Over time there have been several instances where human hair has been found buried in a Kistvaen without much explanation. Some suggestions have been that the hair belonged to the prehistoric person who was associated with the kist. The very fact such finds have been discovered has been explained as being a result of the peaty soil preserving the remains which acted as grave goods? Although not human hair there has been a recent discovery of bear hair/pelt which was found in the now famous Whitehorse Hill kist which was said to have been deposited in the Early Bronze Age (1730BC – 1600BC).
Back in her book of 1836 Eliza Bray commented how – “My tenant, Hannaford, said that his uncle had found a few silver coins, about the size of a sixpence, in some of the kairns on the moor, and promised, if possible, to obtain for me a sight of them. He further informed me that he had lately destroyed what he called a cave, which he described as composed of a large oblong stone supported, as a cover, by others set on edge at the head and foot, and on either side ; and that, among the stones and earth within, he found some human hair clotted together, but no bones or other vestige of the body. Hair, it is said, will grow as long as there is any moisture in the body; but whether it will last longer than bones is a question that seems hardly yet decided. Might it not have been the scalp of an enemy, or hair offered up to the manes of the departed, or to some deity, of which this might be the altar ?” – pp.104 -105. Later on in the book she once again mentions the kist but actually locates it as being on Whiten (Higher White) Tor – p.121. In the 1903 an excavation was carried out on the kistvaen belonging to the Soussons cairn circle by the Barrow Committee of the Devonshire Association. Here they found that; “The whole of the kist was filled with ‘meat’ earth. On removing this a layer of flat stones presented itself, and it was at first thought that the bottom of the kist was paved. These stones were 18 inches below the level of the side stones. They were removed, and the true bottom of the kist was revealed. In the north end of the kist was a cavity, and in this were two large coils of human hair.” – TDA, p.142.
A report of this excavation along with a sample of hair was sent to a Mr. F. T. Elworthy whose findings put a completely different slant on such Dartmoor finds and took a much more sinister turn. Elworthy subjected the hair to microscopic examination and confirmed that indeed the hair was human and replied with the following comments: “I think there is no doubt that the deposit was made in comparitively modern times relatively to the kistvaen by someone who knew of the latter and desired to work a spell on the former possessor of the hair. I have referred to the belief that sympathetic magic can be worked by the possession of any article (especially hair) that belonged to a person to whom it was desired to work evil (in my book The Evil Eye, p.71, also p.416). Since writing that I have much more evidence. In Italy it is a well-known rule to avoid leaving in any place any particle of hair, because if it falls under a witch’s eye a curse is sure to follow you. The intention in your deposit was that as the hair was buried and pressed down under flat stones, so the owner of the hair might be caused to pine away and die. You have lighted on a true witch’s piece of work which had no sort of connection with the prehistoric interment.” – TDA, p.142.
There can be no question that in times gone by there was a strong belief in witchcraft on Dartmoor and so such a theory is completely plausible. But what is the thinking as to why witches would use human hair in their evil curses? Perhaps it’s because of the ancient belief that human hair is associated with physical strength and virility, just take the biblical story of Samson for example. It is also thought that the virtues and properties of a person are said to be concentrated in their hair. In addition – why was the hair buried in prehistoric funereal monuments, how many other instances of this are there on Dartmoor, have some been overlooked and are there more examples yet to be discovered? The answer to the second question is easy – nobody knows. With regards to why deposit hair in kists, could it be that there was some association with a non-Christian/Pagan and witchcraft insomuch as they were regarded as being ‘evil’ places? It is interesting to note that in recent times there have been reports of alleged witchcraft/Pagan rites being carried out in the Soussons kistvaen. This has lead to the burial chamber being completely filled with earth thus making it unusable for such practices. As can be seen above, the fact that the kist has been ‘de-activated’ has not stopped people depositing votive deposits today. Yet another question, why has Soussons Kistvaen allegedly been used in modern witchcraft rites? The obvious answer must be – because it’s right beside the road and easily accessible. Or maybe this is due to the fact of its previous association with witchcraft?
OK, I admit the term ‘Witch Pit’ is sensationalist but if the idea that kistvaens were used for placing curses on some poor individuals is true then it’s one more chapter in the tome of Dartmoor’s heritage and folklore. Finally, it was/is believed that to avoid such diabolical curses one must spit on any cut hair before disposing of it thus rendering it useless to any form of witchcraft.
Bray, E. 1836. A Description of the Part of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and Tavy. London: John Murray.
Burnard, R. 1903. Twenty Second Report of the Barrow Committee. Report and Transaction of the Devonshire Association Vol. XXXV. Plymouth: W. Brendon & Son.