What do Dartmoor’s array of stone circles mean and how were they built?
PUBLISHED: 13:15 16 October 2019
Dartmoor is home to an impressive number of stone circles and rows. HAZELL SILLVER met archaeologist Andy Crabb to find out more about these mysterious monuments
Much of our ancestors' history has been worn away over the ages, but at least some still stands. History is writ in stone across Dartmoor, where we find ceremonial, ritual and burial sites that give us clues about how people lived in times gone by.
"There could have been a lot of timber monuments here, which of course no longer exist," says Dartmoor National Park Authority archaeologist Andy Crabb. "We're only seeing the stone. We don't know what else was once here. But we can learn a lot from the stone."
Andy and I are standing high up on Dartmoor, at Merrivale - an impressive archaeological site east of Princetown that boasts stone rows, cairns, cists, a standing stone and a stone circle.
"It's clear that Merrivale was a sort of ceremonial sanctuary," Andy says. "It was an important burial ground and meeting place and seems to have had spiritual significance."
The monuments begin south of the remains of a settlement (containing over 35 stone round houses that belonged to ancient farmers) and are dominated by two stone rows.
Andy shows me the first, which is 180m long and sits north of the second longer row, which stretches 260m. It consists of two lines of granite stones running parallel. Its purpose is thought to have been funerary.
"Most rows get taller towards the upper end, where there's often a cairn," Andy points to the cairn at the top of the north row.
"A cairn is a burial place and the row may have been a key part of the burial ceremony. The funerary procession may have walked along the row, or - another theory - the stones could represent mourners walking up to the burial site."
The old word for these stone rows was Parallelitha and an impressive 60% of those found in Britain are situated on Dartmoor, 75 in total. The moor even boasts the longest row in the world (Staldon, which is almost 4km long). Some rows are single lines, whilst others are double, and one is composed of six parallel rows.
Some had thought that the rows were placed in alignment with the position of the rising sun on the solstices, but research suggests that isn't the case.
"What is clear is that Merrivale is a burial site," says Andy, "basically a very impressive graveyard and each row and the cairn at the end of it was probably for one person, somebody important.
"We think these rows were built towards the end of the Neolithic Age or the start of the Bronze Age when society was becoming more settled and stratified, with leaders at the top and the masses below. Before that graves had been communal, whereas the cairns at Merrivale seem to be for individuals."
The site is beautiful - high up, providing sweeping views of the lower valleys of the moor and the sea beyond, encased in a ring of tor peaks. "It's a great place to be buried," agrees Andy.
"It may have been chosen for that reason. We also believe this high ground represented the spiritual realms for our ancestors."
The stone circle at the southern end of Merrivale is seen to reflect that, thought to have had a ceremonial, ritual purpose. It is one of 14 known stone circles on Dartmoor.
"There were 12 not that long ago," smiles Andy. "We are finding more monuments all the time. The latest was discovered by a keen local archaeologist following a moorland fire."
The soil on Dartmoor acts like a sponge, so it is possible than a number of stone relics have been swallowed. Andy shows me the tops of a 17-stone row at Merrivale, sunk apart from their granite heads that are just peaking up through the grass.
Andy and his team hope to find the funding to use LiDAR (remote laser sensing) to ascertain what else lies beneath, swallowed in its entirety. "Geophysical surveying is another option," he says.
"Traditionally it's not great on damp, peaty type soils such as those found on Dartmoor, but the machines are improving so perhaps we can use them in the future."
But while the potential of buried relics on Dartmoor is intriguing, there is easily enough to enjoy on the surface.
The stone rows and stone circles of sites such as Merrivale are awe-inspiring, marking the presence of our ancestors and the high landscape they revered.
Go to dartmoor.gov.uk or visit the National Park Visitor Centre in Princetown to find out more about Dartmoor's stone monuments.
Help to preserve history
The National Park archaeology team must spend time protecting the moor's ancient monuments.
For example, preventing the leat (waterway) that runs through the stone rows at Merrivale eroding precious archaeology, such as pollen and other remains deep in the soil. Cattle - who like to have a good scratch on the larger stones - can also do damage.
If you'd like to help preserve Dartmoor's monuments, go to dartmoor.gov.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about volunteering opportunities.
Seven stone monuments to visit on Dartmoor
Fernworthy and Grey Wethers: A stone circle within Fernworthy Forest (SX654842) and two to the west of the forest (map ref: SX638832).
Scorhill: A stone circle in a remote, beautiful setting near Gidleigh, west of Chagford. SX654873.
Nine Maidens: A cairn circle on Belstone Common (SX612928), a short walk from Belstone.
Down Tor: A cairn, circle and row to the east of Burrator Reservoir. The cairn is 50m north west of the circle at SX587684.
Dizzlecombe: Rows, standing stones (including the tallest on Dartmoor at 4.3m) and cairns, southeast of Burrator Reservoir at SX592671.
Merrivale: A short walk from the car parks on the main road are stone rows, a stone circle, cairns and a standing stone. SX555748.
White Moor: A remote stone circle at SX633896 on the boggy north moor. Only attempt if you are an experienced walker. There are stone rows just over a mile to the northeast at Cosdon Hill (SX643916).