Cairn Care

PUBLISHED: 17:32 06 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:56 20 February 2013

Many cairns are found in eye catching locations on the summit of hills or tors

Many cairns are found in eye catching locations on the summit of hills or tors

Dominating the skyline, on the summits of Dartmoor's hills and tors, are prehistoric cairns – the subject of a recent award-winning repair project

Dominating the skyline, on the summits of Dartmoors hills and tors, are prehistoric cairns the subject of a recent award-winning repair project

If you are out walking on Dartmoor you may stumble across groups of people clustered around a prehistoric cairn, busy with tape-measures, levels, ranging poles and tripods. These are volunteers working on an award-winning conservation project, the purpose of which is to protect the buried archaeology of such cairns.

The Dartmoor Cairns Survey and Repair Project is a successful collaboration involving the Dartmoor Preservation Association, Dartmoor National Park Authority and English Heritage. Volunteers work under the supervision of the English Heritage and National Park archaeologist.

Many of Dartmoors prehistoric cairns are found in eye-catching locations on the summits of hills and tors. They dominate the skyline and command impressive views over the surrounding landscape and are becoming increasingly popular places to visit.

Archaeologists believe that the majority of the cairns were built more than 3,500 years ago and would have been very important and special places for the communities that built them. Many of these complex structures are designated scheduled ancient monuments. Excavation has revealed that cairns were used as burial monuments and they contain a wealth of information about how our ancestors lived. By closely studying their construction, form and position in the landscape it is possible to explore their role and purpose.

Sadly, the popularity of the cairns has led to disturbance of their fabric. Visitors cant resist rearranging the stones some construct mounds, while others form walls and circular shelters. Or sometimes more abstract creations are found. Its the cairns in the most popular walking areas or close to settlements that are the most badly affected. Building new structures leads to the formation of quarry hollows where the stone is collected and these often bite deep into the body of the cairn. This can lead to the exposure and destruction of important buried archaeological features. Only a small number of Bronze Age cairns were the focus of past antiquarian excavations, so there still remains the potential for important features to survive, and in order to protect these, repair work is essential.

The project started in December 2004 and focused initially on Western Beacon, where there is high concentration of heavily disturbed cairns. Over that first season the project group devised an efficient recording system based on what is known as plane table survey. Following this survey, the cairn is photographed and the damage logged. The cairn is carefully repaired, with the modern structures being dismantled and the associated quarry hollows infilled.

Since it started six years ago, the project has flourished and expanded to include cairns in other parts of the moor, including Rippon Tor and Corndon Down. To date, over 40 cairns have been surveyed and repaired. As well as removing the threats posed to these important monuments, the excellent surveys that have been produced often represent the first accurate records of cairns on Dartmoor.

Last year the importance of this work was recognised when it won the Council for British Archaeologys Marsh Award for volunteers a fantastic achievement for the volunteers, whose hard work and excellent survey skills are what have made the project so successful.
Andy Crabb, DNPA Archaeologist

For more information on volunteering visit:

Dartmoor's landscape is among the richest in Western Europe in terms of its archaeological remains. There are more than 1,400 prehistoric cairns and at least 75 stone rows (60% of all the stone rows in England are to be found on Dartmoor), 5,00 prehistoric stone-built round houses, 10,000 hecatares of prehistoric field systems and 250 kilometres of prehistoric field boundaries.

  • Only 12% of the cairns on dartmoor are known to have been archaeologically excavated - mostly by Victorian antiquarians.

  • So far a total of 31 scheduled cairns have been removed from the English heritage 'At Risk' register, thanks to the project.

  • Volunteers have so far contributed around 600 days to this project.

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