Short history of Dartmoor
18000 years ago much of Britain was held in the grip of intense glaciation. Almost certainly it was too cold to be populated by human beings and the landscape would have been largely covered by ice. Dartmoor was to the south of the main ice sheets and so the moor was not glaciated but it would have been a cold place. There is no trace of human presence on Dartmoor at this time although occasional hunting probably took place by tough hunters. By 15000 yrs BP the Paleolithic climate began to warm slightly and in the South West, cave shelters such as Kent's Cavern in Torquay and Joint Mitnor at Buckfastleigh have revealed remains of interglacial animals such as hyenas, rhinoceros and humans. By 11000 BP the climate began to cool and human remains show that Dartmoor residents did eat wild horse, deer and cave bears. Flint artefacts have been found on the Moor in large quantities. These must have been brought by humans and probably denote temporary shelters and sites.
Mesolithic times started around 8500 BC - although this would have been delayed in parts of the isolated South West. There was a general climate warming with tundra and cold steppe grasslands being replaced by scrub and oak and birch woodland. On Dartmoor there are few early Mesolithic relics but later artefacts such as flints have been found near Gidleigh. There was more diversity of available food - both on land and in the sea - but human beings had to develop new ways of hunting and gathering to take advantage of this potential. Over the next 3000 years they succeeded. However, the woodland meant that there were no great herds of animals to be hunted. Hunting became more specialised as the choice of food became more limited over Dartmoor. Pollen analysis suggests that Mesolithic hunters lit fires to make small clearings in the forest. By the end of the prehistoric period the treeless moorland landscape was established. The blanket peat bog began.
By 6500 BC it is likely that the SW was separated from Europe by a sea channel 70 miles wide. However, Britain was still attached to Denmark, the Low Countries and France by a low lying stretch of marshy ground that finally surrended to the sea around 5800 BC. This area may have been an attractive food source and its disappearance would have prompted exploration around the island for other sources of food. During this time Mesolithic people were probably modestly clearing forests and encouraging wild herbivores so as to exploit them. Not quite domestication but a first step towards pastoralism. Human society was probably a hunter-gatherer one made up of 30 to 40 people (10 or so of them men). Such groups were usually self sufficient but some exchange probably took place with other groups. Accumulation of property hardly occured so status didn't pass on. There are no Dartmoor tombs or other monuments from this time.
From 5000 - 3500 BC Neolithic domestication arrived - at first animal domestication followed by deliberate cultivation and harvesting of food plants. Whether this was the result of deliberate colonisation or more piecemeal hunting and foraging followed by domestication isn't known. Dartmoor hardly resembled the moor that we know today. The lower parts would have been oak, hazel and birch woods. The highest points would have been patches of upland heath and there would have still been little peat. This would have been rather good grazing ground and probably excellent for hunting deer. The large Neolithic monuments on Dartmoor - such as Corringdon Ball and Cuckoo Ball - are probably a combination of funereal and burial but are also expressions of power and territory. Reactions to death in primitive societies focuses the attention of the society upon those cultural values that are important to it. This is why we see tombs being built by these people. There were probably many more constructed that haven't survived.
The famous stone rows were built and rebuilt from 4000 - 2000 BC. Some have been realigned. There are over 60 of them. Single rows may be boundary markers whereas double or triple rows could have some additional ceromonial function. Most rows are less than 200m long although there is one that stretches over 3km. On the whole the rows are spaced around the fringes of the moor (apart from the NW) which suggests that they may have been erected by different groups of people that shared a common framework of beliefs sufficient to make them want to create their own "ritual landscape". What is certain is that these (and later) monuments show that Dartmoor meant more to our forebears than just a patch of upland grazing land.
Some of the stone circles of Dartmoor are from around 2500 BC. Their purpose is unclear. Most are single rings although there are more complex ones at Shovel Down, Yellowmead and Glasscombe. They are associated with stone rows but no definite proof of relationship has been made. There are many menhirs - sometimes at the end of a row and sometimes on their own. These menhirs were probably markers, grave monuments or they may have had a ceremonial purpose.
The large cairns and barrows of Dartmoor were probably built around 2000 BC - a little later than the stone rows. Their dominant position as landmarks may assert grazing rights and land ownership as well as being burial or ceremonial mounds. Certainly, some of these cairns exude power, privilege and prestige about the people that originally lay within them. Eastern Whitebarrow is a good example. There are over 100 largish cairns which shows that the belief system that they enclosed was a common and probably long lived one. Maybe we get traces of this cairn culture when we read Beowulf?
Beaker arrow heads, hammers and battle axes have been found in the moor. Although there has been a lot of burial mound robbery, enough has been found in the kistvaens to show that the Beaker folk lived on Dartmoor. A variety of beakers, copper and flint knives have been found as well as an archer's wrist guard. Maybe these people found tin on Dartmoor? There is no direct evidence for this, but there were well established commercial connections from England to the Mediterranean and Mycenean cultures - and maybe part of this trade came Devon's way. Profits from this trade could have been used to extend the worship of gods and commemoration of the dead.
