The Many Ages of Dartmoor

Take a step back in time in your imagination - 370 million years back, to be precise - and just think what it must have been like on Dartmoor at the time of its origins.

The creation and moulding of Dartmoor's famous granite rocks began at this point, during the Devonian era of time. Granite tors dominate Dartmoor - such as Hound Tor

A lot has happened on Dartmoor since then.

Dinosaurs once roamed its vast expanses and giant redwoods grew majestically where Dartmoor Prison now stands.

Then there were the years of turbulence - of volcanoes, earthquakes and ice-ages, and we know that Dartmoor has been beneath the sea - not once but twice, and possibly on even more occasions.

For much of its history, Dartmoor has been pretty much uninhabited.

After the chaos of earthquakes and volcanoes, Dartmoor became almost entirely covered by trees following the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago.

       Wistman's Wood 3




Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor is Devon's oldest woodland. This ancient wood is now only a tiny fraction of what it used to be but a visit really does take you back in time. The wood is a rare example of the ancient high-level woodlands of Dartmoor, and because of this it has been a site of special scientific interest since 1964. It lies at an altitude of between 380–420 metres, at grid reference SX613770.




It was following the Ice Age that people really started to inhabit Dartmoor, to use the natural resources and to hunt for wild animals. They would make clearings in the trees to attract the animals to graze. A Prehistoric Archaeology Dartmoor Factsheeet is available.


The site is south of the B3357 road, about five miles east of Tavistock (SX554748).

Merrivale, some 4,000-years-old, is probably the best known and most visited of the prehistoric sites on Dartmoor partly due to its ease of access and partly due to the wealth of monuments that greet the visitor. The most conspicuous of these are the pair of long stone rows that cross the landscape of Longash Common


Nearby you can also see the remains of a Bronze Age settlement and a length of reave. These banks of earth and stone were built in the middle Bronze Age all across Dartmoor, often dividing land up into complex field systems.

By 3,000 years ago Dartmoor’s climate had turned wetter and cooler with its once fertile soil becoming depleted and replaced by a build up of peat. This peat blanket bog nowadays covers much of the higher moorland.

The deterioration of the agricultural land, and the onset of a wetter climate, forced Dartmoor's settlers to move away from the higher moor.

They left behind a legacy of prehistoric field boundaries and homes.

The Roman period on Dartmoor remains elusive, except for the odd find of coin hoards.

Settlers started to return during the 9th and 10th centuries AD, when the climate improved again. There is further evidence of re-colonisation following the Norman Conquest of 1066.

For much of its history, the people of Dartmoor have depended on indigenous materials - such as granite and tin - for their livelihoods and sustenance, as well as livestock such as sheep.

Quarrying also played a major role for centuries.

There are over 1,200 scheduled sites on Dartmoor, with evidence of life on the moor in past times.

These include cairns (burial sites), ceremonial sites and over 75 stone rows - in fact, 60 per cent of all the stone rows in England can be found on Dartmoor.

Bronze Age

The moorland has long been known for its extensive and well-preserved Bronze Age landscapes. The complex and carefully planned system of Bronze Age fields, many defined by feeble lines of loose stone, within which the more immediately spectacular remains existed. In addition to settlements, there are many well-known ritual monuments, including some impressive 'stone rows'. The landscape was quite intensively used for much of the Bronze Age.

The discovery of a bronze age granite cist, or grave, in 2011 in a peat bog on White Horse Hill revealed the first organic remains found on the moor and a hoard of about 150 beads. Amongst the grave goods was an animal pelt, containing a delicate bracelet studded with tin beads, a textile fragment with detailed leather fringing and a woven bag .

Bronze Age discovery

The rare and amazing burial discovery dating back 4,000 years has been described as the most significant find on Dartmoor and has given archaeologists a glimpse into the lives of the people who once lived there.

The BBC made a short documentary on the discovery which is previewed here.

The artefacts from Whitehorse Hill cist will be on display at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery  from September 13 – December 13 2014.


Dartmoor National Park has produced a leaflet on the archaeology of the open moors.

Website : beachshore