Silently reposing in the shadow of the great dome of Cosdon lies one of Dartmoor’s enigmatic prehistoric features which is locally known as ‘The Graveyard’ or ‘The Cemetery’. Hemery writes of this feature; ‘On the elevated plain is an impressive stone row, rare in being triple,… The monument is known on Dartmoor as ‘The Graveyard‘, (1983, p.797). Of this same monument William Crossing noted the following; ‘On the common on the east side of Cosdon is a monument known as The Cemetery, consisting of three rows of stones, starting from a double kist. Until a few years ago it was in a very ruinous condition, but a careful restoration has given it something of its old time appearance on the slopes‘, (1987, p.53). So before we even begin there is a slight difference of opinion, ‘The Cemetery’ or ‘The Graveyard’? In another of his publications Crossing informs us that the so-called restoration took place in 1897, (1990, p.213). However in 1896 Worth (p.712) stated that:
“The triple stone row on Cosdon Beacon, which was described by me for the first time in 1892 has this year been carefully examined by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, and planned by Mr. R. Hansford Worth. As far as possible, missing stones have been replaced, and there is now, therefore, hope that this very interesting monument, which was greatly in danger from the operations of the surface quarrymen may be preserved”.
As the above was written in 1896 it seems that Crossing was one year out in his date for the restoration as the work had been done the previous year. This restoration was carried out by members of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee who at that time were carrying out similar projects on other prehistoric monuments. It is argued that many of these ‘restorations‘ were not very accurate (and in some cases downright fanciful) thus making it hard to establish today exactly what the original monument looked like. However, it can also be argued that if nothing at all had been done then it is possible that the entire monument may have been ‘recycled’ by the wall builders of the day as had happened to many of Dartmoor’s other lost monuments. In his report of 1896 Worth notes the following:
“Masons are now, and have been for years at work all over this portion of the Moor, breaking up large stones for wallers, or removing such as they deem suitable for gate-posts Three of the upright stones have been removed since 1894. Unhappily a large slice of common, consisting of many acres, has been recently enclosed and walled round. The wall is incomplete, and is still being worked at, and every available stone is taken for the construction“, (p.174).
It appears that the stone row was in dire threat of being dismantled and re-used for building the enclosure walls but to confound the situation was the existence of an old inter-moor track. This ran from South Zeal to Hangingstone hill and was used amongst other by peat cutters travelling to Hangingstone Hill and tin miners going to Bow Combe and Knack Mine, (Hemery 1986, p.208)This track actually cuts through the middle portion of the stone row and traces of this along with wheel runs can be seen today. Worth explains that this was an ancient track which over time had eroded away leaving a rough, stony and at times wet surface. Therefore those driving the peat carts tended to avoid the actual trackway and use the drier and firmer ground close to the stone row. Sadly cartwheels and standing stones don’t mix and in this case it resulted in many of the uprights breaking or being knocked down. Again Worth remarks that: “Only such stones as were insignificant – did not interfere with the cart-wheels – were left; and some of these are mere stumps, of which the tops have been wilfully knocked off, for the convenience of the carts“. aerial
When you see the various threats of the time it’s amazing that any of the stone row survived at all. Luckily it was realised that something needed to be done to protect the monument and once this had been accomplished the restoration could begin. Therefore, via the then-time vicar of South Tawton, an application was made to Charles Fursdon the manorial lord of South Zeal who owned the land. Fortunately he granted the request for action and issued a ‘protection order’ saying to all and sundry that the stones “should not be further molested“. Following this order the fallen stones were re-erected which not only had the effect of restoring the monument but also making it clear exactly which stones were not to be “molested” by human hand or peat cart.
