Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks
Dartmoor has a particularly rich abundance of settlements, monuments and ritual sites dating from prehistoric times. The mild hospitable climate of the Bronze Age deteriorated after a few thousand years leaving these areas uninhabited and consequently relatively undisturbed to the present day. There are many great guides to walking on Dartmoor, many include descriptions of these sites, but it is difficult to find guides specifically for those wanting to visit these sites. The Dartmoor Walks website suggests a few walks for those interested in visiting the ancient settlements and antiquities such as stone rows and stone circles on Dartmoor. The walks featured are all based on the use of public transport, see Guide to Public Transport. Use the menu above or the walks bar on the right to navigate around the site. The sites featured are archaeological treasures and most are protected by the law, please treat these sites with respect!
A Brief History of Prehistory
The first humans came out of Africa 2 million years ago. Around 1 million years ago Britain was connected to the continent and the first humans arrived in Britain. Flint tools found recently in Norfolk show that there were humans there 900 thousand years ago. These early humans were not Homo sapiens but of the same genus Homo. These hunter-gathers came and went with the successive ice ages during the Palaeolithic period. During the ice ages the region became unpopulated. During successive inter-glacial periods humans returned. In Devon the earliest known site used by these people is at Kent's Cavern in Torquay. This dates from the Cromerian Interglacial (c 350000 - 250000 BC). 11 hand axes were found at Tavistock and in 1931 Worth found a flint implement of Palaeolithic type on Brent Moor. This would suggest Dartmoor was first exploited by humans in the Lower Palaeolithic although the evidence is weak.
The early Stone Age hunter-gather period, the Palaeolithic, encompasses around 99% of human history. It gave way after the last ice age, around 12 thousand years ago, to a gradual move towards farming - the Mesolithic or middle stone age period. The Mesolithic period produced distinctive flint tools. No early Mesolithic tools have yet been found on Dartmoor. Later Mesolithic flints have been found at Batworthy, Gidleigh Common, East Week and Ringhill in the Stannon Brook. Flint scatters have been found on Langstone Moor.
The pollen records show that after the last ice age Dartmoor initially became a heath land and then was wooded for thousands of years. Around 5000 BC there was a rapid period of deforestation. It is thought that the earliest Mesolithic farmers used slash and burn to create temporary clearings for hunting deer and for raising crops. These areas would rapidly become infertile and would be abandoned to re-grow. These early farmers are thought to have used wooden shelters and no evidence remains of their settlements. Later Neolithic farmers were more proficient in agriculture and started deliberately clearing large areas of forest for agricultural use. The charcoal deposits in the soil of this period provide evidence that Dartmoor was deforested due to fire. It cannot be proved that these fires were caused by these early farmers but it would seem most likely. The moorland landscape we see today is a direct consequence of this period. Trees only remained in the lowland river valleys and peat bogs started to form.
The Neolithic famers were more permanently settled than their Mesolithic predecessors. They started to use stone building materials for their settlements and monuments. Two settlements are thought to be early Neolithic, these are found on the hilltops of White Tor and Dewerstone. Chambered tombs (or their remains) such as those at Corringdon Ball, Cuckoo Ball and Spinsters Rock (near Drewsteignton) are from this period. Some of the stone rows and stone circles are also thought to date from this period. A recently discovered stone row on Cut Hill has been found to be embedded in peat that has been accurately carbon dated to 3500 BC, around a 1000 years before Stonehenge. Later Neolithic settlements consisting of "hut circles" can be seen all over Dartmoor except on the highest moorland. Stone monuments such as stone rows and stone circles arose near these settlements as well as cairn burial sites. It is likely that many of these sites are contemporary with Stonehenge, most are thought to have been constructed in the second millennium BC.
An Age of Ages!
Anthropologists and archaeologists use a number of terms to describe periods. The Palaeolithic (c. 350000 - 10000 BC) is essentially the "old" Stone Age and can be roughly described as a hunter-gather period of development with more than one Homo species. The first Homo Sapiens arrived on the scene around 30,000 to 50,000 years ago and soon became the sole Homo species. The Mesolithic (c. 10000 - 4500 BC) or "middle" Stone Age is predominantly a hunter-gather period but it signifies the start of the transition to farming. The Mesolithic is the period between the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic or "new" Stone Age. The Neolithic period (c. 4500 - 2300 BC) is defined as when crop cultivation and farming start to become a central feature of life and culture. The Stone Age is seen as spanning the Palaeolithic, the Mesolithic and the early Neolithic periods. The later Neolithic period sees the transition from the use of stone tools through to the age of widespread metal working, first the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age.
