Inside an Early Bronze Age burial
Scores of prehistoric cists on Dartmoor were opened by antiquarian investigators in the 19th century. On occasion, their curiosity was rewarded with a flint tool or, if they were very lucky, a pot. More often than not their endeavours were met with an empty cavity. When an eroding cist exposed on Whitehorse Hill was excavated in 2011, it was assumed that the contents would be equally unremarkable. Instead, this exceptional burial is shining new light on Early Bronze Age Dartmoor, as Andy Jones told Matthew Symonds.
Today, the Whitehorse Hill cist site could easily be mistaken for a barrow from a distance. The ground that held this burial for almost 3,000 years stands proud of the surrounding hilltop and rises to form an appreciable mound. It was not always so. In the 19th century, labourers stripped away the peat that blanketed the hill for fuel, leaving only a few isolated stacks – or ‘hags’ as they are known – standing in their wake. It was the decision to spare one such stack near the summit of the hill that preserved the highest cist burial currently known on Dartmoor. Whether the modern prominence of the hag is entirely an artefact of the peatcutters’ handiwork is impossible to say, as they may have simply exaggerated a natural hummock. As it stands, the Whitehorse Hill cist certainly forms a natural counterpart to the nearby Hangingstone barrow, with the two burials bookending the windswept ridge that connects them.
We do not know whether the 19th-century peat-cutters spotted the tell-tale jumble of stones protruding from the west face of the hag, although one antiquary did note the presence of a cist on the hill. If this was the one lodged in the peat stack, it certainly escaped the more hands-on attention that many of its brethren on lower ground attracted during that era. Instead, the Whitehorse Hill burial remained intact during the 19th-century heyday of cist exploration on Dartmoor, and passed equally unremarked through the 20th century, until the 1990s when the visible stones were recorded. Further work by (what is now) Historic England followed in 2005. By 2011, it was clear that the hag was shrinking at an alarming rate, due to a combination of the peat drying out, and the accelerated erosion experienced in such an exposed location. The first excavation of a Dartmoor cist for over half a century was mounted in response.
‘It was thought that the cist would be empty’, says Andy Jones, Principal Archaeologist with the Cornwall Archaeological Unit, which undertook the Whitehorse Hill excavations. ‘That would fit with the known examples from Dartmoor. Also, when the cist was recorded, it looked like there was just one side-stone left in place. The base-stone seemed to be sticking out into the open air beyond the peat mound, which suggested that almost all of the cist had already been lost. So the assumption was that not only would there be nothing inside it, but also there was very little left. We had gone up there really to do an environmental recording programme and build up knowledge of the Bronze Age environment. Then we found out that the supposed base-stone was a sidestone that had slipped out of position and that the contents of the cist were intact behind it!’
‘It was one of those classic late-inthe- day scenarios: on the last-but-one day on site we were taking out a spit of peat from within the cist, and out popped a shale bead, with what looked like fur and bone lying underneath it. At that point, we decided it would be best not to dig it in the field. So we cut it out and wrapped it in cling film, and it was excavated in the laboratory by Helen Williams at Wiltshire Conservation Centre in Chippenham. Even then, we didn’t realise just how rich the burial was going to be. That only became clear over the following weeks, when Helen was carrying out the micro-excavation and sampling.’
This painstaking approach to investigating the cist in both the laboratory and the field has paid dividends. Not only did it reveal grave goods that are unparalleled for a Dartmoor cist, but it also demonstrated the degree of deliberation that went into the burial. The first step seems to have been to select where the cist would be cut into the hill. At least two corners of the plot were staked out with hazel rods; any at the other end would have been long since lost to erosion. These stakes would have guided those responsible for digging out the cist cavity and lining it with stone. Although the granite they employed is the local bedrock, it had not been worked and must have been brought to the site from a natural outcrop. The builders made a canny selection, using tapering side-stones that had more purchase in the peat, and securing a whopping capstone that would have made an admirable grave marker.
Radiocarbon dates suggest that the burial occurred c.1750-1600 BC, while the contents of the cist point to the ceremony being conducted between August and September. This precision is possible thanks to the choice of material that was spread for bedding over the base-stone. ‘It is one of the nice things about the site,’ says Andy. ‘They gathered together grasses, predominantly purple moor grasses, and laid them out so that they all pointed in the same direction. We know from looking at the stems very closely under the microscope and the presence of pollen from meadowsweet flowers that they were picked in the late summer or early autumn, and they must have looked stunning. Next, a nettle and animal-skin item that we think was a band or a sash was placed over the grass, and then on top of that was the bear pelt containing the cremation. Placed beside the pelt was a basket containing a bead necklace, a woven band or bracelet, a flint flake, and two pairs of wooden studs. The final object was a pin that may have fixed the pelt closed.’
