Unearthing bronze-age Dartmoor
The Guardian has gone absolutely mad on archaeology articles this morning........
A dig in Devon reveals how life was lived 3,500 years ago: from cookery to DIY
The nearest proper road is a couple of miles away. The toilet is an energetic yomp down a steep slope and through the conifers. When it rains – and here on Dartmoor it really does pelt down – the only shelter is project supervisor Simon Hughes's old VW Golf. "It's started to smell like a dead dog," he says with a big grin.
Despite the tough conditions, Hughes and his team are relishing working on the Bellever roundhouse. "It's a great project for us," he says. "It's a chance to really try to find out what was going on here 3,500 years ago."
There are lots of roundhouses on Dartmoor (5,000 stone ones and more wooden ones that have rotted away without leaving any trace), but most were studied a century or more ago. They used to dig one a day then, rather than taking weeks over it as they do now.
So when two years ago a great storm felled a plantation of conifers at Bellever, disturbing the roundhouse's granite structure, archaeologists argued that they ought to have another look. It is an exciting project: only the second roundhouse to be excavated in the area in the last 20 years and a chance to learn more about the people who, at a time when the climate was much more clement than it is now, were able to live and work here.
By the time the bronze-age people arrived on Dartmoor, the slopes had been cleared of trees so that crops could be grown and animals – cattle and sheep – grazed. Blocks of land may have been controlled by groupings of people or tribes. Some of the roundhouses have porches, protection against the weather, others seem to have been divided into rooms. Roofs built from timber may have been covered in turf, heather, gorse or thatch.
In October last year, the Dartmoor National Park Authority commissioned a small excavation here by a professional firm of consultants, AC Archaeology. Just under a quarter of the house, which has a diameter of 8m, was dug but many interesting and well-preserved features, including a mysterious nearby cairn and well-preserved paved flooring made up of granite slabs, were found.
More than 30 fragments of bronze-age pottery were recovered. Another intriguing find was a piece of worked timber, which may have formed part of the original structure.
"It blew us away," says Andy Crabb, an archaeologist who works for the national park and for English Heritage. "Dartmoor is very wet, very acidic, so bone, ceramics, organic material gets eaten away, but here we found a whole sequence of occupation and abandonment." In other words, evidence that people had lived there, moved on, been replaced by others. Clearly the site warranted further exploration.
Financing such a project is key. It was decided that volunteers would be used to clear the vegetation, topsoil and peat. AC Archaeology won the contract for the next stage, funded by the national park and other bodies at a cost of £7,500.
July's nasty weather has made it a tough dig. Which is why Hughes's car is so smelly. It's his call when rain stops play and he admits that they tend to keep going until the point where the roundhouse is flooded and the site could get damaged. He jokes that the state of his and his co-workers' joints is secondary.
The team, usually three or four strong, remains cheerful. "We're like a little archaeological family," says Kerry Dean, 24. "The banter is good and we bring cakes up sometimes to share and keep us going."
Hughes produces a chunky piece of pottery from an old ice-cream tub. At first it looks like the kind of thing you might come across in the garden while you're harvesting the potatoes. But, like just about everything here, it gives an intriguing glimpse into bronze-age life.
Its thickness shows it must have been part of a large bowl, and was almost certainly used for cooking. Analysis of the fragment has revealed that it is made of gabbroic clay from the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall – 100 miles away.
"We took it and showed it to a local potter," says Crabb. "She was amazed at the quality of it. Remember they wouldn't have had wheels. They were throwing these very large and heavy pots by hand."
These sort of details have brought the site to life for local people. Around 600 traipsed up the rough track to the spot for an open day and, almost every day, hikers stop to look and wonder at what life was like here 3,500 years ago.
This summer's dig has raised many more questions about how this roundhouse was used. The pottery (there are up to 69 pieces now) has been found only in one half of the structure – the half that would have enjoyed more of the sunlight. One theory is that the people spent the day in this half and slept in the other. Frustratingly, they have found no evidence of a cooking area. It may be that a smaller roundhouse nearby was the kitchen.
As they have probed further down, gone back further in time, they have found that the roundhouse was used over a period of roughly 200 years. The post holes suggest that the living space was re-ordered – ancient DIY.
The cairn remains a mystery. It seems to have been built on top of "tumble" from the wall, indicating that it was built after the roundhouse was abandoned. In Ireland, evidence of cremation or burial has been found under such structures, but not here. Clearly it was important – but the reason remains unknown.
Soon Hughes and his team will pack up their tools and head off to another site in his smelly car. The conifers will start growing again. "They're like triffids," says Crabb. The information they have collected will be stored away and the Bellever roundhouse and its mysteries will be left alone again.
Posted by moss
28th August 2009ce
Edited 28th August 2009ce