Dartmoor in the Bronze Age
Menhirs, Stone Rows, Stone Circles and Cairn Circles
There are around seventy six known stone rows and fourteen stone circles on Dartmoor and there are numerous menhirs or standing stones. The exact purpose of these prehistoric monuments is unknown but many have alignments to sunrise in mid-summer and mid-winter although there are many doubtful claims of alignments with various other astronomical objects such as stars (if lines are drawn through enough points such alignments will inevitably be "found"). Many of these monuments appear to be associated with nearby settlements and with burial sites. It would seem that most major prehistoric settlements on Dartmoor would have had their own monuments just as most villages in the historic period would have a local church, a centre for religious, ceremonial and social gatherings. Some of the sites on Dartmoor consist of settlements with nearby complexes of multiple monuments; Merrivale and Shovel Down complexes both have menhirs, stone rows and a stone circle and Drizzlecombe has impressive menhirs, stone rows and associated cairn circles.
The archaeologists define stone circles as being sites which do not contain burials and as such are thought to be purely ritual monuments. Sites such as the Nine Maidens site on Belstone common are considered to be cairn circles rather than stone circles. Some cairn circles are found terminating stone rows, good examples being those found at Down Tor and the 2 mile long double stone row on the Erme plain. Some of the cairn circles have multiple circles, the best examples being the four-fold cairn circles at Yellowmead and Shovel Down. Many of the monumental sites on Dartmoor were partially or totally reconstructed by the Dartmoor Preservation Committee in the early twentieth century. Fallen menhirs and ruined stone rows and circles were re-constructed with varying degrees of accuracy. The Scorhill and Grey Wethers stone circles are some of the best preserved examples.
Dartmoor Settlement and the Construction of the Reaves
Around 1700BC there was a major influx of settlers into Dartmoor. There are around 5000 'hut circles' on Dartmoor and it is estimated that the population on the moor would have been around 10,000 at its peak. There was a rapid decrease in woodland cover at this time. The stone circles and many, if not most, of the stone rows would have been constructed long before this period of settlement. These settlers were responsible for the remarkable construction of the widespread and systematic field boundaries known as reaves. Reaves cover vast expanses and were very carefully planned and constructed. In contrast to medieval boundaries, which tend to be higgledy-piggledy patchworks, reaves follow the contours, sometimes for miles, which must have involved a high degree of sophistication and technical skill in surveying and central planning.
Baring-Gould, S A Book of Dartmoor (Halsgrove, 2002)
Breton, Hugh Beautiful Dartmoor And Its Interesting Antiquities (Forest Publishing, 1990)
Burnard, Robert Dartmoor Pictorial Records (Devon Books, 1986)
Butler, Jeremy Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities five volumes (Devon Books, 1994)
Crossing, William Guide to Dartmoor (Peninsula Press, 2001)
Dartmoor National Park Authority A Guide to the Archaeology of Dartmoor (Matthews-Wright Press, 1978)
Fleming, Andrew The Dartmoor Reaves (Batsford, 1988)
Gerrard, Sandy Dartmoor (Batsford & English Heritage, 1997)
Hemery, Eric High Dartmoor (Robert Hale, 1983)
Newman, Phil The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor (English Heritage, 2011)
Pettit, Paul Prehistoric Dartmoor (David & Charles, 1974)
Rainbird, Paul A Guide to the Archaeology of South Devon (Three Barrows Books, 2010)
Rowe, Samuel A Perambulation of Dartmoor (Devon Books, 1985)
Sale, Richard Dartmoor the Official National Park Guide (Pevensey Press, 2000)
Stringer, Chris Homo Britannicus - The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain (Penguin, 2006)
Todd, Malcolm The South West to AD 1000 (Longman, 1987)
White, Paul Ancient Dartmoor - An Introduction (Bossiney Books, 2000)
Worth, R.H. Worth's Dartmoor (David & Charles, 1971)
Dartmoor Walking Guides
Earle, John Dartmoor - Walks into History (Halsgrove, 2003)
Tavy, P. Walk Dartmoor (A Bartholomew Map & Guide) (John Batholomew & Son Ltd, 1987)
Useful External Links
Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks - Updates
This site has been evolving since first put together. A number of new walks will be shortly added, notably, starting from Ivybridge train station.
Any suggestions, corrections or comments on the site are most welcome!
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All the photos are taken by the author and non-commercial use is fine so long as credited to www.dartmoorwalks.org.uk.
Contact email: dartmoor AT exeterleft.freeserve.co.uk
04/10/2010: Site title and banner changed to Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks to prevent confusion with other sites of a similar name.
30/04/2011: Added the Guide to Public Transport.
9/5/2011: OS maps added to sites and OS Map routes added to walks.
22/5/2011: Moretonhampstead (Mardon Down) and Ivybridge (Erme West: Burford, Stalldown & Erme Stone Rows) walks and sites added.
22/5/2011: Spinsters' Rocks site added.
30/05/2011: Updated Guide to Public Transport with new summer timetables just released and some more services and useful links.
18/6/2011: Spinsters' Rocks site updated with "mythical" Bradmere Pool complex added.
21/8/2011: New resources section added with listings for articles, books, stone circles.
Page last updated 22/8/11