The individual laid to rest on Whitehorse Hill was still young. The cremated bones suggest an age of 15-25, and while they were not well-enough preserved to determine sex, necklaces are more common in graves of females during this period. Weighing the remains within the pelt suggested that only about half the quantity you’d expect from an adult was present, indicating that not all of the ashes were brought up the hill. ‘The person probably wasn’t cremated on the hilltop,’ says Andy. ‘We know that the pyre material contained mature oak, and you wouldn’t want to drag that up to the cist site. It could be that they only recovered some of the bones from the funeral pyre, but I think that’s quite unlikely. The classic Wessex-style burial of a large amount of cremation material in an urn is unusual west of Dorset. What you get far more frequently are partial deposits, and even when you do get bigger deposits, some of them have recently been shown to be mixed parts of people rather than a single person. So there seems to have been a lot of manipulation of bone going on in the Early Bronze Age in the South-West.’
As well as providing an eye-opening illustration of just how much is lost when organic material does not survive, the grave goods testify to the skills of local artisans and their ability to tap into long-distance trade routes. Of all the objects, it is the necklace that can tell us most about connections across both time and space. This ornament was made up of at least one tin bead, seven amber beads, 92 shale beads, and 109 clay beads. A chunky tin bead may well have been at the centre, perhaps with the amber ones set either side. Both the amber and shale beads had travelled a fair distance to reach Whitehorse Hill. Although the amber’s journey presumably started in the Baltic, it probably arrived via Wessex, which did a roaring trade in the material. Even so, travelling to Wessex or the Dorset shale beds still amounts to a good 130km or so. The Whitehorse Hill necklace may not have been the first one graced by the amber beads, as they appear conspicuously chipped and worn when compared to the new-looking shale and clay beads. Perhaps this more exotic material was a treasured heirloom.
Tin also featured on a studded cattle-hair bracelet that could be worn on the wrist or upper arm, and exudes a certain punk chic. It is far less obvious how the mysterious sash was worn. This unique object consists of a strip of textile spun from nettle yarn with natty leather tassels. The closest parallels are Bronze Age belts from Denmark, but the Whitehorse Hill fabric is noticeably thicker, making a sash or even a loincloth equally possible. Two pairs of circular wooden studs also accompanied the burial, but rather than ornamenting clothing these could have been worn directly in the body as piercings. Alison Sheridan, who studied them, has suggested that the larger set were set into the earlobes, while the smaller wooden studs may have been destined for a lip, nose or elsewhere. The general style is quite fashionable today, but this is not the only way in which these unassuming objects were ahead of their time. At present they have the distinction of being the earliest known example of artefacts manufactured using a lathe in Britain. Indeed, they pre-date the previously accepted introduction of this technique by a good few centuries.
Although the lime-bast basket that contained this jewellery was not the product of such revolutionary technology, the knowhow needed to create it is still remarkable in its own way. The production process is a laborious one. Lime trees are fairly rare in the South-West, and the bark can only be successfully stripped at the right time of year. After that, it needs to be immersed in water for weeks to make it supple enough to manipulate. One advantage of this time-consuming procedure is that receptacles made from lime-bast are waterproof. Possessing such a container is likely to have taken a little of the edge off life on the sometimes bleak Dartmoor uplands.
So why was this young person buried on Whitehorse Hill? ‘I wouldn’t have thought that there was permanent settlement in the area around the cist,’ says Andy. ‘It’s much more likely that these people were encamped or living with their animals lower down the hill for most of the year, and maybe bringing them up to high pastures in the summer. You need to imagine a much more transhumant pattern of occupation. In the Bronze Age, it’s likely that the sides of the hill were wooded, with just the top exposed. There were wetter and drier conditions throughout the period, and the cist seems to coincide with one of the drier spells. Perhaps the burial was a way for a group to establish a link with the land. Given that it happened late in the season, maybe they were marking moving off the moor for that year.’
It is possible that the person’s death did not fortuitously coincide with the turning of the seasons, and that it had occurred some time previously. The radiocarbon dating hints that the cremation could have taken place several decades before the bear pelt was skinned. If so, the cremated remains had a long wait for their burial. Ultimately, though, the manner in which they were interred would change perceptions of Early Bronze Age life on Dartmoor. ‘There has been a tendency to see burials in the South- West as poor cousins of those on the Wessex chalk,’ Andy points out. ‘What we’ve found is that picture is probably wrong, in the sense that organic materials are likely to have been as valuable and high-status as objects like metallic earrings and daggers – they just haven’t survived. So we’re looking at a very skewed picture. Linda Hurcombe, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter, coined the phrase “the missing majority” in relation to this organic archaeology. Sites like Whitehorse Hill give us an indication of the range of what was being done. It really is the tip of the iceberg.’
The excavation report was published in 2016 by Oxbow as Andy M Jones, Preserved in the Peat: an extraordinary Bronze Age burial on Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor, and its wider context, ISBN 978-1785702600, £30.