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Whitehorse Hill burial

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Excavation of Whitehorse Hill cist.Significance

The excavation of a prehistoric cremation burial discovered within a cist at Whitehorse Hill on northern Dartmoor has revealed nationally important remains which have captured the interest of experts from all over the country. This was the first excavation of a burial site on Dartmoor for 100 years.

This is now considered to be the most important assemblage of prehistoric grave goods ever recovered from Dartmoor and indeed from the whole of the South West of England. The survival of the organic remains is also seen to be of international importance.

This individual, whose cremated remains were placed in a cist on this remote spot on Northern Dartmoor, over four thousand years ago, was apparently of some importance to the local community. Who was it, what was their gender, what type of animal hide was used to wrap the cremated remains? The answers to these and many other questions are part of this unfolding and fascinating story which hopefully will tell us much more about the lives of prehistoric people on Dartmoor and the landscape they lived in. 

Landscape of Whitehorse Hill cist.Discovery

The cist was discovered 10 years ago when its end stone fell out of the peat hag which had been concealing it. A temporary wall was erected in front of this area in an attempt to protect any archaeology which it was likely still to contain. The cist is particularly unusual because of its situation within peat and its apparent isolation from other known prehistoric archaeological sites. The location of the burial at 600 metres above sea level on the northern moor begins to fill in the blanks on the map, as currently very little evidence exists of prehistoric activity in this area.

White horse Hill cist sampling


Over the following 10 years the peat surrounding and overlying the cist had eroded away because of its exposed situation. The decision was taken to excavate it in order to recover any surviving archaeological and palaeo environmental information which it might contain.

Approved by the Duchy of Cornwall as landowner, the excavation was carried out in August 2011. Co-ordinated by Dartmoor National Park Authority, the excavation was carried out by archaeologists from the Historic Environment Projects Team, Cornwall Council with assistance from English Heritage and Plymouth University specialists. The project was jointly funded by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and English Heritage, with contributions from the Dartmoor Preservation Association, the Dartmoor Trust and a number of other local funders. The excavation has revealed an internationally important collection of Early Bronze Age organic remains and artefacts. The discovery could prove to be one of the most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years. 

Analysis - a scientific and partnership approach

Cremated remains and peltThe basal stone and cist contents were taken to the Wiltshire Conservation Service laboratory in Chippenham where painstaking micro excavation of the contents took place. This was followed by analysis of the various remains and radio carbon dating to establish the age of the cremation burial. National and international specialists are presently involved in the study of individual items discovered during the micro excavation including the pelt, textiles, cremated human bone and a variety of beads and studs. Dating and studies of pollen, plant and other organic remains preserved in the peat are also taking place which should establish what the local and wider landscape was like when the cist was built.

Restoration, preservation and presentation

Scanning at Salisbury hospitalAfter the excavation, the side and cover stones were left at the site and in December 2011, with the help of a MOD all terrain vehicle, the base stone was returned to Whitehorse Hill for the process of reconstruction to begin. The Authority's Conservation Works Team, under the supervision of DNPA archaeologists, rebuilt the cist in its original location.

Once all analysis has been completed on the artefacts, the process of cleaning and conservation can begin. This process will determine the suitability of items for display along with identifying the necessary environmental controls.

Final analysis and Conservation results

Beads, copyright Gary YoungThe analysis work on the organic and the other artefacts from the Whitehorse Hill cist burial is nearly completed.  These results are highlighting what an astonishing and exciting discovery this is, far exceeding original expectations.

The work which has been funded by English Heritage, the Dartmoor National Park Authority, Devon County Council and a number of other organisations and private individuals has been carried out by specialists from English Heritage, British and European Universities and the British Museum.

The painstaking conservation work, which was undertaken by the Wilshire Conservation Service, Chippenham has also finished and the artefacts will soon be transferred to the Plymouth City Museum and  Art Gallery. A summary of the results of all the analysis and conservation work is as below:


Cremation burial and associated charcoal

Cremation burial and associated charcoalThe assessment of the cremated human remains has revealed that these represent no more than one individual (sex unknown), with an age  at death of about 15-25 years. The overall impression is of a small, gracile person. A number of small textile fragments were recovered from the cremation, their charred state suggests that the textile accompanied the body into the cremation, maybe worn as clothing, or added as a shroud or used to bind the body.

The amount of  wood charcoal found within the cremation, and presumed to be from the funeral pyre, was small,, suggesting that much of the wood had burnt away. Most of the wood was  oak (Quercus sp) with some hazel (Corylus avellana)


Textile and animal skin object

Textile and animal skin object Analyses of the skilfully made textile and animal skin object measuring 345mm x 260mm, has revealed that this is a band of textile made from finely woven nettle fibre.  Stitched to the outer edges of this were two rows of leather binding with a fringe of outward pointing leather triangles made from thin calf skin. The leather was submitted for analysis to see if dye could be detected, but no traces were found. At present this object seems to be unique in North Western Europe, its fine decorative work suggests it was an item to be worn, possibly as a sash or belt.

Wrist/arm band 

The carefully woven strands of fibre used to craft this delicate 175mm-long band are made from cow hair. X-rayWrist/arm band fluorescence (XRF) analysis has revealed that the circular domed rivets) placed at regular intervals along it are made from tin. Originally these numbered 35 but only 32 survive. The tin has now oxidised but originally would have been silvery and very striking in appearance. The use of tin for decorative objects is exceptionally rare within prehistoric burial contexts in Britain and despite tin being a locally available resource on Dartmoor, this is the first time it has been found within a prehistoric archaeological context.

