darracott Moor
Text: Bowl barrow to south-west of Three Oaks, forming part of a round barrow cemetery on Darracott Moor.
Partially excavated in 19th century.
Scheduled Monument: 1012444
(Late Bronze Age – 2500 BC to 701 BC (Between))

HER Number: MDV356/MDV14663
Name: Two bowl barrows south of Haycroft, Huntshaw
Text: The monument consists of two adjacent bowl barrows, and of the ground lying between them. These barrows lie on the north of Darracott Moor. The barrow to the east contained a high status grave good, a bronze ogival dagger.
Scheduled Monument UID: 1013671
(Late Neolithic – Early Bronze Age)
Further reading: Doe, G, ‘ Devonshire Assoc’ in The examination of two barrows near Torrington, Vol. 7, (1875), 102-105

HER Number: MDV5627
Name: Berry Castle hillfort in Huntshaw Wood
The monument includes an Iron Age hillfort which occupies the summit of a high hill overlooking the valleys of Huntshaw Water to the north and Darracott Brook to the south. The site is aligned east-west and is defined by a rampart bank and outer ditch which surround an internal area 118m long by 52m wide.
Scheduled Monument UID: 1016225
Devon County Sites and Monuments Register Number: SS42SE7
(Iron Age/Romano British)

  • 15000 – 4000BC Mesolithic Flint scatter FIND SPOT – HER
  • 4000 – 2201 BC Neolithic Polished stone axe head FIND SPOT – HER
  • 2500 – 701BC Bronze Age, Bowl Barrow Scheduled Monument, Bowl Barrow, Bowl Barrow, Bowl Barrow
  • 2200 – 701 BC Cluster of postholes HER
  • Cypriot hook-tang FIND SPOT – HER
  • 700BC – 43AD Iron Age/Romano-British Enclosure with multiple entrances HER
  • 43 – 410AD Romano-British Round embanked enclosure HER