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Dartmoor burial site gives up its 4,000-year-old secrets

An archaeological find on Dartmoor is exciting academics from around the world – Martin Hesp has been finding out why the 4,500-year-old remains have been given international importance.

Dartmoor burial site gives up its 4,000-year-old secrets
Excavation of the 4,000 year old burial cists on Dartmoor [Credit: PA]
When archaeologists unearthed the contents of a tomb in a remote part of Dartmoor 18 months ago they had no idea they were about to find an internationally important treasure trove.

But that is what the damp dank contents turned out to be. Now academics from all over the country and abroad are taking a big interest in what came out of the prehistoric cremation burial chamber from the lonesome heights of Whitehorse Hill.

The remarkably well-preserved items found inside are allowing historians one of the best glimpses of life in Southern England over 4,000 years ago that they’ve ever had.

The 18-month story from discovery to academic analysis is the subject of a BBC television programme being aired tonight – but the Western Morning News can reveal that the early Bronze Age organic remains and artefacts include prehistoric jewellery and finely executed tailoring.

What’s perhaps most remarkable of all is that the find included beads made of amber – a substance that doesn’t occur within 1,000 miles of Dartmoor.

“That is really important as amber is not found in this country,” commented Jane Marchand, Dartmoor National Park Authority’s senior archaeologist and Whitehorse Hill project manager. “The amber must have been imported, which would mean there were trade routes between here and other countries.

“We’ve also found some tin beads and also a wrist band of woven textile studded with beads that look like the studs you get on jeans,” she added. “They’re the first evidence of prehistoric tin being used on Dartmoor.”

Dartmoor burial site gives up its 4,000-year-old secrets
The discovery of the White Horse Hill cist has increased the number of bronze age beads found on Dartmoor from eight to more than 150, including two amber beads [Credit: BBC]
The tomb was originally unearthed in August 2011 and the contents were moved to specialist laboratories in Wiltshire where they’ve been the subject of analysis ever since.

“The results are getting better and better,” said Mrs Marchand. “It’s the survival of so many organic remains that makes it so important – it was all in peat, but wrapped up.”

In most prehistoric burial cists on Dartmoor any organic remains that may have once existed have been completely destroyed by the acidic soils – but at the Whitehorse Hill site they were protected and survived remarkably intact.

“Basically we found cremated human remains – bones and teeth, which were wrapped in animal pelt – though we are still waiting to find what animal it is,” said Mrs Marchand. “There is also a beautiful woven bag which has exquisite tiny stitches. Inside we found all sorts of things – some of which had fallen out – including a huge number of beads.

“There were also ear studs – two pairs – they’ve just been cleaned up in advance of the BBC programme and are made of wood. In fact, they’re extraordinarily beautiful – and the first of their kind to be found in this country.

“Another object is made of fine leather,” Mrs Marchand went on. “It has incredibly neat stitching and has lots of tassels like a fringe – maybe some kind of garment – goodness knows what it was. So this was someone pretty important and someone who liked their adornments.”

Another feature of the cist’s contents might not excite a layman, but paleo-archaeologists from several countries have been fascinated by some layers of volcanic ash which were found.

“We know there was some volcanic activity back then, perhaps from Mount Hekla (in Iceland) – so all the geographers and climate change people are excited,” said Mrs Marchand. “It’s the first time we’ve found evidence of this on Dartmoor and it must have been pretty unpleasant to be out there at the time.”

So important are the contents of the Whitehorse Hill tomb that experts from the universities of Copenhagen, Brussels, Edinburgh, Oxford and Plymouth are now involved with the analysis as well as scientists from the British Museum.

A major exhibition focussing on the burial site will take place at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in2014 – but if you can’t wait for that watch BBC Inside Out South West tonight on BBC One South West at 7.30pm.

Source: This is Devon [February 18, 2013]

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