Dartmoor Discovery Turns History on its Head

History is not what was once thought, it seems, because the discovery of the Some 4,000 year-old, burnt bones of a young woman, alongside charred shroud scraps and funeral pyre wood, is causing the experts to seriously re-think the history of the bronze age moor.

This body was found in a cist, which is a stone box, in fact was first spotted over ten years ago, only excavated three years ago, after when archaeologists realised they had to act because of erosion. Having decided to investigate, lifted the top slab that covered the box.

Immediately, they realised that this was an extraordinary find, on an unprecedented scale. Although both fur and the basket were in a poor state, the team could spot see beads and other objects, though the scale of the find surprised them all.

This young woman had been carefully wrapped in a fur, and buried with a basket containing her most valuable possessions, on one of the highest and most exposed spots on Dartmoor, covered by a mound of peat, to keep her safe. It was this basket that proved to be a treasury of unique objects, including the earliest evidence of metal-working in the south-west, in the shape of 34 tin studs and a tin bead.

There were also textiles –  a unique, leather fringed nettle fibre belt, and jewellery, which included Baltic amber, Whitby shale and wooden ear studs, the earliest examples ever found in Britain of wood turning. Her grave site at White Horse hill  is 600 metres above sea level, so remote that even today it is a difficult trek from the nearest road, a 45-minute walk away.

It is keeping scientists across the globe busy attempting to analyse and interpret what was found at this site, and there is still argument about one of the fur found, which, it appears, could be that of a bear type extinct in Britain for at least 1,000 years now.  

Despite the iconic Dartmoor being loaded with prehistoric monuments, very few burials have ever emerged, and this White Horse hill site is of international importance simply because so much organic material, which usually disintegrates without trace in the acid soil, has survived to the present day. Those remarkable ear studs were of spindle wood – a hard fine-grained wood that originates from Dartmoor, along with other, apparently locally made artefacts involving skills previously unsuspected to have existed in this period.


It was in the Wiltshire conservation laboratory that most restoration work was carried out – a year was needed for the basket alone – but happily, this is now complete, and most of the now preserved  jewellery and artefacts will feature in an exhibition later on in 2014, though solving the mystery of why this young lady merited a burial fit for a queen at such a young age is something we may never know.

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