It is said that ‘An ill wind blows no good’ but in the winter of 2006 a mighty moorland storm blasted through the Bellever Plantation skittling and snapping the conifer trees like matchsticks. So to use another saying; ‘one man’s gain is another man’s loss’ insomuch as there was undoubtedly a huge commercial loss with regards to the timber but there was in the end an enormous benefit to the archaeological record of Dartmoor. An idea of the storm’s ferocity can be seen on the photograph below and the size of trees it ripped from the ground.
As the whole area in and around the plantation was an important Bronze Age landscape there was initial concern as to the possible damage done to the archaeological remains by the fallen trees. After an inspection by a team of archaeologists it soon became clear that a lot of damage had been done to the prehistoric field boundaries and possibly to the roundhouses as well. The only way to establish what harm had actually been done was to excavate one of the hut circles and the Dartmoor National Park agreed to the funding and sought out Southwest Archaeology to undertake the initial work. The major point (or archaeological ‘gain‘) of this was that apart from a few fairly recent excavations on Dartmoor’s hut circles this project would be the latest to use modern archaeological methods. Numerous excavations had been carried out in the late 1800 and early 1900s by the Dartmoor Exploration Committee but compared to today’s standards these were lacking in consistency and accuracy. In many cases they attempted to restore many of the monuments to what they imagined was a true likeness but today these prove to be far from accurate.
Having taken the decision to investigate the hut circle the services of Southwest Archaeology were commissioned by the Dartmoor National Park Authority to carry out the excavation of of an evaluation trench in 2007. Accordingly a 1.0 x 12.0m trench was placed across the structure which was trowelled by hand. They found that despite there being damage to the archaeological deposits around the area of wind damage there was luckily only moderate damage to the actual feature. It is recorded that this excavation revealed no finds or artefacts throughout the investigation. The given dimensions of the hut circle were 9.0m from bank crest to bank crest in a west – east direction and 12.0m across the north – south axis. Although it’s hard to establish exactly how many people would have lived in such a dwelling there is a vague estimate that any hut over 7m in diameter would house at least four adults or a large family.
It was then decided to carry out more comprehensive excavations of the roundhouse and this time the services of AC Archaeology were employed. During the October of 2008 and the July/August of 2009 two more excavations were carried out and these provided much more information as to the roundhouse and its inhabitants. It was established that this particular roundhouse went through three different phases of occupation and repair along with a final addition of a mysterious cairn. This work confirmed that the storm and resultant fallen trees had caused very little damage to the structure apart from the loss of some of the wall’s upper courses and a slight ‘bow’ in the external wall. The actual compacted earthen floor surface had survived virtually as the last occupants had left it which provided a wealth of information. A circle of eleven structural postholes were found and it was supposed these would have supported the main timber superstructure. A series of smaller stakeholes were also discovered which ran around the inside perimeter of the roundhouse walls. It has been suggested that these would have been bound together with either wattle or wooden planking in order to provide an extra insulating screen thus adding greater protection against the moorland weather. Due to the number of stakehole clusters it is thought that this screen had been repaired on many occasions thus indicating its importance to the roundhouse dwellers. The archaeologists also discovered several other features such as an area of granite paved surface, an area of fire-hardened clay (suggestive of a hearth), possible cooking pits along with some decayed wood which might point to some internal partitioning. Outside of the roundhouse a section of paved courtyard was revealed along with a much smaller structure which probably served as an outbuilding for storage. A very rough plan of the roundhouse can be seen opposite, sadly it can not be more detailed without breaking copyright but the original can be found in the Current Archaeology magazine referenced below.
As far as actual artefacts go the team discovered a total of 154 pottery sherds most of which was contained in the south western part of the roundhouse, suggestive of this being where much of the domestic activity took place. It is estimated that the pottery assemblage was that from around about 16 pots that probably came from the second phase of occupation. All of the pottery was of the Trevisker Ware type which at the time was synonymous with Cornwall. This style of pot is very distinctive as it was often decorated with with patterns made by pressing cord into the clay before hardening. In addition nine worked flint fragments were found which although not being a vast amount does show that such tools were being used.
