History Group Talks November 2013


                                                                              The Whitehorse Hill Cist.
                                                An illustrated talk by Jane Marchand Senior Archaeologist at DNPA.

Up on one of the highest parts of Dartmoor  between Hangingstone Hill and Quintin's Man Cairn is a very peaty area 600 metres above sea level and it was there that a chance observation of a few granite stones were noticed sticking out from an eroded peat bank on Whitehorse Hill. The site is one of the most important and interesting prehistoric finds of modern times. It was in 1999 that action was taken to explore these stones and they were found to be the remains of a burial cist.
Much more was however found when careful examination of the site began. It was found to be a 4000 year old cremation burial cist lying NE-SW. A Cist is a stone coffin-like burial site generally with stone slabs forming the four sides, with a stone slab lid, this one also had a flat stone base. It had lain there undisturbed and Jane gave our meeting an insight into the work that had been taken to fully explore the site. The cist was intact, the remains of the burial were still there and the find turned out to be one of the most fascinating archaeological sites discovered in recent years.
A core has been taken of the peat showing a depth of 8 feet. Initial examination of the contents of the layers looking at seeds, pollen etc suggested two periods of time,  2200 - 1890 B. C. 'Bronze Age', and 3650 - 3100 B. C. Neolithic. Further examination of the core showed 5 layers of Icelandic Volcanic Ash laid down between 8000 B. C. to 600 A. D. similar to the ash from Iceland’s volcano that erupted in 2010.
The procedure then began to get permission to have a detailed examination of the cist and the area around it. After lengthy negotiations with English Nature and the Duchy of Cornwall permission was granted for a full scale examination. Then a great deal of letters were written in an effort to get funding.
Finally the project began with the aid of experts in the field of excavation in this type of terrain. Suddenly it was realised that they had a major find on their hands.
The contents were amazing. At first they found skin and hair - this they thought could be the remains of a fox perhaps that had crawled into the cavity and died. As this was gradually removed much more came to light. First some beads, two wooden stakes of oak totally waterlogged hence still preserved. Eventually all the contents were removed in one large lump, wrapped in cling film and sent to Chippenham for intense laboratory examination.
Human bone, cremation ash, animal hair and pelt were all found packed together in this 'block' of material that had been removed from the cist. Then the most amazing amount of finds gradually came to light. Beads of wood, tin and amber, the teeth and bones carbon dated to1900 - 1700 B. C. found to be that of an 18 - 25 year old person. Further sticks of hazel. In all some 100 clay beads were retrieved, 92 shale beads made of a stone found in Dorset, and 7 amber beads of an East European type of amber and 36 tin beads. This appears to show that tin smelting was being practiced in the Bronze Age. 25 top archaeologists were involved with the research. In all a total of 220 beads were eventually retrieved all pointing to the fact that this was a burial of an important person. Then what had appeared as a black mass turned out to be a most delicately woven bag, which must have been either a shroud or the wrapping for the remains. Made from animal hair perhaps a stoat and fibre possibly 'purple moor grass'. Only one piece of flint was found. Ear studs made of Spindle Wood, perfectly shaped, possibly turned on a lathe-like implement and the examination continues.
It is intended that all this will be on exhibition at Plymouth Museum by September 2014. A T. V. documentary of the Whitehorse Hill Cist is scheduled for December.
 

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