At the heart of Dartmoor, in the South West of England, lies an abandoned Neolithic settlement that locals call Grimspound. It was inhabited between the dates of around 1450-700BCE, with twenty-four stone-based roundhouses surrounded by a massive wall of approximately one hundred and fifty metres in diameter. There were a few more houses outside the granite wall, leaving a legacy of prehistoric remains to remind us of our ancestral roots.
The name was first recorded by the Reverend Richard Polwhele, whose ancestors held the local manor of Treworgan, near to Truro in Cornwall, in 1797. It is supposed that the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon god of war, Woden, or Odin. Of course, those names would not be how the Bronze Age settlers referred to their homes, but since no records existed, nor writing until centuries later, we can only make a guess based on the Romanised names listed by the likes of Caesar.
During the Early to Mid-periods of the Bronze Age, Britons were transitioning from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled farming existence. At around 2500BCE, early farmers began to settle on the moor, dividing the land into primitive fields with stone and wooden boundaries. Occasionally, the remains of a single roundhouse can be found on the moors, other times the huts were built in clusters or villages.
The houses were built using a double ring of granite slabs, with the gap being filled in with peat or rubble and small stones, in a similar way to the perimeter wall, with an average diameter of around three and a half metres. They would have been thatched from a peak almost to the ground with reeds and rushes. Many had L-shaped porches, with the entrance facing downhill, away from the biting winds.
Grimspound is tucked away in a fold in the hills, between Hookney and Hameldown Tors. Historians and archaeologists maintain that it was in use from about 1450BCE, but was abandoned at some point thereafter, leaving only the stone rounds but no other clues as to why the villagers left.
The most likely reason would be the result of environmental or climatic events placing too much strain on their day-to-day life. Palaeoclimatologists studying flora and core samples in the region (CMS Turney, 2016) found evidence to suggest a prolonged and continuous period of heavy rainfall, which could have contributed to the abandonment in favour of better drained, more fertile land on which to rear livestock and plant arable crops. The boggy ground would have increased the likelihood of rotting vegetation, poor animal health and leached the nutrients from the thin soils in upland areas.
Excavations conducted during the Nineteenth Century found that many of the huts not only had porches, but paved floors, hearths, raised benches, cooking holes, potboiler stones, charcoal, pottery, and flint which is not normally found in this area, giving us a tantalising clue as to their lifestyle and general levels of comfort. Digs at Holne Moor on Dartmoor, showed similar huts with evidence of an interior plank lining.
The existence of flint arrowheads, would suggest a degree of trading, or perhaps journeys with the specific intention of gathering materials to make such weapons. Unfortunately, no Neolithic era organic materials were found at Grimspound, but we can make some assumptions about the plants and animals that would have been important to their survival from archaeological studies and finds in the near vicinity.
Ralph M Fyfe and colleagues, from the University of Exeter, 2004, studied seeds and pollen samples from dated core samples of moorland soils. Those data give us actual evidence of plants that grew in the region during the Bronze Age. Species such as emmer wheat, barley, willow, lime trees, bullrushes, poppy, elder, blackberries and many other such staples, would have provided not just food, but fuel, building materials, fibre for cloth, and medicinal herbs too.
It’s also possible that a greater variety of plants and seafood tempted the settlers to move towards coastal areas, or at the very least, spend part of their time living there for seasonal foraging.
At Grimspound, the perimeter wall would have originally stood at about five feet in height, and ten feet thick. It was faced with large vertical slabs, backfilled with smaller stones between the two layers. This massive structure was not intended for defensive purposes, but was primarily built to keep livestock inside and predators outside. The wide entrance was also paved and flanked with two tall monoliths, suggesting that there was once an impressive gate. A freshwater stream flows through the northern half of the compound providing the occupants with a constant source of clean water.
Ash taken from the hearth at the centre of a hut was shown to be that of oak and willow twigs, perhaps used as kindling. The absence of larger quantities of log remains would indicate a preference for burning dried peat, cut from the surrounding boggy regions. Wood may have been a scarce commodity on the moors at the time of abandonment, having been steadily harvested for a number of centuries. To the right of the doorways inside the huts, was often a raised level area, probably used for sleeping above the draughts and away from fleas and ticks trapped in the floor rushes.
The presence of a single larger dwelling in such villages would generally indicate the hut belonging to the settlement leader. At Grimspound, no such dwelling could be found, since most roundhouses were similar in size and shape, but a distinctive pillar was discovered outside one hut. It suggests that the occupant held status above that of the others; perhaps an elder, or a holy man of some description.
Since excavations uncovered no quern stones, some researchers, such as Chapman in 1893, assumed that it indicated a reliance on trading with outsiders for grain. It does not, however, make room for the possibility that early Britons who abandoned the settlement would have taken all their belongings and valuables with them, including organic materials such as furs and clothing, and tools such as knives and quern stones for grinding grain into flour.
While this incredible Neolithic village gives us a glimpse of their lives during the Bronze Age, it does leave us with more questions, for instance, was the entire settlement comprised of people from a single line of inheritance or multiple families? Who lived in the hut with the tall and distinctive post and what was their status and purpose within the group? Where were the midden piles of animal bones and rubbish? Did they burn or bury their dead, or carry them elsewhere? These and many other puzzles will remain unanswered, but our fascination with their early civilisation will remain.
While there are archaeologists and paleoanthropologists willing to challenge the perceived notions of these ancient people, the more we will learn from the traces left behind. I, for one, am grateful for their continued efforts.