From stone circles to buried treasure - everything you need to know about ancient Devon

PUBLISHED: 12:01 05 June 2020

Stone rows at the Merrivale Prehistoric settlement on Dartmoor, one of the finest examples of its kind in Europe. PICTURE: DNPA

Stone rows at the Merrivale Prehistoric settlement on Dartmoor, one of the finest examples of its kind in Europe. PICTURE: DNPA

PICTURE: DNPA

Devon boasts some of the most significant archaeological sites in the world including Roman fortresses and Bronze Age settlements

Drizzlecombe stone rows at a Bronze Age site on Dartmoor near the River Plym. PICTURE: DNPADrizzlecombe stone rows at a Bronze Age site on Dartmoor near the River Plym. PICTURE: DNPA

Dartmoor is more than just a pretty place. The wide open spaces that have remained untouched for centuries offer us many clues to the lives of early settlers. The geology that made Dartmoor difficult for farming has been the saving grace for archaeology and Dartmoor now has the largest preserved prehistoric lands in Europe.

One of the best known Bronze Age settlements at Grimspound reveals the remains of 24 houses within a massive boundary wall and at Merrivale there is evidence of ritual sites. These settlements are particularly well preserved on the open moor where the threat to them has come mainly from tin works and medieval rabbit warrens.

Archaeologists are learning a lot about the way the early settlers lived. Some of the houses were large, visible, buildings that stood for over a century. One settlement at Shaugh Moor, about ten miles from Plymouth on the fringes of Dartmoor, was discovered in the late 1970s and includes several hut circles (one with evidence of an internal partition wall) and old field boundaries.

Part of the hoard of 22,888 coins from the late Roman period found near Seaton. PICTURE: RAMMPart of the hoard of 22,888 coins from the late Roman period found near Seaton. PICTURE: RAMM

Experts have discovered that the way the field systems are organised suggests they were divided off in an organised way into territories or administrative districts which indicates a level of social sophistication and evolution. There is evidence of rituals, too, which goes much wider than religion – at Merrivale there are cairns (stones arranged as a monument) and cists (or burial chambers) and in the Upper Plym Valley there are more than 300 Bronze Age sites.

While the Bronze Age lasted from around 2,500-750 BC, archaeologists are still making discoveries today which increase our knowledge of this period. In 2011, at Whitehorse Hill in a remote area near Postbridge, an excavation of a cist revealed charred remains wrapped in fur alongside textiles, tin beads, jewellery and wooden ear studs, the earliest examples of wood turning in Britain and all well preserved in moorland peat. An exhibition in the Dartmoor Visitor Centre includes replicas of the finds.

In 2017, metal-detectorists made a breathtaking discovery in a boggy field near Dawlish which had lain undiscovered for around 30,000 years. The Bronze Age hoard included four gold bracelets, 11 fragments of bronze ingot, two fragments of axe and a section of bronze sword. The combination of finds in one place is unique for this period and a public appeal raised the £12,000 needed to restore them for display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

Carved in fine Italian marble, this head on display at RAMM in Exeter is only 7cm high and may have come from a memorial in a private house or tomb. PICTURE: RAMMCarved in fine Italian marble, this head on display at RAMM in Exeter is only 7cm high and may have come from a memorial in a private house or tomb. PICTURE: RAMM

If you like history why not check out this fascinating tour of bygone brothels in Barnstaple?

As well as Bronze Age sites, Devon is rich in evidence of the Romans in Britain. There was a first century AD legionary fortress and subsequent walled town in Exeter, known to the Romans as Isca Dumnoniorum. There’s also a fort at Okehampton, a Romano-British farmstead at Fremington near Barnstaple, a Roman iron working on Exmoor and mining on the Blackdown Hills and growing evidence that there might have been tin extraction on Dartmoor during this period.

One of the most impressive finds was again by metal-detectorists says Tom Cadbury, the Assistant Curator at RAMM. “There was a massive coin hoard found near Seaton – 22,888 coins to be precise – from the late Roman period which are all on display. The Romans were burying lots of coins at this time when the Roman period in Britain almost came to a full stop,” says Tom.

“The great thing about archaeology is that it does tell you about ordinary life and is not something you will learn from history books. What you find tells you what people’s lives were like.

“We are lucky in Exeter. You can see in the present city walls the remnants of the Roman city walls and a lot of streets are based on Roman streets. The cathedral was built on top of the centre of Roman Exeter and the site includes a Roman bath house. Archaeologists are still finding evidence from Roman times and the museum’s job is to preserve these precious items so they can be enjoyed by members of the public, on display or online.”

A greater understanding of the Romans’ time in Devon came in the 1970s when road developments such as the M5 and A30 resulted in rescue digs. Aerial photography during droughts in 1976 and 1984 furthered our knowledge eof the period and more recent developer-funded digs – such as one in late 2019 at Exeter Bus Station where there was a Roman fort – have turned up a number of treasures.

Devon County Council’s Historic Environment Team works with other bodies to promote the protection, appropriate enhancement and enjoyment of archaeological sites and monuments, historic buildings and historic landscapes and townscapes. It also promotes sustainable access to them.

Technological development is playing its part in new projects. Airborne LiDAR technology (which uses lasers) is being deployed to trace the Roman road network west of Exeter and on into Cornwall and surveys are being undertaken at a major Roman complex at North Tawton.

Devon County Council and Historic England have recently undertaken a geophysical survey of the Roman villa found at Crediton.

We’ve only scratched the surface here, if you’ll pardon the archaeological pun.

For more, visit RAMM , English Heritage and Devon County Council’s fascinating website.

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