Widecombe History Group Talk on Local Artefacts

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A Look at Local Collections of Artefacts found in the Parish

led by John Allan Ex-curator at Exeter Museum.

Prior to the meeting anyone that had any "Old Artefacts that had been found or used in the Parish" were encouraged to bring them to The Church House from 6.30 p.m. onwards, for Mr John Allan, previously Curator to Exeter Museum to examine, identify, and explain their use. At the full meeting, he then explained what he had seen, and how we should store, record, and identify if possible, the precise location of each find.

He was surprised and delighted at the quality, quantity and variety of the finds that were exhibited, and this resulted in a most informative, yet light-heartedly delivered talk. What was so enjoyable from the group’s point of view, was the enthusiasm John Allen showed as he delved into each collection, it was most infectious, as he held up items that so interested him, his joy at what he was seeing, rubbed off on all those that attended the event making it such an informative and interesting evening.

He stated that he considered the collections are a real contribution to the archaeology of the area. He expressed the opinion that these collections were in fact substantial, important, interesting, and provided valuable information about the locality in Prehistoric Times, particularly with the ‘provenance’ of the place where they were found. He also suggested that some of this should be shown on our local website.

It was also nice for people to have an opportunity to handle some of these artefacts, rather than just peer through glass cases at them. It was felt that as less ground is being ploughed on Dartmoor, due to the restrictions of the E.S.Area regulations, the number of these finds will decrease.

Pre-history can be divided into two parts, (a) pre 1500 B.C. when stone-made articles were used and so several have survived and, (b) after 1500 B.C. when metal and organic material was used, due to the acidity of the soil on Dartmoor, much of the metal has eroded away and the organic material has rotted, the finds of the period 1500B.C.-1500A.D. are therefore much less.

The items brought to the meeting varied from a Mesolithic ‘obliquely blunted’ flint microlith arrowhead of 8000 BC and a sample of bog-oak, carbon dated to about the same time, Neolithic arrowheads, knives and scrappers, several Bronze Age ‘barb and tanged’ arrowheads, a variety of different shapes and sizes including some leaf-shaped, and some earlier wedge or chisel shaped arrowheads, also knives and scrappers of that era. The variety of sizes and types of arrowheads, relates to the various methods of catching the prey. The heavy chisel type arrowheads were used to slow down the prey, the sharper ones for the actual kill.

Some scrapers that had polished surfaces were especially mentioned, they were recycled broken axes that had been made into scrappers, they did not waste valuable material.

Of a more recent era there were breadweighing scales, where the lump of dough was held in grips and weights placed the other side to balance, glass bottles and china ‘shards’ of the 19th/20th centuries, including parts of a shaving paste pot, whetstones that had been ‘imported from Cornwall’ for sharpening knives in Medieval Times, clay pipes that dated from the 1500 A.D. made possibly at Chudleigh, Exeter or Plymouth, and a tin miners token of 1811 made mostly of copper, this one depicts a wheel and tin ore stamps on one side, and the three feathers of The Prince of Wales on the other. These tokens are significant of the times of the industrial revolution, in other parts of the country similar tokens can be found depicting furnaces, hop-picking and other industries and activities. There were also parts of clay pots dating from 13th - 18th centuries. A couple of collections of bottles and glass showed how that too had evolved over the years, from hand-blown with the necks cut off roughly, to the factory moulded styles, also a waste lump of glass that had been discarded, some of this reminded us of our visit to Meldon where glass of a similar green colour was once manufactured. The china showed the different types of clay or earthenware that was available at different periods and from difference sources. The types of sand used in the manufacture of these items could be seen by the discerning eye, shiny crystals in some clay showing that the sand used, had been washed down the rivers from the high moors, while the duller mud type clays came from other areas, the shiny pots were made at Totnes, some of the other had been produced at Exeter and Bideford. A shard which was a leg from a three-legged cooking utensil, found near the site of a local 17th century tin mine, along with clay pipes, all adding to the understanding of the lives of those that lived and worked in and around Widecombe. Thatching artefacts, needles and hooks, nails, horseshoes, ironwork, all possibly made by local blacksmiths, part of the swivel system for a hand ‘threshel’, (used for the threshing of corn), made from horn, was at least 100 years old. Hand made pottery bucket handles dating from the 17th century up to more recent times, reference was then made to the virtually complete pot found at Dinna Clerks, now in the museum at Exeter. This led to the mention of cooking by ‘camp-kettle’, the inverted crock placed over the meal and covered by hot ash until it was cooked. A larger handle that could have come from a ‘saltern’, a large earthenware container that was used to salt in a pig, this would often have a wooden lid. Also shown were a couple of bottle openers that were used for the old ‘marble’ lemonade bottles.

