Located on the south-western edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the Roman fort at Nanstallon overlooks the River Camel from the south, opposite Boscarne, about 2½miles due west of Bodmin town centre. At once the most southern and most western of all the Roman stations in the entire British Isles.
The fort is excellently sited on a slight rise close to the lowest easily-fordable spot on the River Camel, about 4½miles north-west of the River Fowey, at its closest point, which flows into the English Channel on the opposite side of the Dumnonian Peninsula. Any group moving along the peninsula would have to travel some miles inland to attempt the crossing of either of these two streams, and in so doing would have come under the close scrutiny of the Roman garrison.
The crossing point of the Fowey is not directly visible from the Nanstallon fort, and in order to keep a watch on the other river, it is possible that a Roman signal station of some sort was maintained on nearby Bodmin Beacon; this was, however, pure speculation and not substantiated by physical evidence – until just recently:
Excavations at Nanstallon
The fort was partly excavated during 1966-1969 at which time four sections were cut through the south-east defences. The rampart was found to be of clay outcast from the ditch dumped between two turf revetments set 12ft apart. A berm of only 1-2 ft (0.3-0.6m) separated the rampart from the ditch, which was 8ft 4ins wide (2.54m) and 5ft 3ins (1.6m) deep with a 9 inch (23cm) square drainage slot in Trench-1, 4ft 3ins (1.3m) deep with no drainage slot in Trench-4. The fort measured 290ft (88.4m) east-west by 330ft (100.6m) north-south, and covered an area of almost 2¼ acres (0.89ha).
Six-posted double gateways of timber were placed centrally in the north-east and south-west defences but on the other two sides were displaced slightly towards the north, the fort therefore faced north-north-east, but this is primarily due to topography and not to any military threat from this particular direction. Six-posted corner-towers were observed in the southern and eastern angles but their presence was not apparent at the north and west corners.
Excavations within the interior of the fort revealed the post-holes and sleeper-trenches of several timber-built internal buildings in its south-eastern half. These included traces of four barrack-blocks, two in the praetentura (numbered III & IV) and two in the retentura (I & II). Evidence of silver-working in the form of trenches, hearths and crucibles was found in the levels beneath the room at the eastern end of Barrack-III. The latera praetorii in the centre portion of the fort held the principia or regimental H.Q. with the praetorium or commanding-officer’s house beside it, and an ablutions block containing a latrine near the south-east gateway. The plan of the principia is demonstrably pre-Flavian.
Dateable finds include; a bronze brooch of Flavian type. The coin finds comprised two Republican coins, one of Augustus, another of Tiberius, three of Nero, one of Otho and one (possibly two) of Vespasian. Samian ware recovered included five sherds of a Form 29 bowl stamped MANDILI MA dated AD 50-75, three sherds of a Form 29 bowl of the potter Passienus dated c.55-75, four sherds of a Form 29 bowl dated AD 60-75, a single sherd of a Form 29 bowl of Germanus dated AD 70-80, a Form 37 Flavian ovolo and rim, and a Form 24 Neronian cup. Amongst the coarse pottery recovered was a mortarium of white clay bearing the stamp LESBIVS F, which cannot be closely dated, also many other jars, jugs, bowls and mortaria dating to the mid-late 1st-century.
Excavations at the Nanstallon Fort in 1969
Excavations conducted on the eastern half of the site in 1969 confirmed that the fort was built sometime between AD 55 and 65 and continued to be occupied until c. AD 80. The praetorium lay to the east of the principia in the geometric center of the fort, and measured roughly 56 x 48 feet (c.17.1 x 14.6 m).
It seems likely that the fort had originally been intended for a larger garrison, and that spaces left vacant by the change of plan were filled by local initiative as the need arose.” (Britannia, 1970)
Classical References to Nanstallon – Statio Deventiasteno
There is an interesting entry in a seventh-century geographical work known as the Ravenna Cosmology (R&C#11). This document lists the name Statio Deventiasteno between the unidentified entries Devionisso and Duriarno, and their placement in the text would indicate that all three places were located on the Dumnonian Peninsula somewhere in Cornwall or Devon.