For Neolithic people Dartmoor would have been a scrub area with open grazing lands interspersed with isolated bogs. It would have been an attractive area to live and certainly not marginal. Dartmoor was probably increasingly occupied by grazing communities - who may have been summer visitors from the Devon lowlands. The hut circles of this period (ie. 2000 BC) suggest temporary abodes of shepherds rather than established houses. This was the time of the early Bronze Age - or Wessex Culture.
Over the following centuries there was more settlement. It was around 1700 BC that the extensive reave system was built. Reaves are stone built farm walls that enclose land that was settled and grazed by small interspersed communities of people. They are often depicted on OS maps as "Boundary work". The reaves were mostly built over a shortish period and they show that more of the available grazing land was increasingly enclosed and controlled. This could denote the application of more "scientific farming" by the indigenous people or maybe there was an incursion by invaders who were determined to control the land. Evidence suggests that these communities were highly integrated with each other, were relatively permanent throughout the year and probably lasted for around 500 years before a wetter climate began to alter their environment. The reave culture was probably intermeshed with lowland communities around the moor. Reaves were probably extensive over many parts of lowland Britain during this time but it is only on Dartmoor that they still exist in such profusion.
During the Bronze Age there were three types of settlement found around the moor.
By the late Neolithic a lot of woodland clearing was being done and by 1000 BC Dartmoor had its widest reach of grassland. From then on deterioration took place. The climate worsened, the soil became more acidic and blanket peat built up. There are one or two early Iron Age remains around Kes Tor and Foale's Arrishes near Widecombe. Iron Age people settled around the moor and they must have continued to clear the landscape around their camps such as Cranbrook Castle above the Teign gorge. There are a number of these hillforts around the moor and they are substantial defensive earthworks. The later Iron age people probably introduced the pony to the moor. By 500 BC the record of prehistoric Dartmoor ceases. This is probably due to a cool climate, but it may also be that the inhabitants left no solid traces and were living in the older abandoned houses.
From Iron Age to Saxon times Dartmoor was possibly a largely uninhabited region altough forest clearance probably continued throughout the period. Roman remains are sparse on the moor although there are traces of Roman roads around it. There are a couple of Celtic memorial stones from the Dark Ages. Some of these have Roman influenced inscriptions on them and some have early Christian symbols (eg. at Sourton). In the 7th century incoming Saxons began to push into the south west peninsula. By 670 a monastery was built at Exeter and much of north Devon was held by the Saxons. The indigenous British (or Celts) were pushed into Cornwall. By 710 most of Devon was controlled by the Saxons and settlement around Dartmoor would have been well underway. Names such as -cott and -worthy show a Saxon influence. Celtic occupants could have been displaced by the Saxons but it is more likely that most had vacated Dartmoor some time before. Place names show that there were areas that had strong Celtic influence. Names such as Wallabrook (derived from 'weala' meaning Welsh or foreigner) or the pre Saxon word Glaze. Yolland or Yellam means 'old land' which the Saxons could see had been previously cultivated. River names such as Teign, Dart (meaning Oak river), Avon, Meavy and Tavy are all pre Saxon but could have been passed on by Celtic inhabitants living near the rivers but off the moor. There are little structural remains dating from the Dark Ages although the village of Lydford may retain the original street plan of the Saxon settlement. Pollen studies suggest that the open moor was hardly used for grazing during this period.
Domesday shows that there were two important Norman sites - Okehampton and Lydford, both with castles. By the mid 12th century the first substantial farmsteads were set up in the more accessible valleys. These are often known as "ancient tenements" on the map. Some of these farmhouses still exist, albeit in altered form. Longhouses were the form - where people and animals lived together under a common roof - anaimals at one end, people at the other. Cereal crops were probably grown, as well as pig and goat farming. There is evidence of farms sharing land in the form of elongated strips called infields and outfields. Later on this sharing died out and enclosed strips of land survived.
Two deserted medieval villages exist on the moor. This was probably a result of climate deterioration and the Black Death in the mid 14th century. However, not all Dartmoor was abandoned. In the following centuries sheep were farmed on the moor. Wool played a major part of the economies set up by the monasteries such as Buckfast, Buckland and Tavistock. Devon wool was famous in late medieval times and was a source of great wealth. A disturbance to the sheep rearing was the discovery of Dartmoor tin in the 12th century. There was an invasion of prospectors and settlers and some of the effects of these "old men" on the moor can still be seen today around many streams. The tin prospectors took control of all the land that they were exploiting and these would have been challenging times to moor people. Rabbit farming was set up around this time - partly to help feed the tinners.
Dartmoor National Park Authority (1996) - "A guide to the archaeology of Dartmoor" - ISBN 0 86114 904 1
Fleming, Andrew (1988) - "The Dartmoor Reaves" B.T. Batsford (London) - ISBN 0 7134 5666 3
Thurlow, George (1993) - "Thurlow's Dartmoor Companion" Peninsula Press - ISBN 1 872640 26 5