Back in the October of 2009 the sensational headline of ‘Atlantis and Mini Stonehenge Found in Devon‘ hit the archaeological world. It was referring to the discovery of some Bronze Age monuments when the Tottiford reservoir was drained for purposes best known to South West Water. At that time I took the opportunity to visit the site and posted the following web page on Legendary Dartmoor – ‘Dartmoor’s City of Atlantis‘ shortly afterwards.
Following the discovery it was deemed worthy of further exploration and so in the August of 2010 none less than The Time Team took on the task. As usual their investigations were based over a three day period when a crew and cast of around 60 people descended on Tottiford. The actual programme was screened on February 6th 2011 which also coincided with the programme’s 200th episode. I have always been a great fan of the Time Team and in fact it was the inspiration for me to study for and achieve my Masters degree in landscape archaeology. Therefore it was with great excitement that not only were they coming to Dartmoor but also that a prehistoric site was to be excavated which incidentally would be the first time for over 100 years. The team brought down all of the ‘big guns’, Mick Aston, Francis Pryor, Phil Harding, Stuart Ainsworth and Helen Geek, the only sad point being that some bod from Sheffield University came along as the prehistoric expert, surely there we have enough home grown ones such as Sandy Gerrard, Jeremy Butler or Phil Newman?
From the onset everyone was expounding about what a fantastic ceremonial landscape had been presented at Tottiford and Francis Pryor was raving about ‘ritual’ as is his want. Tony Robison suggested that ‘this could be the best prehistoric archaeology in Britain.’ There was visual evidence of burial cairns, a double stone row, a stone circle and what was thought to be a single stone row.
The Modern Landscape
As with any investigation, the first stage was to employ the services of the geophysical survey team who from the onset were predicting problems, firstly with the granite effecting the magnetometry readings (granite being an ingenious rock and therefore magnetic) and secondly with the silt and mud making the radar readings difficult to obtain. The good news was that the granite did not effect the magnetic readings too much but the bad news was that the initial results were useless which meant that the age old method of using ones eye was employed.
The first trench was put in over the single stone row and terminal cairn located at the northern end of the site and another trench was dug on the two cairns located to the south of the large mound, all with the promise of possible burials and ritual offerings. A third trench was located along the supposed double stone row which ran directly up to the enigmatic mound, the theory being that the stone rows marked out a ‘processional way‘ which led up to the focal point on the mound.
Following on from the early survey of the area where flints were found on the mound the team conducted another visual scan of its surface when low and behold a small scraper popped up. For such a small artefact it had a huge impact on the thinking of the site as the scraper was dated to the Neolithic period which meant a much earlier date than the presumed Bronze Age. It was suggested that the mound was the early attraction to the site which was used for a good few thousand years before the stone rows and circles were added.
At this stage the site was interpreted as symbolising the everyday life of the early inhabitants with the cairns being where their dead were buried, the double stone row was a processional way which a chief may approach the mound and the stone circle being a place where the changing seasons were celebrated – at least that was the theory.
As the excavation of the two cairns located to the south of the mound progressed the bubble burst, the stratigraphy clearly showed that the cairns were of a modern date as they sat above the original ground surface prior to the flooding of the reservoir. This sadly gave them a date of around the time of the reservoir’s construction, namely the 1860s – oooops. It was muted that they were probably field clearance cairns or possibly platforms for some type of machinery? I bet at this point the representatives from the Dartmoor National Park were crapping themselves at the thought of calling the Time Team in to make a programme on what was promising to be 19th century industrial landscape.
This discovery then led to doubt about the rest of the monuments when attention was focused on the double stone row. Luckily the stone row proved to be more hopeful when not only was one of the standing stones revealed but it also had one of it’s packing stone insitu which meant that it was unlikely that it was naturally occurring. This time the stratigraphy pointed to a prehistoric date as the base of the stone along with its packing stone were well below the silted ground level.
Attention was then turned towards the remnants of the stone circle which when I visited the site had a enough stones still standing to describe an oval shape, then again I said the cairns were prehistoric? Whilst this investigation was going on some more good news came from the excavation at the single stone row. Again the stratigraphy showed a modern date for the cairn but a definite prehistoric date for the stone row which now meant that at least both the single and double rows were authentically prehistoric. This did mean however that as the row and cairn were of different dates it was possible that the row was a boundary of some kind which could well have marked or sealed off the northern end of the complex.
