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Widecombe History Group Talks
THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE MOORS AROUND WIDECOMBE
An illustrated talk by Andy Crabb of the Dartmoor National Park Authority
Andy began his talk by looking at the Mesolithic Age of about 7000 BC. He showed pictures of early flint tool, knives and scrappers. Many of these artefacts are brought to the surface during ploughing and other cultivating activities. He emphasised the importance of recording where these items had been found. In recent years exploration of some peat areas of Dartmoor when sample cores of peat many feet deep have been taken have revealed interesting information. The soil brought up in these cores contain valuable information in the form of pollen, seeds and occasionally flint items. Bog Oak found in some of these peaty areas has been dated to 7000 BC and evidence of that period has shown that man was beginning to determine the landscape of Dartmoor. It is thought that most of Dartmoor was covered in forest at that time and it appears that man was beginning to clear areas, this being evident by the presence of charcoal certainly by 5000 BC when the Neolithic age was being established. These people started to use more sophisticated tools made of flint and an example of a flint axe was shown. These people produced pottery but very little has been found on Dartmoor. They adopted a way of life known as 'Slash and Burn' this too, is borne out in examining the cores of soil. Where the Mesolithic people appeared to use Dartmoor during the summer returning to the coastal regions in the winter, the Neolithic people are believed to have lived all year round on Dartmoor. On examination of the hut circles (round houses) the early settlers are thought to have lived in smaller houses where the Neolithic people are believed to have built larger dwellings. The domestication of animals began at this time as the forest clearings became grass land and heath thence being useable as grazing areas. These early people left many prehistoric remains for us to see today, chamber tombs (Spinsters Rock), cairns (barrows), some up to 20 metres in diameter. Examples of barrows are to be found in the parish on Hameldown, mainly built of peat, Rippon Tor and Corndon Tor, mainly built of stone. Names of fields, often show what was originally there, like barrows and other structures. The large stones at the top of Chittleford Hill being a possibility. Many Prehistoric sites have been destroyed when their stones have been used in the process of road building.
The Bronze Age of 2000 BC throws up Barb and Tang and Leaf-shaped Arrowheads, knives and scrapers. Examples of these were shown on film. In 1872 an excavation of Two-Barrows on Hameldown produced a Hilt (Pommel) decorated with semi-precious stones and gold pins, this was deposited in Plymouth Museum but lost during the blitz of World War 2. The decomposed blade was also found and as a result a copy of what the dagger originally looked like has been created. The Reeves on Dartmoor of the Middle Bronze Age first examined by Gawne and Summers-Cox in 1960, and more recently by Jeremy Butler in his series of five books, show how much of Dartmoor was being cultivated and managed by man. The field system is immense with about 10,000 acres being covered by them on the open moors. 5000 hut circles have been recorded including 93 in the Widecombe parish. Recent excavations at Bellever of a hut circle, that came to light after several trees were blown down, has shown up much to interest the archaeologist. Paving stones inside the doorway, eleven post holes that held posts to carry the roof structure and items of interest. A reconstruction of a bronze age round house at Heatree has been carefully done and helps create the feeling of what a structure of that era looked like.
Dartmoor seems to have been abandoned in the 14thC due perhaps to the Black Death when up to one half of the population died. Did moorland people then move down to the more productive grounds at lower levels?
In 1896 Foales Arrish was excavated and some pottery of the Iron Age period was found. Rev Baring Gould was one of the group that undertook this work. It has been claimed by some archaeologists that the centre of Widecombe including the church and churchyard could be reminiscent of Romano British era and influence. In the 10C the population of Britain was 1.1 Million. By 14C it had risen to 4 million. The Great Pestilence (The Black Death) of the mid 14C, when up to half of the population died led to the abandonment of many Medieval farmsteads like Hutholes (in Jordan Manor), and the one at Houndtor. He also mentioned Dinah Clerks at Shallowford, and Blackaton Village (now difficult to trace due to agricultural activity). Minter cleared the site at Hutholes in 1966 and information boards are now there to explain the site. Mason Phillips did a great deal of recording at Blackaton in the 1960s his records are invaluable now. Boundary stones were mentioned showing parish and manorial boundaries. The importance of crosses on the moor used amongst other things as way markers. Stentiford cross near Whitegate was mentioned with R. M. engraved on it and the question of whether there are letters engraved on the re-erected Oldsbrim cross was raised. Industrial workings on Dartmoor also featured in Andy’s talk. Tin streaming and open cast mining with the associated wheel pits, stamping (knacking) Mills and blowing houses and the associated mortar stones mould stones many still visible on the moors. He also mentioned the sad fact that several have been removed over the years but now many have had a microchip attached by DNPA in an effort to make them secure and of course traceable if stolen today. The other industries of agriculture and the importance of cattle and sheep on the moors for control of grazing. The wealth of the wool industry is shown in the magnificent churches around Dartmoor and the farming of rabbits (Warrening), remnants of these activities can still be found, and Dartmoor is still revealing more of its history as ‘new’ finds come to life. The stone row recently discovered by Dr. Tom Greeves at Cut Hill being just one example.
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