The name Statio Deventia-steno appears to be a compound of three words from three separate languages:
- Latin statio halting-place, guard-post, landing stage.
- British Deventia seems to be a proper-name, very likely of native origin, somewhat Latinised.
- Greek stenos (στηνος) narrow.
The entire name could be translated as ‘The Station at the Narrows of Deventia‘. If one accepts that the name Deventia is synonymous with the Dumnonian Peninsula, this descriptive place-name, as explained above, matches the geographical situation of Nanstallon quite well, and the name may be tentatively identified with the Roman fort here on the south bank of the Camel.
A Quick Delve Into Cornish History
Scarcely a hundred years after the Ravenna document was penned, Cornwall was known as Cornubia and Devon would soon be going by the name Defena; the literal meaning of the latter Old English name being ‘the territory of the Devonians’. This tribe are probably to be equated with the Dumnonii, who were thought to inhabit the entire length of the Dumnonian Peninsula – hence the name. It seems likely, therefore, that the name Deventia from the Cosmography may be taken to mean ‘The Lands of the Dumnonii‘, i.e. the whole of Devon and Cornwall and part of western Somerset.
Cornish – The Ancient Tongue of Cornwall
Isolated as they were on their rocky peninsula, the ancient Dumnonii tribe, subsequently known as the Devoni and later still as the Cornovii, were to keep a Welsh-like tongue alive in the south-west corner of Britain until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when the last speaker of the Cornish language ended her days in the town of Mousehole, just 8 miles from Land’s End. The inscription from her tombstone is reproduced in full below.
Tombstone from Mousehole, Cornwall
Here lieth interred Dorothy Pentreath who died in 1777, said to have been the last person who conversed in the ancient Cornish language of this county from the earliest records till it expired in the eighteenth century in this parish of Saint Paul. This stone is erected by the prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte in union with the Revd. John Garrett vicar of St. Paul June 1860. Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Exod. XX.12. Gwra perthi de taz ha de mam mal de dythiow bethenz hyr war an tyr neb an Arleth de Dew ryes dees. Exod. XX.12.
The tombstone is of significance because it may be the only memorial to the resting place of a dead language in existence. The passage from the Bible in Cornish is of particular interest.
Roman Milestones Near Nanstallon
No inscriptions on stone have ever been recovered from the Nanstallon site, but a number of Roman milestones have been unearthed over the years in the surrounding Cornish countryside; two have been recovered from around Tintagel in the north (detailed below), one near the hillfort at Durocornavium (Carn Brea) to the south-west, and another two close to the island of Ictis (Mount St. Michael), near the tip of the Dumnonian Peninsula.
RIB2231 - Milestone of Licinius
RIB2230 - Milestone of Gallus and Volusian
There are two Roman tin mines to the west of the Nanstallon fort at Carnanton (SW8764) and Treloy (SW8562), these are the only known tin mines in the whole of Roman Britain. This important metal was usually prospected in Cornwall by “streaming”, collecting nuggets of the metal from deposits in the stream-beds of the numerous natural water-courses which abound in the area.
References for Statio Deventiasteno
- Historical Map and Guide – Roman Britain by the Ordnance Survey (3rd, 4th & 5th eds., 1956, 1994 & 2001);
- Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names by A.D. Mills (Oxford 1998);
- The Roman Fort at Nanstallon, Cornwall by Aileen Fox & William Ravenhill in Britannia iii (1972) pp.56-111;
- Britannia i (1970) pp.297/8; The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
- Bartholomew Revised “half-inch” Contoured Map of Great Britain Sheet 1 – Cornwall (June 1947);
Map References for Statio Deventiasteno
NGRef: SX0356 OSMap: LR204
Roman Roads near Statio Deventiasteno
Probable Road/Trackway: WSW (27) to Carn Brea (Carn Brea, Cornwall) Probable Road: NE (22) to Uxelis Possible Road/Trackway: W (13) to Trevelgve Head (Newquay, Cornwall) Possible Road/Trackway: SE (5) to Restormel