This then leads us onto today and what exactly remains of the triple row thanks to the efforts of the Dartmoor Exploration Committee. The stone rows lie on an west – east alignment with a cairn at the western end and a large slab (possibly a fallen blocking stone) at the eastern end. The cairn sits at an altitude of 436m and the slab at 424m giving a 12m east to west incline of 12m and is located just north of the headwater of the Cheriton Combe brook. If the fallen slab was a blocking stone then the length of the rows is 176.5m, if not then the length reduces to 146m. As one travels along the stones in a westerly direction their heights increase from 1.3m to 1.6m. It can also be seen that the distance between the three rows remains fairly static along their length at 1.4m. At the lower western end it is noticeable that the stones on the northern row are taller than the other two and average out at 0.4m compared with 0.34m. It can also be seen that rows have a slight northerly curve of roughly 3° as the alignment progresses eastwards, (Butler, 1991, pp. 204 – 205). This according to Worth was; “due to the fact that in certain parts the rock rises so near the surface that it was not possible for the stone-planters to affix their blocks in the straight line without boring sockets in the rock; consequently they made a sweep to avoid these spots“.
The procession of stone rows symmetrically culminate the ruined cairn with the central row orientated towards its centre. In Dartmoor terms the cairn is out of the norm because it contains two kistvaens which share a communal end slab. Of the two kists one is virtually intact and still has its cover slab whereas the other has been robbed of two of its side slabs along with the cover stone. There are five stones in-situ which belonged to a retaining circle that once encircled the cairn, presumably the rest are lying in some nearby enclosure wall. Whilst restoring the monument the Dartmoor Exploration Committee took the opportunity to excavate both kists which showed evidence of being plundered at some point in the past by the despoilers. Whoever undertook such a pointless treasure hunt did for some reason replace the cover stone of the intact kist which I suppose does show a modicum of respect.
With regards to the original construction of the monument, Worth had an interesting theory:
“It was observable that the axis of one kistvaen and that of the second were not the same, and both somewhat different from the direction of the line of stones. It is probable that the first kistvaen was covered with stones and earth before the first line of stones was planted: consequently the stone-planters had nothing to guide them, except general direction. When the second kistvaen was constructed only the footstone of the first was exposed, and the stone chest was constructed, utilizing it; then covered, and the second line of stones planted parallel to the first. That the third line was in connection with a third interment is probable, but not substantiated by any evidence, owing to the mutilation of the monument“.
So basically what he was proposing was that the monument went through three phases of construction each related to a burial of some kind. If it could be proven that there were three internments in the kists this would mean that according to Worth’s hypothesis each one commanded a stone row for some reason or another? Sabine Baring-Gould also suggests that there were three kists inside the cairn, (1982, p.149) but this may well have been heavily influenced by Worth’s comments.
Despite various theories as to the intent and purpose of stone rows we are no nearer to reaching an answer than Worth was over a hundred years ago. Are they astronomically aligned, did they mark processional avenues, were they some kind of barrier or boundary or as Worth suggested did each one correspond with a burial? Could it have been that the stone rows were a ritual processional route and the two lanes made by the stones separated specific groups, ie. male and female?
Either way the construction of Dartmoor’s stone rows was varied and diverse but all seem to adhere to a basic concept of building. Phil Newman (2010, p.41) makes a good observation by suggesting that whatever their purpose; “the individual groups or communities who built them adapted the basic concept to suit their own requirements and the unique location and the materials available. Possibly the amount of available manpower may have influenced the size of the stones and complexity of the monument...”.
Baring Gould, S. 1982, A Book of Dartmoor, London: Methuen & Co.
Butler, J. 1991, Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities – Vol. 2, Exeter: Devon Books.
Crossing, W. 1987, Stones of Dartmoor and Their Story, Brixham: Quay Publications.
Crossing, W. 1990, Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Newton Abbot; Peninsula Press.
Hemery, E. 1986, Walking Dartmoor’s Ancient Tracks, London: Robert Hale.
Hemery, E. 1983, High Dartmoor, London: Robert Hale.
Newman, P. 2011, The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor, Swindon: English Heritage.
Worth, R. N. 1896, The Stone Rows of Dartmoor, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. XXVIII