Time Periods

Prehistoric Dartmoor

Dartmoor has one of the highest concentrations of prehistoric monuments anywhere in Europe (though it must be admitted they are not the tallest!). Most of these standing stones and stone rows are from the Bronze Age, but Dartmoor’s archaeology goes back many thousands of years earlier.

 The early hunters

About 12,000 years ago the great Ice Ages ended and the climate began to warm up. At this time groups of hunter-gatherers roamed across the Dartmoor area. These people were not settled in one fixed location, but travelled seasonally through a huge territory to find food and other resources. Their territory included upland wooded areas for hunting wild horses, boars and deer, and the coast for fish and shellfish. They gathered what herbs, fruits, nuts and roots they could find. The only evidence we have found that they left behind were small flint tools that archaeologists call ‘microliths’. These carefully shaped blades of flint were glued in rows to bone or wood, to make arrowheads, harpoons, knives and even saws.

The people of this time made many non-stone tools and objects, which have not survived for us to find; it is important to see these when picturing them in this landscape, their shelters, fires, the leather, material, bone, shell, paint, and wood that most of their activities included. Non-material activities using song and story, movement and social gatherings, defined their world far more than the few bits of stone or bronze we name them after. They lived in a place and time of constant construction and decay, with far less permanence in their material culture than many subsequent cultures.

Farmers and monument builders

Later peoples led a more settled lifestyle. On the fringes of Dartmoor, from 6,500 years ago, there is evidence of their hut circles, burial mounds, and stone chambers. The more visible monuments (stone circles, stone rows and standing stones) date from around 4,500 years ago. Although there are large numbers of these on Dartmoor and they are still prominent in the landscape, as yet we know very little about why they were built. Obviously communities gathered at these locations, presumably with the typical human features of all gatherings everywhere (feasting, dancing, songs and stories). It is likely these took place at significant times of the year, although we really don’t know for sure.

Dartmoor contains the oldest known field boundary system in the British Isles. Known as reaves, the low banks divided the landscape to assist with controlling the movement of animals. In some areas, small ‘fields’ are formed by the reaves. Viewed from above they make a brick like pattern, with many parallel walls stretching for miles across the moorland, subdivided by smaller cross walls. Other reaves divide the upland moor from the more sheltered lowlands, to contain the animals on a seasonal basis. The reaves we can see date from about 3,500 years ago, but many follow fence lines of earlier date. From around 3,000 years ago the extensive settlement of Dartmoor seems to have declined to a few marginal sites, as agricultural shifts to more arable styles made moorland life less attractive.