On the 7th of February 2014 BBC South West aired the much awaited half hour film called ‘Mystery of the Moor‘. Produced by Andrew Brown of Totnes based De Facto films the programme featured on the latest revelations to come from the Whitehorse Hill Kist and its burial goods. The format was very much down the lines of the now defunct Time Team; discuss the artefacts and then attempt to reproduce them by using modern-day craftsmen and experimental archaeologists.
The programme was presented by Mike Dilger who is better known for his natural history broadcasts and appearances on the One Show. The first part of the documentary was old footage showing him and Jane Marchant visiting the site of the kist on Whitehorse Hill. Dilger commented that to reach the location it had involved an half hour drive and a half hour walk? I would love to know how they managed to get to Whitehorse Hill on foot in thirty minutes now the military road is closed? Anyway, the very fact that the kist had not been previously subjected to the attention of tomb raiders was a miracle. This along with the extraordinary preservation of the grave goods has lead to the claim that this was the first discovery of organic remains on Dartmoor.
Since their recovery the artefacts have been analysed and conserved by Wiltshire Conservation Services in Chippenham. Under the auspices of the Helen Williams the conservator it has now been established that the cremated remains belonged to a person between the ages of fifteen to twenty five years old. It has not been possible to establish the sex of the individual but it is known that they are around four thousand years old which dates them to the Early Bronze Age. From the bone fragments it is thought that the person was of ‘slight build’ and textile remnants found with the bones also indicates that clothing or a shroud was worn at the time of cremation. From the estimated stature and the grave goods assemblage the experts have suggested the person was a high status female, who the programme have sensationally named the ‘Tin Princess‘. It has also been established that the wood used to make the funeral pyre was a mixture of oak and hazel which would have been readily available at the time. The animal pelt was also briefly mentioned but the laboratory were awaiting the results of a DNA sample to establish exactly what animal it came from. The woven basket had been conserved by freeze drying and although not mentioned turned out to be made from the inner bark of a lime tree stitched together with cow hair. Sadly there was no coverage of the alloy pin, flint flake or wooden stakes which were also recovered.
Having examined the various items of grave goods in the laboratory Dilger was then set the challenge of reproducing some of the artefacts with the help of craftsmen and experimental archaeologists. The initial task was to replicate the tin beads which belonged to the necklace and armband. The first stage of the process was to smelt some tin, this task was given to Dr. Simon Timberlake BSc. MSc. PhD. who is an expert in prehistoric mining processes. Using a hole in the ground, some charcoal and bellows a small tin ingot was produced much to Dilger’s excitement. He exclaimed, rather rashly, that this was the first time tin had been smelted on Dartmoor using the prehistoric methods. Sorry, I know for a fact that a friend of mine was smelting Dartmoor tin years ago. Anyway, that’s beside the point, having made a tin ingot the next stage was to produce the tin bead and studs, this job was given to jeweller Jamie Inglis. It took him about an hour to make the large bead but a lot longer to reproduce the remaining thirty five studs for the armband.
It was stated that the discovery of the tin items is one of the first vital pieces of evidence that tin was being extracted on Dartmoor and smelted during the Bronze Age. One question; what if the jewellery was the subject of trade and they were produced say in nearby Cornwall?
Having made the studs these were then handed to Dr. Linda Hurcombe of Exeter University who was given the unenviable job of making the armband. Depending on who you believe this item was made from either woven cow hair (DNPA website) or horse hair (this programme) woven around the tin studs. Just imagine being given an extremely intricate item of jewellery that was made four thousand years ago and have to work out how those ancient craftsmen/women made it. Ten out of ten for Linda for after several attempts she devised a way of doing exactly that.
The next item to be reproduced was the two wooden ear studs and this task was given to Master Carpenter Stuart King. It had been established that the original studs had been made from spindle wood which would and is found on the lower levels of Dartmoor. Having procured the spindle wood this with the help of a basic man powered lathe and chisel-like tool the two studs were exactly reproduced. Dr. Richard Brunning also explained that the discovery of these studs is ‘the earliest evidence of wood turning yet found in the United Kingdom’. In his view this has pushed back the date of this type of craftsmanship by some five hundred years. In the July/August 2012 edition of British Archaeology Mike Pitts noted that the total number of prehistoric ear studs found in the United Kingdom and Ireland only totals forty three (including the two Dartmoor examples) which shows exactly how rare these are. The other finds have been made from jet, clay, and shale and all were mostly associated with women. It appears that this fashion was a feature of southern people in the Bronze Age.
As noted above, having gone to the trouble of replicating the beads, ear studs and necklace I would have thought it appropriate to also include a flint knapper demonstrating how the flake came into being?
The single large tin bead that belonged to the necklace was given to Dr. Alison Sheridan who had also procured the amber, clay and shale beads and reproduced the entire item. As mentioned previously none of these materials were found on Dartmoor and were probably items of trade. It is known that the shale came from Dorset, the clay from an unknown location outside Dartmoor and the amber from the Baltic, all in all there were over 200 beads in the assemblage.
Having made all the items of jewellery they were all placed on a model suitably attired and this included the wooden ear studs. I would love to know how difficult it was to find a girl with holes in her earlobes big enough to take those 50p sized studs?
Taking into consideration the half hour time restriction I thought the programme gave an excellent insight to these unique finds. It also demonstrated the outstanding skills of the prehistoric craftspeople especially when their primitive tools were taken into consideration. For me the most amazing example of this was the tin armband which in its time would have clearly marked its wearer as someone of high status. So congratulations to De Facto films on their production which held interest for the wider audience as well as Dartmoorites.
There can be no question that several questions regarding Bronze Age Dartmoor have been answered.
Further details of the Whitehorse Hill kist revelations can be found on the Dartmoor National Parks website – HERE. For anyone who missed the programme apparently it is going to be repeated on Friday the 28th of February at 8.30pm on BBC2. Alternatively it is currently available on the BBC iPlayer – HERE. The Plymouth City Museum will be holding an exhibition of the finds in the autumn of 2014, more details – HERE.