Axminster (Moridunum) Settlement

Minor Settlement

Excavations in 1990 and 1992 discovered evidence for a civilian settlement dating from the 2nd to 4th century. The site would appear to be a vicus associated with the Roman Fort at Woodbury (Axminster Roman Fort) and is thought to have been the Roman town of Moridunum. Evidence for the later settlement, which grew up beside the Dorchester to Exeter road, was identified initially through aerial photographs. During 1984, for example, photographs revealed a substantial stone building which has since been interpreted as a mansio, a building used to accommodate travellers involved with the provincial postal service. Traces of other associated buildings were also noted in the north western part of the fort on this photograph. Ploughing of this field in recent years has produced Roman artefacts including pottery and metalwork.

A pipeline trench cut through the area to the north and west of the fort in 1990 revealed Roman deposits up to 0.6m deep. An early Roman plough soil 0.2m deep was overlain by a later Roman level up to 0.4m thick which sealed a variety of Roman features including pits, two roads and boundary ditches. A large number of Roman artefacts including pottery wasters were recovered suggesting that Woodbury may have been a production centre during the third century AD.

A further pipeline trench excavated in July 1992 in the area of the northern ditch of the fort and extending in a south westerly direction across the field west of the fort, confirmed the presence of Roman features, including a road and buried soils within 50m of the fort. In 1993 and 1994, two programmes of geophysical work within the fort and the field to the west further demonstrated the presence of archaeological remains.

Within the fort the features identified on the earlier aerial photograph were all noted, whilst in the area to the west a system of parallel linear boundaries was demonstrated. In the later Roman period the settlement would have ranked as a small town lying at the junction of the two most important roads in the region. The site is thought to be the town of Moridunum which is listed in late Roman itineraries. The site was abandoned by the end of the fourth century and later reverted to cultivation.

Literary references to Axminster Roman Fort as Moridunum

Honiton stands on the Fosse Way between its south-western terminus at Isca (Exeter) and Lindinis (Ilchester), at the junction with the Roman coastal road running south-east to Durnovaria (Dorchester). Standing as it does between two British tribal domains, the Dumnonii in Cornwall to the west and the Durotriges of Devon and Dorset to the east, it is highly probable that a Romano-British rural temple once stood here.

The Antonine Itinerary of the late second century AD contains two separate itinera which deal with the Roman routes in south-west Britain. The middle of Iter XII and the last three entries of Iter V are almost identical, apart from small differences in spelling:

Iter XII … Durnonovaria viii, Muridono xxxvi, Isca Dumnoniorum xv, … Iter XV … Durononvaria viii, Muriduno xxxvi, Isca Dumnoniorum xv.

The first entry is readily identified as Dvrnovaria (Dorchester, Dorset), and the last entry is easily recognised as Isca Dvmnoniorvm (Exeter, Devon). The remaining entry spelled alternately Muridono and Muriduno, is located thirty-five miles from Dorchester and fifteen miles from Exeter, very close to the place where the southern coastal road branches off the Fosse Way, near Honiton.

The name also occurs in the Ravenna Cosmology of the seventh century, this time under the guise of another variant spelling Moriduno:

Once again, beside the Dumnonian towns listed above are (other) towns which are named: [23] Moriduno [24] Alauna silua¹ …

  1. The ‘Forest of Alauna’ remains unidentified.

What does Moridunum mean?

Moridunum – ‘The Blackberry-Covered Hillfort’ Alternately – ‘The Hillfort of the Dead’

The name Moridunum is usually assumed to contain elements of both Latin and Welsh/Gaelic. The prefix Mori- could be Latin, stemming either from morior ‘to die’ or morus ‘blackberry-bush’, while the suffix -dunum is is a common Welsh/Gaelic & Old English word for a defended enclosure or hillfort.

There are a number of hillforts nearby Honiton. The nearest is about two miles north-north-east at Dumpdon Hill (ST1704), Castle Hill, Wilmington lies about three miles to the east (SY2199), Stockton Great Castle hill-slope fort lies about four miles eastwards (ST2202), Blackbury Castle six miles to the south-south-east (SY1892), and Sidbury Castle about seven miles south-south-west (SY1291).

Hembury Castle Hillfort

Click here for information on the Roman re-use of the Hembury Castle hillfort

It is possible that Hembury Castle appeared only recently vacated by the Dumnonii, and thus was dubbed the ‘Dead (i.e. abandoned) Hill-Fort’ by its Roman occupiers.


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