More on Bronze Age burial site excavated on Dartmoor

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Relics discovered at a recent Dartmoor archaeological dig have this week been described as among the most important prehistoric finds to be unearthed anywhere in Britain in the past 100 years. 

Dr Andy Jones and Dr Ralph Fyfe at the burial site on Dartmoor [Credit: This is Devon]

The excavation, which was reported exclusively in the Western Morning News in August, has revealed numerous 4,000-year-old artefacts, including cremated human bone. 

Scientists working at a special laboratory in Wiltshire have been sifting through items found in the ancient stone cist in an exercise known as a “micro-excavation” – and now say that the combination and variety of relics could give a unique glimpse into what life was like in South West England some 40 centuries ago. 

Cists are stone-built chests which were used for the burial of cremations or inhumations, and are found in some highland parts of the Westcountry and elsewhere – but rarely with their original contents remaining in any kind of state, let alone vaguely intact. 

Cremated bone discovered at the White Horse Hill excavation [Credit: This is Devon]

Jane Marchand, senior archaeologist for Dartmoor National Park Authority and project manager of the Whitehorse Hill dig, told the WMN: “This is a most unusual and fascinating glimpse into what an early Bronze Age ‘grave goods assemblage’ on Dartmoor might have looked like when it was buried, including the personal possessions of people living on the moor around 4,000 years ago. The find is unusual because of how well preserved the items are and also the many types of organic material – all of which means we get a huge amount of information.” 
Mrs Marchand said that archaeologists had found two bag-like objects – one made of leather and one created from a woven material. 

“It was immediately evident that micro-excavation in controlled conditions was essential as, once exposed, the organic remains were very vulnerable.” 

Dr Ralph Fyfe, of Plymouth University, works at the burial site on Dartmoor before it was moved to a laboratory [Credit: This is Devon]

The entire deposit, including the granite base stone, has now been sent off for further testing. Mrs Marchand said she and her team were hugely excited by the information that could eventually be revealed. 

“For example,” she said, “we can find out what animal leather they were using – we have various specialists coming down to look at the skin and fur who should be able to identify the animals. At the moment we just don’t know if they belong to wild or domesticated animals. They could be cattle, deer, wolf or even aurochs.” 

Archaeologists are also excited by the number of beads found in the burial cist: “Their presence could mean it was a high status burial that you’d normally only see in Wessex or Orkney,” said Mrs Marchand. “There were a number of amber beads which probably came from the Baltic – and that must have meant they were doing long-distance trading 4,000 years ago.” 

A close-up of the beads found under a woven object [Credit: This is Devon]

Archaeologists unearthed the relics three days into the August dig which had been staged because the entire cist, located nearly 2,000 feet above sea level, was in danger of collapsing due to peat erosion. 

The cist was excavated on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall by archaeologists from Cornwall Council’s historic environment projects team, with assistance from English Heritage and Plymouth University specialists. 

A programme of analysis will now follow, to examine the peat surrounding the cist. Studies of pollen, other plant remains and radio carbon dating will provide evidence of vegetation and climate at the time of the burial. 

The national park authority plans to rebuild the cist and reinstate it in exactly the place where it was found. 

Source: This is Devon [November 16, 2011]