A range of environmental samples were also obtained from which radiocarbon dates could be taken in order to date the first occupation phase as well as providing further information such as characterising the natural environment at the time of the roundhouse’s occupation. The radiocarbon dates obtained from charcoal and macrofossils taken from two postholes and two stakeholes gave an occupation date from between BC 1610 – 1400 and BC 1420 – 1260. These dates also roughly tie in with the dating of the Trevisker pottery finds (BC 1,500 – 1,150) and place the occupational period around the mid to late Bronze Age.
Traces of oak charcoal were recovered along with a few grains of oats and pollen indications of hazel, chickweed, ribwort plantain, bedstraw and other grasses. From this it has been deduced that there was very little woodland cover present and an ongoing shift to open heathland. All of which would suggest as being evidence for a managed landscape in which livestock was being grazed.
The final discovery was that of a cairn which measured 2.4m x 2.0m and stood at 0.6m, this was located at the southern end of the hut and was built from mixed sized granite rocks. Deposited within the cairn was a single, water-worn sandstone whetstone which would have been used for sharpening or grinding. The fascinating thing about this cairn was that it is thought to have been constructed some 100 years after the hut had been finally abandoned. Possibly the presence of the whetstone would indicate some kind of ritual deposit to mark maybe the death of a former ancestral occupant. It would surely indicate that despite being abandoned for some reason this hut held some significance to those living in the vicinity. Following the final phase of excavation the whole site was grassed over leaving just the external walls visible as can be seen below.
2006 Storm Damage
The Bellever Roundhouse 2012
Room with a View
So what can we learn from these excavations? Firstly from the actual roundhouse itself it could be that the solid granite walls did not make for such a warm and cosy interior as there was a need for an extra insulating screen. How far this was in height is hard to predict but presumably it reached as far as the lower slope of the roof? The internal domestic arrangements appear to be well defined which could well suggest that the cooking area etc was at the south western end of the structure and the sleeping quarters to the northern end. This would also mean that by having the main doorway to the southern end that the early morning daylight would provide a light source for morning chores. There was clearly a trading connection with other communities as the Trevisker Ware pots would have travelled up from Cornwall and as flint does not naturally occur on Dartmoor this too would have been imported from further afield. These were farming folk whose ancestors has disafforested the land and were now living in an heathland environment but with access to a supply of oak wood. Oats were being grown as demonstrated by the charred grains and presumably cooked.
As mentioned above virtually all traces of the excavations have gone now but the site is well worth a visit. If you are luckily enough to pick a time to enjoy the solitude just sit on the walls and imagine what it would have been like 3,000 years ago:
It’s a cold November evening with a bitter wind blowing down from the north. The head of the family has just returned from tending his stock and is eager for some food and warmth. He stoops low through the doorway and enters into a welcoming tangerine glow cast by the fire set on the stone hearth. Gladly he closes the wattle door and skin drapes to end what has been a tiring day. In the roof space a dense cloud-like layer hangs low forming an opaque ceiling as the fire smoke slowly wafts upwards. To his left his woman is stooped over a cooking pit in which the evening meal is bubbling away, the unmistakable smell of mutton permeates around the hut. Sat beside her is the man’s daughter who is busily scraping away the fat layers from a hide with her small flint blade. The trader from Cornwall is due soon and the hides will be needed to exchange for those fancy patterned pots he carries. At the top end of the hut his elderly mother is carefully relaying the bed platform with fresh heather which reminded him that he must replace the worn wattle screen, especially as tonight’s wind is blowing from the north. Wearily the man slumps down by the fire, he two hounds scamper across and curl up at his feet, their furry warmth slowly returning the feeling to his icy toes. Finally his woman signals that the evening meal is ready and the rest of the family expectantly gather around the hearth and are each handed bowls of steaming stew. This is the favourite dish of the family, mutton stew cooked with chickweed, sorrel and dried whortleberries, not to mention the oaten bread to mop up all the juices. Silence descends over the hut as the family tucks into their dinner, the dogs stand expectantly by waiting for the bones.
When you look outside of the roundhouse the view is not dissimilar to what the roundhouse dwellers would have been greeted with, especially now as the trees have been felled.
Symonds, M. 2012. Bronze Age Bellever. Current Archaeology. Issue 266. May 2012.