The Date and Context of a Stone Row: Cut Hill, Dartmoor, South-West England

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Introduction

The development of monumental landscapes in many parts of Western Europe in the third millennium BC, characterised by the construction of structures in earth, stone and timber, is argued to represent the physical manifestation of significant social change within prehistory (Bradley 1998; Thomas 1999; Tilley 2004). The construction of monuments represents either a change, or formalisation, in the relationships between place, space and society, and establishes locations for key social practices and performances (Cummings 2008; Gillings et al. 2008). Stone rows and settings are amongst the least understood monument types to be found in north-west Europe. Their form and scale can be visually impressive, and a number of examples appear to be part of larger ceremonial complexes; however, despite their ubiquity in parts of western Britain, Ireland and Brittany (Burl 1993), some of the basic understandings and premises concerning these monuments (e.g. function and chronology) are currently unclear.

Dense concentrations of stone rows and settings can be found on the uplands of south-west England, and the various rows and settings on Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Exmoor have been the subject of surveys and gazetteers which have detailed the shape and topographic positioning of monuments (e.g. Emmett 1979; Johnson & Rose 1994; Butler 1997; Riley & Wilson-North 2001). Although various functional hypotheses have been proposed, there is little consensus as to their chronology or the role they played within prehistoric society. It has been argued that rows may have provided guides to astronomical alignment (Lockyer 1906; Ruggles 1985), played a mnemonic function to confirm or establish the location of an individual within their known world (Tilley 1995), marked different land use zones (Barnatt 1982; Johnston 2005), or acted as revelatory monuments, leading the individual to key visual locations that reference or reveal other parts of the landscape (Herring 2008). It is not the purpose of this paper to review or critique these suggestions; rather, it is to consider one of the more fundamental uncertainties pertaining to stone rows; the question of chronology. The age of these monuments is currently unclear. None have been directly dated, and chronological assumptions typically rely on association with other monument types. In 2004 a new stone row was discovered on Cut Hill on central northern Dartmoor that has potential to shed crucial light on the dating of stone rows. This paper presents the results of survey and trial excavation at Cut Hill designed expressly to recover dating samples, and considers the significance of the results for the wider understanding of stone rows on Dartmoor and the wider region.

Stone rows: form and assumed chronologies

In his comprehensive survey of stone rows from Western Europe, Burl provides a model for the chronology of this type of archaeological site (1993), dividing them into three main groups. Long single rows, with more than seven stones, are broadly assigned to the period 2100-1600 cal BC. Multiple rows, with parallel or fan-shaped arrangements, are thought to date to the period 3000-1500 cal BC. Short rows, with six or fewer stones, are broadly assigned to the period 1800-1000 cal BC. The basis for this proposed chronology of stone rows is, however, poor, with little or no secure, independent, scientific dating control. Chronologies are dependent upon one or more of: (a) astronomical dating, tied to interpretative frameworks of monuments' functions (e.g. Ruggles 1985), where rows are assumed to relate to particular stellar alignments whose position in prehistory can be calculated; (b) stratigraphic or (more usually) spatial associations with other datable archaeological features, including artefacts and structures; or (c) general typological analogy across regions, which inevitably becomes circular in the absence of secure, independent dating. …