Dvnvm (Hod Hill)

Fort and Hillfort

Dunum – ‘The Hillfort’

Barry Cunliffe describes the pre-Roman hillfort at Hod Hill as a ‘late Iron-Age nucleated settlement’, the occupation area within the fortifications was about 52 acres (c.21 hectares), which is comparable in size to a standard Roman legionary fortress. The remains of many circular huts, some with small annexes, have been discovered in the south-east corner of the site. It would appear that although not all of the huts were occupied at the same time, the population started seriously to expand shortly after Julius Caesar’s visit to Britain c.50 BC . By the time Vespasian and Legio II Augusta arrived here, probably during the summer of AD 44, almost the entire area within the defences was inhabited.

The Hod Hill fort is only mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography; the complete section is worth quoting:

Toward the west and south of these [the Belgae] are the Durotriges whose town is Dunium¹ 18*00 52°40. Next to these, but more to the west, are the Dumnoni, …” (Claudius Ptolemaeus Geographia II.ii)

  1. The Latin name Dunium is a simple Romanisation of the Welsh/Gaelic word Dunum or Dunon, which means simply ‘hillfort, stronghold’.

The Coming of Rome

A hastily organised attempt at multivallation was undertaken at Hod Hill in the time immediately prior to the Roman advance through the area in AD 43/44, but construction was apparently halted unfinished, probably in the face of Vespasian’s task force. This work may be seen on the above plan as a number of pits and trenches within the defences, on the north, south and eastern sides of the hillfort.

A large number of iron ballista-bolts were found concentrated within a remarkably small space in the south-east corner of the fort during archaeological excavations at the site between 1951 and 1958. Further investigation proved that the area had been occupied by a single large round-house building, more luxuriously appointed than the rest of the huts within the hillfort interior. A large ornate spear head was found inside this large hut, lying in detritus close to the doorway. It would appear that the chieftain’s house, easily identifiable by the Romans due to its size, was the target of a barrage of ballista bolts, probably from a number of such weapons, during which hail of fire the resident Durotrigian lord was killed, apparently before even taking up his spear. This display of devastating firepower would seem to have led to the rapid surrender of the dispirited natives, as no other signs of battle dateable to the period were found.

The Roman Fort of Dunium

OS National Grid Reference: ST855108
Dimensions: c.570 x 500 ft (c.174 x 152 m)
Area: c.6½ acres (c.2.6 ha)

After this very unequal battle, Vespasian decided to keep a close watch on the recently-surrendered inhabitants by building an auxiliary camp into the north-west corner of the hillfort itself. The fort measures approximately 570 ft north-south by 500 ft east-west (c.174 x 152 m), giving an occupation area of around 6½ acres (c.2.6 ha). It is very likely that the surviving round-houses remained in use by the natives for some time, possibly providing services for the Roman troops in the form of locally grown foodstuffs, livestock, baked-goods, locally-brewed beer, and of course, women.

The lack of any identifiable Roman road in the immediate area, plus the fact that Hod Hill is not mentioned in any of the later classical geographies, leads one to conclude that Roman occupation of the hillfort was not to last long, and following the withdrawal of the garrison the settlement was soon abandoned. In fact, the main reason that the auxiliary troops were withdrawn may have been that the native population in the area had dwindled to such a small number that they no-longer represented a threat, or perhaps they had been seduced by the prosperity which followed in the wake of the Roman invaders, either way, a local Roman garrison was seemingly not needed (see Webster).

Observation and Excavation at Hod Hill

During excavations over the years in the Roman occupation levels at Hod Hill a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of Ox, Sheep, Pig, Red Deer and Hare; the latter animal very likely being hunted and killed for sport and as a means of pest control. In addition, the shells of Oyster and Edible Snail also the bones of several types of birds, including Chicken, Mallard, Woodcock, Woodpigeon, Coot, and other wildfowl (see Davies).

In south Britain the fort at Hod Hill [1 O.G.S. Crawford and A Keiller, Wessex from the Air, 1928, 36-41, pl. i; JRS XL, 1950, pl. viii, 1; XLII, 1952, 99; below p. 124.] (ST 855108) [2 The references are to the National Grid.] is the only example of a Roman military earthwork of the period of the invasion that survives in good order. Its position, within the highest corner of a native fortress, offers an exceptional chance of defining the relation between Roman and native works. The contribution of air reconnaissance to this problem is two-fold. Available photographs display the defences of the native fortress, its ditches, ramparts and spoil-pits, and show a sample of the structures that occur within it. In a sector of the native fort, ploughed in 1949, the marks of hut-circles, working-floors, pits and hollows are clearly seen, so that the detailed economy of an oppidum lies in large part revealed. Striking views have also been obtained of the defences of the Roman fort, while in the interior the main streets and the outlines of building-plots, some terraced on the hill-slope, were seen as soil marks after fresh ploughing. In the western half of the fort are a number of regularly arranged oblong plots, but the general plan does not conform to later standards. The most prominent of native remains beneath the Roman levels occurs at the very summit of the whole hill, where, crossed by the via praetoria of the Roman fort, a well-marked ring-ditch is visible. Only digging can show whether this is a chance coincidence of a native hut with the summit, or whether it is the ring-ditch of a barrow erected thereon, perhaps long before even the native hill-fort was constructed.” (JRS 1953 p.82)

References for Dvnvm

  • Iron Age Communities in Britain by Barry Cunliffe (London, 1974);
  • The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia ii (1971) pp.122-142;
  • Air Reconnaissance of Southern Britain by J.K. St. Joseph in J.R.S. XLIII (1953) pp.81-97;

Map References for Dvnvm

NGRef: ST8510 OSMap: LR194

Roman Roads near Dvnvm

None identified