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The Whitehorse Hill Cist, Dartmoor

An ordinary or extraordinary Bronze Age burial?

The excavation of the Whitehorse Hill cist took place in the late summer of 2011. It had been assumed that the most significant aspect of the project would be the environmental recording and that the cist itself would be empty. In the final event, the cist was found to contain one of the most significant Early Bronze Age burials to have been found in southern Britain.

At over 600m above sea level, the Whitehorse Hill cist is located on one of the highest and most remote hills on Dartmoor. There are extensive views over the surrounding landscape and the overall feeling when standing on the mound is of being far removed from the everyday world. But was this perception one which would have been shared by the communities who built the cist in the Early Bronze Age?

The cist is located on the west side of a natural peat mound, which it is tempting to imagine may have appeared to Bronze Age people to be a small barrow. This, however, is uncertain as the area around the mound had been extensively cut for peat in the post-medieval period.

A mound on Dartmoor
The Whitehorse Hill peat mound from the west © Andy M Jones, Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Cornwall Council

Excavating the cist

Because of continuing erosion to the site, in 2011 Cornwall Archaeological Unit was funded by Historic England and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to undertake an excavation to record the contents of the cist and recover environmental information from the adjacent mound section. The exposed section of the peat mound was cut back and investigations began with the sampling of the mound. It had been thought that most of the information gathered by the project would be of an environmental nature (Jones 2016). This was because most Dartmoor cists have proved to be devoid of artefacts and the acidic soil conditions here mean that unburnt bone does not survive. Furthermore, a previous inspection indicated that the end stone of the cist was missing and what was left of the interior appeared to contain vegetation (Turner 2000).

The environmental recording did, as anticipated, reveal an interesting sequence. Pollen and testate amoebae analysis demonstrated that the summit of the hill was becoming drier and more grass-covered at around the time that the cist was constructed, and study of the non-pollen palynomorphs (fungal spores) associated with animal dung suggested an increase in the presence of grazing animals. The footprints of sheep and cattle were found in the later Bronze-Age field systems (Balaam et al 1982) or reaves, which are found in lower-lying parts of the moor. It is possible that transhumant pastoralist communities were moving their animals to higher pastures during the summer months during the Early Bronze Age.

Section through a peat mound at White Horse Hill
The Whitehorse Hill peat mound after the section had been cleaned © Alan Endacott

It was not, however, the only major significant outcome from the project. On completion of the sampling, the section was cut back and the very large capstone which sealed the top of the cist was exposed. Once this was lifted it became apparent that the end stone of the cist was not missing, but rather a small side stone had been displaced. This meant that, unexpectedly, the cist was mostly intact. There was, however, no indication that it held anything other than peat, and on that basis sampling in spits commenced to recover peat for further analysis and radiocarbon dating.

Almost immediately a remarkable discovery was made. A shale bead was found and a patch of ‘orange fur’ and burnt bone was exposed. Luckily the deposit was located on a base stone and it was possible to block lift it for controlled excavation at the Wiltshire Conservation Centre. After the block was lifted the side stones were removed and a final exciting discovery was made. This took the form of two hazel stakes: one had become prone but the other was vertical and marked the corner of the cist. It is therefore possible that the site had been marked as a place for burial before the cist was constructed.

Detail of a cleaned section through the Whitehorse Hill Cist
Close-up of the cist after after the west-facing section had been cleaned back. © Andy M Jones, Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Cornwall Council

Reconstructing the burial

The preservation of the contents of the cist in the peat and the controlled level of excavation meant that a great deal more information was recovered than would have been the case had we tried to excavate in the field.

It is now possible to reconstruct the series of events surrounding the formation of the burial deposit. After the site had been marked by the hazel stakes, a cut was made into the peat. A granite slab was placed on the bottom and the sides were lined with vertical set stones. The granite slab on the bottom of the cist was covered by a layer of purple moor grass, still growing on the moor today, which had probably been collected in late summer. This seasonality is also indicated by meadowsweet pollen, which may have been part of a floral tribute.

Upon the plant matting was an extraordinarily rare survival, an animal skin and textile band or sash, fringed by triangles of calfskin, upon which was a bearskin pelt. The pelt is without parallel and may have been worn as a high-status garment before being used to wrap what was clearly the remains of a cremation deposit. The cremation comprised the partial remains of a young person, who on artefactual associations was probably female.

A textile and animal-skin object after conservation treatment.
Textile and animal-skin object after conservation treatment. © Helen Williams (Wiltshire Conservation Centre), Plymouth Museum

Beside the pelt was a lime-bast basketry container, inside which were over 200 beads from a necklace. One of the beads was tin, 6 more were of amber, 92 were of Kimmeridge shale and over 100 were of clay. This number of beads makes it the largest composite necklace from south-west England and reveals long-distance contacts with communities in Wessex, from where the amber and shale beads were obtained.

Detail of Bronze Age basketry-work container.
Basketry container, detail. © Helen Williams (Wiltshire Conservation Centre), Dartmoor National Park Authority
Beads from a Bronze Age necklace
Hypothetical reconstruction of some of the beads in the composite necklace arrangement. © Gary Young

Four studs made from spindle wood were also recovered from inside the basketry object, and they provide the earliest evidence for wood turning in Britain.

Wooden studs from the Bronze Age
Photograph of the larger pair of wooden studs. Gary Young, © Dartmoor National Park Authority

Spilling out of the container was a braided wrist or armband made from cattle hairs and pierced with tin studs. The source of the tin used for the studs and the bead is uncertain, although it is likely to be from the south-west peninsula.

A Bronze Age armband.
The armband following conservation. © Helen Williams (Wiltshire Conservation Centre), Plymouth Museum

Modelled radiocarbon dates indicate that the burial took place in the period circa 1690–1620 cal BC, although some of the objects are likely to be older and the cremated bone may well have been curated prior to its deposition in the cairn. The difference in ages is indicated by the individual radiocarbon dates and the condition of the artefacts. The basketry container, for example, appeared to be new, whereas the amber beads were old and worn. The burial of the bone in the cist may have therefore occurred long after the person had died.

The motive for choosing Whitehorse Hill as a place for burial is lost. It may have been to place an individual closer to the heavens on an elevated plateau, or to demarcate an area of valued land, or perhaps it was a favourite place, where pastoralists sat while their animals grazed on the surrounding pasture. In the latter scenario, the remoteness experienced by the visitor today is perhaps unlikely to have been that of the Bronze-Age pastoralist.

About the author

Dr Andy Jones

Dr Andy Jones, PhD, CMIfA, FSA

Principal Archaeologist, Cornwall Archaeological Unit.

Andy’s PhD focused on the earlier Bronze-Age barrow complexes that are found across Cornwall and south-west Britain. His main research interests are focussed upon the Neolithic and Bronze-Age periods, particularly in relation to the uplands and coastal areas of western Britain. He directed the excavations at the Whitehorse Hill cist and oversaw the post-excavation project, the results from which were published by Oxbow books in 2016.

Further reading

Balaam, N D Smith, K and Wainwright, G 1982 ‘The Shaugh Moor project: fourth report – environment, context and conclusion’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 48, 203–79
Turner, J 2000 ‘A cist on Whitehorse Hill’. Proceedings of the Devon Archaeology Society 58, 249–50
Jones, A  M 2016 Preserved in the peat: An Extraordinary Bronze Age burial on Whitehorse Hill, Dartmoor, and its wider context. Oxford: Oxbow Books
Hurcombe, L 2014 Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: Investigating the missing majority. London: Routledge

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