For nearly four centuries, with the might of their armies and the strength of their administration, the Romans occupied Britain.
They brought with them the graces of their civilisation and succeeded in overcoming an environment they found so sadly lacking in culture and comfort, traces of which can be found in the Roman site at Seaton, set on the gentle western slopes above the Axe estuary.
Honeyditches, which lies on the edge of modern Seaton, is one of the most important and puzzling Roman sites in Devon. This favoured spot had been occupied by successive farming communities between c.4000 BC and c.A.D 50: Neolithic. Bronze Age and Iron Age. Just before the Roman conquest of Devon there was an open farming settlement here, whose circular houses were of timber with thatched roofs. This continued in use long into the Roman period. Around AD150-250 this community was replaced by at least three ranges of long stone buildings, which included a small bath house. In at least one room was fine mosaic.
The earliest recorded discovery at Honeyditches dates to 1859, when buried stone foundations were exposed during hedge removal, but Seaton had long been considered by early topographers to have been the site of the Roman Moridunum of Antonius. In Camden's Britannia, published in 1623, we read:
Seaton, formerly a fine harbour, but now so choked -with sand heap'd before the mouth of them by the ebbing and flowing of the sea, that the benefit is almost quite lost. Here at Seaton the inhabitants endeavoured to cut out a harbour and proceed under the Great Seal for that purpose but now there remains no foundation of that work (Camden is here referring to Collaton Haven, the vast enterprise that never took place). That is the Moridunum of Antonius which is situated between Isca and Durnovaria (if the book be not faulty) .... I should conjecture both from the Distance and the Signification of the Name. For Moridunum is the same in Britain that Seaton is in English, namely a town upon a hill by the sea! Camden was quoting from the Antoine Itinerary of about 200-300AD.
The antiquary William Stukely spent a considerable time in this neighbourhood during the summers of 1723 and 1724 and in his Itineracium Curiosum says: About half a mile from the harbour, upon higher ground on the western side, is a castle in a pasture but formerly tilled called Honey Ditches. Tis noted about (has a ditch) and perhaps walled for they dig up much squared stone there.
From 1862 onwards a series of excavations were carried out by the Lord of the Manor, Sir Walter Trevelyan. Work was concentrated in the field now known as O.S.8790. The well-known Peter Orlando Hutchinson, from Sidmouth, took an active part in these investigations and the results are briefly summarised in his paper published in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association Volume 2 (1868) pages 379-381. P.O.Hutchinson's full report, with a sketch of the site, is now in the possession of the Sidmouth museum.
The 19th century explorations located the site of a Roman bath house with a hypocaust, quantities of roofing tiles of lias from Dorset and fragments of tessellated pavement. The most important of all the finds was a tile of the 2nd Augustine legion, which built the Roman fortress of Exeter. This is now in Taunton museum, but some have expressed doubt about this tile, and suggested it might have come from another site.
At Trevelyan's dig a considerable amount of medieval pottery was found, also medieval tiles and heavy slates with peg holes. In Sir Walter's diary he states that all the stone flints have been removed to build the new cottages south of the old school, now Seaton Women's Institute room in Harepath Road. Sir Walter Trevelyan, ever the romantic, got Sam Good, a local builder, to place the letters Moridunum over the south side of the remains of the Napoleonic shore fort. This had been cut away in 1836 to make way for a road to the harbour. The letters were taken down in 1937 when the toilets were built. (In all, four stone shore forts have stood south of Fossway Court.)
In 1912 Major-General H.B.H. Wright, CB, CMG, built a new house on Seaton Down in a field known as Lomans Boswell, and named the property Seaton Down House. In the autumn of 1920 a plantation of fruit trees was made on the easternmost and lower part of his ground. When first planting, large stones were found which obviously had not been placed by nature. Work proceeded and on Good Friday 1921, at a depth of 2ft 6in to 3ft, a pavement made of small square stone blocks was uncovered.
Further careful work revealed that this was the outer border of a more elaborate tessellated pavement made of smaller blocks about l/2in.square, and coloured. Major General Wright called in Professor Claydon, who lived at The Pines, Beer. He was the principal of the College of the South West, now Exeter University, and dated the finds to 200 AD. Further excavations led to the uncovering of two stonebuilt rooms with fragments of Roman mosaic and traces of a hypocaust heating system. In Rome the hypocaust heating system was mostly restricted to the heating of baths, but here in the cold of a Devon winter it might have been adopted for heating rooms. A stoke-hole on an outside wall fed a furnace with charcoal, from which heat radiated in channels underneath the floors, which were supported by stone or brick pillars. In this case the pillars were of Beer stone. The floor of one of the rooms sealed a circular well, also thought to be of Roman date.
