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  • Earliest Human Evidence: c10,000BC
  • Earliest Human Artefacts: c8,000BC


Overview

Dartmoor is a British National Park in the Westcountry and takes up 368 square miles / 954 square km of the county of Devon. Dartmoor has a strong character, made up as it is of steep, windswept hills covered in short hardy grass and topped with bizarely formed grey granite rock formations called tors, this leads to some of the most breathtaking views that can be almost painfuly beautiful. The weather of Dartmoor is unpredictable and quite dangerous. Dartmoor can go from a wonderful, clear summers day to sub zero freezing fog within a matter of seconds. The military are often called out on rescue missions to helicopter victims of the weather to hospital. It is not something that can be ignored.

There have been people on the moor since around 10,000BC when there is the first evidence of forest clearence. Dartmoor has been inhabited since (at least) 2500BC when the earliest dated chamber tomb was errected. Since then every era has left it's mark. Dartmoor is dotted with cairns, stone rows and circles, as well as the clearly visible remains of round houses and hillforts. Presently it is used for farming using the traditional method of free roaming herds (though at the time of writing the area is severely hit by foot and mouth). The British military use areas for training (they say that if you can survive the moor you can survive anything). Dartmoor is also home to the free roaming Dartmoor Ponies that run in herds (quite a sight), and bring tourists to the area to witness the pony's avid taste for mints.

As a point of interest Dartmoor was the setting for Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, based near Princetown


Dartmoors' Past - 12,000 Years in a Nutshell

Dartmoor is covered in archaeological remains which have largely survived due to the hard granite rock of which they are made.

Mesolithic (c10,000BC-4,000BC): Mesolithic people were nomadic, using tiny but perfectly formed stone tools though they mainly used wood, skins and other organic materials. At this time almost the whole moor was covered in trees, but from about 10,000BC the first clearings began to be made by humans.

Neolithic (c4,000BC-c2,500BC): People began to settle down on the moors. Farms were set up in the valleys and animals and plants were domesticated. Many more areas were cleared to make way for crops, settlement and grazing. Most of what remains from this time are burial mounds and some stone chambers where bones were laid to rest.

Bronze Age (c2,500-c600BC): Most of the remains visible on the moor come from this period. Fields, farms, round houses, burial places, stone rows, stone circles and standing stones are visible throughout the moor.

Keep an eye out, most valleys have at least some hut circles if you keep your eyes open, there are over 5000 of them. Hut circles are the stone remains of round houses and can be anything from 1.8m/6ft to 9m/30ft across. Some of the houses may not have been used all year round. Excavations suggest that the houses were only occupied for parts of the year, perhaps by shepherds taking their sheep to summer pastures.

Another feature that can often be seen are reaves, low banks or lines of stone running in parallel lines down valley slopes, dividing the land into narrow strips.

Upright stones were arranged into rows or circles there are about 70 stone rows and 18 stone circles on the moor. We don’t really know why. When archaeologists haven’t got a clue about something they try to look like they know what they are talking about and say “Probably of ritual significance”. We think that these stones were used for religious or ceremonial purposes, they are usually aligned with key features in the landscape. Single standing stones, which are often found near a stone circle are called menhirs. Again, we don’t honestly know what they were for, but assume they had some religious purpose.

Towards the end of the Bronze Age the climate became colder and wetter, the soil became acid and people began to leave their moorland houses and stone rows.

Iron Age (c600BC-5th Century AD): The Romans controlled the whole westcountry peninsula but nobody seemed to notice on the moor. It was probably too cold for those used to the weather in Italy ;-). During the period 600BC-100AD Hillforts were built on high places to defend them from attack. Many hilltops have huge earthen banks that are quite visible from a distance. There are about a dozen of these on the moor, notably at Hembury, Prestonbury, Cranbrook, Wooston and on the Teign Valley


Mining

There is a long history of Tin Mining on Dartmoor. We know that tin was being exported from the region to the Mediterranean around 1400 BC. The first written record of tin mining actually on the moor comes from 12th Century AD.

Deep mining began in the early 18th century AD. Because of the moorland weather there was a constant problem of flooding. Waterwheels were common across the moor to help pump the mines dry. Wheel houses are still visible as are wheel pits where the wheels once stood.

Though there are no active mines on the moor today there are still people alive who can remember working them.


The Dartmoor Ponies

Dartmoor is famous for it's ponies.The earliest evidence for a Dartmoor pony is a hoofprint from around 2000BC, as the print was within a settlement we guess it was a domesticated pony. The ponies on the moor are untamed – they are not ridden, trained or handled by people, yet all are ‘owned’ by people called Pony Keepers. Owners mark their ponies by branding the coat, making marks or putting tags on the ear or by cutting the tail hair in a distinctive pattern.

Each year in late September and early October a Pony Drift is held. People on horses, bikes and on foot will round up the ponies in an area. Once the ponies are together the Pony Keeper will decide which ponies to sell at market. Most male foals will be sold be sold because if there are too many males in a herd they often fight each other. Old ponies are also sold as it would be cruel to send them out onto the harsh moor in winter.

In the old days ponies would have been sold for mining, working and meat. These days these demands have changed, now ponies are sold either for breeding, to maintain herd numbers or as pets.

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