John Allen said that very often when asked to view collections of ‘finds’, it is difficult to discover very many items of interest, this can be disappointing, to him, and to those that have treasured the things on show for years, hoping that they were of great historical importance and interest. In those cases he has to be careful not to upset the collectors but at the end of the day he can only speak on what he has been shown.

Here at Widecombe he was quite astonished at the vast amount of seriously interesting and important items that were on display, he wants the location of each find recorded as accurately as possible.

This can take the form of grid references, field names if appropriate, or other location. This adds to the archaeological importance of the find as it can be used to help plot the activity and proximity to other finds and help build up the true historical picture of the area. The ‘providence’ of a find is vital for accurate archaeology.

The flint was traded into this area from Dorset, the Beer and Membury district in particular, a small amount came from the Haldon area and some may even come from as far away as Bideford, there are also gravel beds at Newton Abbot. The source of the different stones can be identified, as each has different characteristics. Lumps of flint from which the flint tools were made must have been traded, and this meant that there was movement of these ancient peoples around the countryside. Some white flint may well have come from as far as Wessex or Essex.

Some of the early flint tools date as far back as the end of the Ice Age when hunter gatherers started to roam over the wastes of Britain. We heard last month of how with the demise of the Ice Age, Britain became an island. These nomadic peoples would in the summertime range over the uplands, which were comparatively bare of vegetation, then return to the more hospitable areas near the sea for the winter periods, when the animals moved down from the hills for food and shelter, they followed them for they were their sources of food. Their food would have been harvested according to the seasons, berries and fruit in the summer, augmented by fish that came up the rivers at certain times in the year, the game birds and deer that gave them meat, they must have been able to know and plot the seasons accordingly. When the animals moved to the lower ground for the winter, they would have been followed by these peoples, their regular supply of food, clothes and shelter being their main concerns. There must have been times of plenty and times of great scarcity, however they would have had their own methods of conserving food, either by drying or smoking, these people were industrious, and self preservation was their main concern there is no doubt.

To get some idea of a time schedule, John Allan explained that the Ice Age ended about 10,000 B.C., that was 12000 years ago. As the ice receded the early hunter gatherers started to venture into the hills c8000-9000 years B.C. They would be a nomadic race of people, not farmers, and they would have collected food and used whatever tools they could make with the natural stones available. They were what we call Mesolithic or early Stone Age, this lasted to about 4000 B.C. We then find the Neolithic Races of about 3500 B.C., they were the first of the early farmers, they cleared areas and started to grow crops, Dartmoor’s lighter soils would have been the easiest to cultivate with the tools at their disposal. By 2000 B.C. the Bronze Age became established, the vast amount of their houses (round houses/hut circles), stone rows, cists, tumuli, standing stones etc, the remains of those tribes are what we still find so fascinating and interesting today, visited and admired by visitors and locals alike. These ancestors of ours were the people who started to fashion Dartmoor into much as it is today. The Iron Age of c1000 B.C. and the continual inhabitation of Dartmoor, through the industrial era up to the present day still leaving archaeology to admire and research, be it the remains of mining, quarrying or agriculture, all adding to the complexity and interest of Dartmoor.

Trading has always been part of this island’s life and some of the stones for example that have been found and fashioned into implements and tools has come from far away. To the West, Cornwall, where greenstone for the making of Neolithic Axes came from, to the extreme East, to Wessex, Essex and so on, to the North, into Wales, not forgetting trading that appears to have been in existence between the Southwest and the mainland of Europe, and the Mediterranean area where tin was traded. The history of the Southwest is vast and is still being unravelled.

Some natural stones like pebbles can be found on Dartmoor, these could have been used for sling shot, or some gravel type pieces could well have been brought up to the hills in Medieval times for building or ballast. He was sure that the details of our finds should be recorded on paper and a copy given to the County Archivist.

An unusual stone believed to be a ‘line weight’ with engravings representing fish and fishing could well be ceremonial rather than practical - see similar items in Ennis Museum, County Clare, Eire.

The secretary will contact John Allan to find out the best way of marking these articles and recording the details of the places where they were found.

A sincere vote of thanks was recorded to Mr Allan.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:14.

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