A brief account of these discoveries was published in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association Volume 34 (1922) pages 66-68.
The existence of this important archaeological site had been known for a long time, yet over thirty years was to pass before further excavations took place.
Local historians like A.J. Skinner and Ernest Burnham kept a watching brief, but nothing happened until 1960. when members of the Devon Archaeological Exploration Society and the Devonshire Association opened up two trial trenches in the upper part of O.S. 8790.
A number of later trial trenches revealed layers of heavy slate, as though a building had fallen down. There was also Iron Age pottery, the remains of a stone drain and a considerable amount of hypocaust tiling - as if it had been piled there in Trevelyan's excavation. This small investigation was organised by Eileen Gosney. Miss Gosney, daughter of a local chemist, was a noted local historian who spent her life on research into the history of her native town, Seaton. Under her capable direction the existence of Roman buildings, with finds dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, were confirmed.
In 1969, following a proposal to develop the site, a massive excavation took place. Mrs Henrietta Miles was appointed Director of the excavation by the Ministry of Works, now the Department of the Environment.
Initial work by Mrs Sheila Pollard of the Devon Archaeological Society concentrated on the Roman trackway running along the upper edge of O.S. 8790. This was followed by extensive trenching throughout the field, under the direction of Mrs Miles. She recorded a complex sequence of occupation from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD, with further activity in the medieval period. First century features included a round house in the prehistoric tradition (which underlay the Roman bath-house) and at least two farmyard enclosures. The main Roman features were the bath-house, built in the 2nd or 3rd century; the barn complex overlying an earlier hypocausted building which seems to form part of a range at right angles to the Roman building discovered in 1921; a large enclosure ditch of the 3rd century; and long narrow ranges of timber buildings of uncertain date.
Mrs Sheila Pollard found a considerable stretch of Roman road or trackway leading towards Harepath Hill, the ancient Herepath or war path, the present A3052. Mrs Pollard's excavation report is published in the Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society, Volume 30 1972, pages 222-226.
Henrietta Miles' report of Honey Ditches Roman Villa Seaton appeared in Britannia VI, published by the Society for Roman Studies. A full report is given of the Roman Bath with its pilas (pillars), now in the possession of the Exeter Museum, the hypocaust and the various rooms connected with the bath. Beer stone had been used extensively, but there had been much stone robbing at the end of the Roman period and again from the medieval period onwards. Fragmented remains of painted plaster work were found in the bath house. This makes us think it once had an owner of high standing. Mrs Miles also found the remains of a poor 12th century cottage superimposed on the bath, with pottery of that period. Immediately below the suite of the villa remains of two long timber buildings and a barn were found, dated 200 AD, also the remains of a first century house.
Summing up the excavation, Mrs Miles states: Excavation at Honey Ditches has revealed first century AD occupation in the Iron Age tradition, followed by Roman buildings. The buildings include two parallel long timber structures, a large free standing bath house and a probable barn. These buildings, together with a house explored earlier this century (Wright 1922), are interpreted as a villa complex, probably dating from the second to the fourth century AD.
A second programme of rescue excavations was mounted by the Devon Committee for Rescue Archaeology in 1978 as a response to the construction of a new housing development in the grounds of Seaton Down House. The extent of these investigations, which were directed by Mr R.J. Silverster, was limited to the areas of new access roads and a few new house sites. As a result only a partial picture of archaeological features on this land upslope from OS 8790 could be obtained. Mr Silvester's work uncovered evidence of prehistoric activity on this land dating back over 6000 years, with occupation in th Neolithic, Beaker and Iron Age periods. A late Iron Age farmstead with round houses seems to have occupied the site and this gave way to the Roman occupation which extended down into OS 8790. Of particular interest was the discovery of further stone Roman buildings to the south-west of the range uncovered by Major Wright in 1921. As part of the landscaping works undertaken during the construction of the new houses in 1978, the area of the range uncovered in 1921 was left undeveloped and protected by dumping topsoil over it to a substantial height.
Mr Silvester's excavation report is published in the Proceedings of the Devon Archaelogical Society Volume 39 (1981), pages 37-87.
In an attempt to record more details of the extent of buried remains at Honeyditches, the Ancient Monuments Laboratory of English Heritage undertook a geophysical survey in 1984. This work was concentrated in OS 8790 with an additional 30 metre square in both OS 6700 and OS 8704. The survey indicated the existence of additional ditches and structures on the site.