Basketry objectBasketry object

The basket, which was made of lime (Tilia sp) bast contained most of the beads, the wooden ear studs and a flint flake. It comprises two woven circular discs, forming a flat base and a lid each 12cm in diameter, joined together by a tube made by a coiled basketry technique with coarse stitching around the edges. The stitching was made using cow hair. The bast is the inner bark of the tree; it was retted in water to render the fibres suitable for basketry.


The beads

The large group of beads discovered partly within the The beads copyright Gary Youngbasket and spread out beneath it, numbers over 200 and includes seven beads of amber.  Amber is an exotic resin from the Baltic, associated with supernatural powers and used as an amulet and the presence of these beads strongly suggest that this was a high status burial. There are also 92 individually perforated disc or sphere-shaped shale beads. The shale has been identified as coming from Kimmeridge in Dorset. There are over 110 chunky clay beads of varying sizes; the clay is not local to Dartmoor.  Of great significance is the discovery of one large barrel/cylindrical shaped bead made from tin. This is by far the largest number of beads found from a single early Bronze Age context in South West England.  Although no definite stringing has yet been identified, the number of beads is sufficient to have formed a spectacular composite necklace.


Wooden studsWooden studs

Following initial conservation work inside the basket, what were initially thought to be beads, were re-identified as being four wooden discs with grooves along their edges.  The discs were almost perfectly round, each having one side slightly more domed than the other, suggesting they had a specific orientation when in use. They comprise two pairs one measuring 24-25mm in diameter and the smaller 14-15mm diameter. All four studs had been made in a similar way from a small half split piece of round wood. This was most likely cut down on the side to produce a roughly round baton of wood, and the studs were turned to produce the side grooves and to separate one disc from another. One of the discs has been identified as being made from spindle wood (Euonymus sp) which is a hard fine grained tree traditionally used to make knitting needles, skewers and of course spindles. This would be a good choice of species for making small ornamental items; spindle trees still grow on the lower slopes of Dartmoor.

Likely uses of the studs are in ears or elsewhere on the body or set into leather belts or clothing.  The studs are unique in British prehistory; they also represent the earliest evidence for wood turning in the UK. The discovery of prehistoric worked wood in an upland peat context is also extremely rare.

Wooden stakesWooden stakes

The two wooden sticks recovered from the excavations have been identified as being young hazel (Corylus avellana) possibly from the same stem.  One stick was lying horizontally outside the cist in two pieces, it measures 520mm, one end has been cut to a point on three faces.The tool mark evidence is too slight to assign an axe type to its formation. The other stake was lying vertically outside the cist; measuring 464mm long and is also in two pieces, no tool marks have been identified. Seemingly these defined where the stones of the cist should be placed.


Matted plant layer

The layer of plant 'packing' used as matting around the burial deposit and also placed on the granite slab beneath the cremation has been identified as purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) This still grows in abundance on Dartmoor today and was most probably growing close to the cist Single flint flakeand gathered by hand in late summer or early autumn. Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) work has identified that its basal culms were swollen which accords with growth at that time of year.


Single flint flake

A worked flint flake was found within the basket, this is currently being analysed for traces of micro wear.

Copper- alloy awl or pin

Copper-alloy fragments (the Copper- alloy awl or pinlongest which is 21mm long) thought to be the remains of either an awl or pin  were discovered inside the edge of the pelt. There is no surviving evidence of a handle or other evidence that it had once been embedded in the pelt.

Animal pelt

Analysis of the animal pelt which was folded around the cremated remains has shown that the quantity and mixture of under hair and guard hair came from the butt end of an animal, with the uniform hair direction indicating it is from one side of an animal, and divided along the backbone with shoulder, belly and axilla removed, implying Animal pelt that the skin had been prepared carefully and used economically.

The species of animal has not yet been confirmed, and samples taken from the pelt for analysis are still with the University of Denmark, Bradford University and a specialist from the Smithsonian in the USA, using facilities in York.



Radiocarbon dating on the artefacts is still in progress but the results so far confirm an Early Bronze Age date for the burial (i.e.1900-1500BC)

Pollen and fungal spore analysis

Much of this work has still to be completed but it is hoped that this will help establish the environmental conditions and land use around the time the cist was built and climate and vegetational changes in the landscape over time. The analyses should also help identify whether the area around the cist was being grazed and possibly identify what types of animals were present.

Some high resolution tephra (volcanic ash) analysis has already been carried out on the master 107cm sediment sequence retrieved from the excavation. This has confirmed the preservation of multiple Icelandic tephra layers, which span a period between 6,998-6809 cal years BP to c AD 920.

Future Plans

The artefacts from Whitehorse Hill cist will be on display during the forthcoming major Exhibition at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery entitled 'Whitehorse Hill: a Prehistoric Dartmoor Discovery' which will be on show from September 13 – Dec 13 2014, with related displays and activities. The archaeological excavation at Whitehorse Hill and its results will be published in full as a monograph publication by Oxbow Books.

'Whitehorse Hill: A Prehistoric Dartmoor Discovery' is a partnership exhibition between Dartmoor National Park Authority and Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery 

Rebuilding cistFollow the story in the news

23 April 2012 - Prehistoric burial discoveries to be x-rayed in Salisbury Hospital

19 December 2011- Stones of nationally important Prehistoric cist reunited on Whitehorse Hill

15 November 2011- Prehistoric Dartmoor burial reveals nationally important remains

16 August 2011- Prehistoric Burial on Dartmoor reveals its secrets

Page last updated: 30 Jan 2014
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