As every feature seemed to be centred on the central mound the focus was then turned to that where four small test pits were dug at strategic points. Their purpose was to try and find more flints or dating material which would then confirm that the mound was the earliest ‘ritual’ feature on the site.
Having found the mound the big question was why was its location so important? Not being biased or anything but to get this answer the team looked to the landscape archaeologist – Stuart Ainsworth. With some help from various early Ordnance Survey maps he soon established that the surrounding landscape formed a type of natural ‘bowl’ or amphitheatre. As can be seen from the aerial 3D map below, this would have provided a superb secluded location that provided the complex with it’s own stage on which the various ritual activities could take place.
The next process was to determine what the actual environmental conditions were in those prehistoric days and the best way to do this was with soil cores taken from around the floor of the reservoir.
Meanwhile back on the mound more flint artefacts were found in the various test pits thus suggesting that at some point it had been the focus of prehistoric activity. Maybe the mound was deemed somewhere special where people would come to work the flint and make their various tools?
Next came the stone circle which soon became host to another trench because it seemed mis-placed, the double stone row led up to the mound and in theory the circle should then have been aligned at the northern end of it, but for some reason the circle was set back and out of alignment. A possible explanation for this again came from the landscape boys – maybe the circle was located on an island formed by one time stream channels now long gone. Eventually the excavation revealed one of the recumbent stones and it’s original home slot along with several packing stones which again indicated a prehistoric date. As far as the circle was concerned all that remained to be established was that the various stones do in fact belong to a ceremonial circle – call in the geophysical boys and the digger man. The various new trenches soon revealed more slot holes which once held the standing stones which completed the alignments of the circle’s circumference a factor confirmed from the geophysical results. Another pit located in the centre of the ring brought up numerous flint artefacts which included a splendid blade, a later find was fragments of pottery which had been dated by a pottery expert to the Bronze Age – that being the final confirmation of the circle’s date. The last revelation came again from the centre when a post hole was found which at one time located a wooden post along with some flints which were dated to the Mesolithic period and suggest a timber structure of some kind.
So ok, it seems everyone had great fun squelching around in the mud and after the initial disappointment of discovering that the burial cairns were mere modern industrial remains some semblance of order was put into the site. The whole crux of the matter focused on the large mound at the centre of the complex. It was confirmed that for whatever reason this was the subject of early activity dating back to Mesolithic. At this time the environment was one of a natural amphitheatre through which ran several stream channels which created two small islands. Both of these revealed a number of early flints which suggested a period of activity dating back to Mesolithic times.
The Prehistoric Landscape
On the northerly of the two islands was found a posthole which suggested to the team that at one time there was a timber structure there. Sadly not much was made of this and from the programme it appeared that only one posthole was found. In this light I am not sure how it can be ascertained that it belonged to a timber building? Could it be that if it was just a single posthole found that all that ever existed was a single post which acted as a focal point for whatever was going on? The Tottiford ceremonial complex then appeared to be used throughout the Neolithic period pretty much unchanged until the early Bronze Age.
We will never know why this location was so important to the Mesolithic people and apart from being on dry ground what made the mounds or islands so special. But whatever the attraction was it certainly continued to draw people throughout the Neolithic period. By the time the Bronze Age arrived the site was deemed important enough for a double stone row and a stone circle to be added. This certainly would indicate that their ritual practices had changed and that there was a need for stone monuments to be erected. They could also mean that the beliefs of those Bronze Age people had changed and that they were worshiping different gods etc?
But what does this mean for Dartmoor? Well there can be no doubt that a new Bronze Age stone circle and double stone row has been added to list of known prehistoric sites. The stone circle is the first of its kind to be subjected to any kind of investigation since the late 1800s and even more than that this investigation has used the latest techniques and been properly recorded. For those with a good imagination this investigation can conjure up pictures of early hunter gatherers sitting on the mound whilst fashioning their tools from flint. This is certainly one site than can prove occupation from the times of the Mesolithic hunter gatherers, through to the Neolithic age of farmers and ending in the era of the Bronze Age metal users. But alas and alack, there is still no inkling as to how and why these ceremonial complexes were so important.
I must admit that having visited the site way before this programme was screened there is some sort of magnetic draw to the largest of the mounds albeit only from the point of view that it’s the only dry land amid a sea of mud.
For anybody who missed the programme it is available on the Channel 4 Time Team website for another 29 days