Widecombe History Group Talk on Prehistoric Dartmoor


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Guest speaker for this meeting was Mr Mike Perriam of Buckland and his subject was "Prehistoric Dartmoor'.

Beginning at the end if the last Ice Age 8000 -10000 years B. C. South West England was not covered by glaciers itself but had extremely cold frozen conditions. He divided the prehistoric period into three ages, stone, bronze and iron.

He showed the meeting a lovely flint axe head that he had found near Peter Tavy, and said that in the past it had difficult to date these artifacts correctly, but since c l940 great progress has been made in this field and more accurate dating can be achieved by radio carbon dating and even more progress has been made in recent years. Cave painting in southern France shows the type of animals about at that time. Excavations at caves near us at Buckfastleigh have produced bones and artifacts of those days. Oak woods similar to Wistmans Wood covered the area. The flint used for tools and implements was 'imported from Beer' in East Devon the nearest source for supply.

Mesolithic period, the middle stone age, ended about 4000 B.C. Microliths, small thin flint flakes, are amongst the earliest form of tools, the longest being only about one inch long, used as knives or stuck into wooden shafts to make arrows or spears for hunting.

Then came the Neolithic Age, and some very fine examples come to light, the very best were possibly buried with bodies for religious purposes, possibly for their use in an after life, and of course many were every day working tools. Leaf shaped arrowheads, scrapers etc were used and several examples of these are to be found in museums and private collections.

Burial mounds vary in design often according to the area in which they are found. Some are in the form of a long oval mound of earth covering a stone chamber - huge slabs of stone forming a chamber and a big cap stone on the top. The only example still standing in Devon is 'Spinsters Rock' near Drewsteignton , three stones making the chamber and the huge capping stone, nothing of the covering mound remains there now due to the passing of time.

Around 2500 B.C. sees the end of the Neolithic era and Dartmoor really comes into its own and much evidence still exists to study and appreciate. Stone circles - usually single stone circles, but at Grey Wethers, North of Two Bridges, there is a double stone circle, (side by side) their use is open for interpretation, possibly meeting places, market places, place to settle disputes? Detailed excavation is needed at some of these sites to learn more!

Tall standing stones 'Menhirs' celtic meaning - Long Stone - are of similar age, some had burials at their foot some did not so their meaning and use is also open for debate.

From about 2000B.C. it is the bronze age era, the words cairn, barrow or tumulus are used to define the burial mounds of that time, generally thought that only the hierarchy were buried in these. The burial chambers in the case of cairns are covered by huge piles of stones, in the case of barrows and tumuli they are generally covered with earth. Due to the prevalence of stone on Dartmoor mostly cairns are found in this area. In chalk or limestone country it is cumuli or barrows that are found.

Corndon Tor has some very fine burial cairns, Corndon, taking its name from the cairns - Cairn Down - down of the cairns. Hameldown has similar examples, somewhat confusingly called barrows. These could also have been used for marking territories as well as burial places, taking very important bodies and burying them in exalted places, thereby having two important uses. Kistvaen - Stone Chest - stone coffin, two end stones, two side stones and a stone lid. Some also contained pots or jugs and weapons for the incumbent to take to the next world, the acid soil on Dartmoor means that no skeletons have survived, but in other areas remains have been found in these Kists, (Kistyaens, Cists).

Stone rows are another prehistoric artefact, and when they appear in conjunction with the stone circles and menhirs it makes for a very important and significant prehistoric site. Sometimes a complex of all these features, are found together with their hut circles (dwelling places), and burial places, the possible religious importance of these sites must be considered.

Many theories on the purpose of these artefacts are put forward, the study of the sun, moon and stars, and perhaps the study of the seasons like a calendar.

Some of the stone circles also contained burial mounds, the covering has long gone due to the process of time, erosion, and some having been ransacked by early grave robbers. There are two distinct types of stone circles, some are closed circles where the stones are touching each other like Seven Lords Land, where history says seven manors of the area meet, near White Gate on the road to Bovey Tracey from Widecombe, others are open circles where the stones are spaced apart, like the one on the Postbridge road from Widecombe on the edge of Sousons plantation, visible from the road as you drive along.

Many stone rows, circles etc have been removed many years ago for walls, roads and building material but it is rewarding that so many still exist.

Archaeologists today prefer to name 'hut circles' as 'round houses' as that is what they in fact were. It is quite remarkable how much room there is in a round house say 20 feet in diameter it compares well with the old 'longhouses'. The small houses 6-10 feet in diameter had a central post to carry the roof in the larger ones a ring of posts carrying a conical roof structure would be used. Central hearths or pits and hearth stones were the means of cooking and the smoke percolating up through the thatch, too much draught would cause flames and the roof would soon be gone. Some settlements sites are small just two or three houses, sometimes much larger with up to nearly a hundred in one area. Grimspound possibly the best known of these settlements with its 24 hut circles has a most impressive entrance , perhaps they brought their livestock in by night to protect them from marauding animals and let them out daily to graze? Some of the round houses had a little porch like entrances perhaps these were the homes of the most important people.

The reaves system is attributed to the bronze age 1600 - 1400 B.C. and cover a far greater area than our modem day farm fields do, much more of Dartmoor was actually farmed at that time than is so today. It is possible that the fertility of the soil was soon used up so more fields were needed. These reaves mostly parallel travel for miles for example from the river Dart to Wind Tor where they meet at right angles with the system from Horridge Common and Rippon Tor. Dartmeet Hill has a wealth of archaeology to see, thousands of holiday makers miss it all, prehistoric field system, medieval rounded banks with ditches outside and from the early 1600's the area was a rabbit warren, vermin traps are still there to see, and more recently the coffin stone, all that in the one area. The reaves had gateways in them and some perhaps had beech trees on the top, some perhaps were topped with fencing.

There has been evidence of prehistoric iron age workings on the moors in some places including a forging pit and a granite anvil. Iron age forts are on Dartmoor, the nearest to us Hembury above Buckfastleigh, ramparts and ditches with a defensive balustrade fence on top, and in the middle the round house was in a very defensive position.

Question time:-

Anthony reminded the meeting that the late Dr John Woods collected shoe boxes full of flints from Sousons when they ploughed Sousons Commons c l947, and planted the conifer plantation, these were believed to have gone to the late Hermon French's collection which has now in turn gone to Exeter Museum - this needs confirming.

The late Thomas Nosworthy of Natsworthy (Stonemason), once found a fine example of a flint axehead at Shallowford when shovelling sand from the river, hopefully still in the possession of the family. Freda said how amazing the parallel reeve system is, an almost straight line for miles, could it have been organised by the most important men of the time and all the locals acted as a working gang rather than individuals working separately? Could 'Foales Arrishes' be connected to Newhouse? The full circle had been completed, we were back to the Hannafords and Newhouse so it is over to Peter Hirst and June Kernick!

A vote of thanks was expressed to Mike Perriam.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 17 2013 14:02:34.


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