Dartmoor's Best Prehistoric Sites
Dartmoor has the highest concentration of Bronze Age remains in Britain. Here’s our guide to the moor’s most notable archaeological sites, including standing stones, hut circles, burial chambers and stone rows.
You can’t go far in Dartmoor National Park without seeing traces of the prehistoric people who came before us, and left evidence of their lives in the form of stone circles, graves, hut circles and cists: stone-built boxes used to house the bones of the dead. These remnants, fascinating in themselves, chime perfectly with the elemental mysticism of Dartmoor, which has long provided artists and writers with inspiration.
The area has the highest concentration of Bronze Age remains in Britain, as well as many Neolithic traces. The climate would have been warmer and more hospitable than it is now, and the current bare expanses of moorland would have been cloaked in trees: indeed it was the Neolithic settlers who began to clear the land for cultivation.
The most dramatic – and mysterious – structures left by these early settlers are the standing stones or menhirs, referred to locally as long stones. There are arranged in circles or rows, whose function is the source of endless speculation. There are fine examples at Upper Erme, Drizzlecombe, Laughter Tor and Merrivale.
Less dramatic but perhaps even more evocative are the hut circles, of which there may be as many as 5000 on the moor. These are the ruins of ancient homes, some of which feature stone porches; it’s thought that their conical roofs would have been timbered and thatched. Bronze Age Grimspound is the most famous example, where both the hut foundations and an enclosing wall survive, backed by rugged moorland.
Dating back around 3000 years to the late Bronze Age, this extensive moorland site comprises the ruins of 24 roundhouses, as well as a 150 metre-long, three-metre thick encircling wall, though to have been used as barrier to keep wild animals out and farmed animals in. One of the key ancient sites of Dartmoor, excavations revealed porches, paved floors, hearths, raised benches, cooking holes, charcoal, pottery and flint scraping tools. The imposing entrance is flanked by high walls, with a passage 1.8 metres wide which is roughly paved. A stream running through the northern half of the enclosure would have provided fresh water, and explains the settlement’s exposed position. The walls of the houses within the enclosure were probably not much higher than they are now, and covered with conical roofs of turf or thatch. A number of low rubble banks against the internal face of the enclosure wall probably formed sheep or cattle pens. Immediately south-east of the enclosure the remains of at least nine more houses survive, all linked to rubble banks forming part of a field system.
Sitting on open moorland, this reconstructed granite tomb topped by a rugged cross is said to honour a Saxon hunter called Childe, who died here during a storm having disemboweled his horse and climbed inside it for warmth. The scattered stones of the vandalized tomb were reassembled in the 1880s.
Scorhill stone circle
Scorhill comprises a Bronze Age circle of tall granite stones, 23 standing and 11 which have hit the moorland over the centuries. The tallest of the stones frames the sunset at midsummer, suggesting it may have been an astral timepiece.
Staldon stone row
The longest stone row on Dartmoor, with the rugged rocks leading walkers for 500m up the steady rise of Stalldown Hill, and ascending in height till they reach 2.5 metres. Statistics aside, this is one of the most mystical and enigmatic sites on the moor.
Sousans stone circle
These twenty-two low stones making a neat circle are thought to be the remnants of a cairn, or burial mound. A cist (stone chamber) sits at the centre of the circle.
Merrivale stone rows
These parallel lines of stones embedded in the soil are one of the many mysteries of Dartmoor: the function of the rocky corridor is unknown.
The Nine Maidens, also known as the Seventeen Brothers, is a Bronze Age stone circle located near the Dartmoor village of Belstone. The stone circle functioned as a burial chamber, although the cairn has since been robbed and the cist - burial chamber - destroyed. The Nine Maidens is an incomplete stone circle with sixteen still standing. The stones are said to have originally been nine maidens who were cast into stone and damned to dancing every noon for eternity as a punishment for dancing on the Sabbath, but the story has also involved seventeen brothers. It is also said that the ringing of the nearby church bells brings them to life.
The best surviving example in Devon of a neolithic burial chamber (known as a dolmen or cromlechIn) , erected around 3500-2500 BC. The chamber probably contained many bodies and would originally have been covered by a long earthen mound. The name derives from folklore that it was erected by three spinsters before breakfast.
Hound Tor deserted village
The most easily accessible medieval village on the moor, the remains sit at the bottom of Hound Tor. It has four Dartmoor longhouses, many with a central drainage channel, and several smaller houses and barns dating from the 13th century. The settlement consists of a cluster of 13th century stone longhouses – in which the family lived at one end and the animals at the other – on land that was originally farmed in the Bronze Age. Pollen evidence indicates that farming had stopped by 1350, but recent analysis of pottery suggests that the village was probably occupied until the late 14th or early 15th century. Hound Tor was probably deserted in the early 15th century. Look out for the oven, tucked in among the grass. From the top of Greator Rocks, there is a fine view over the abandoned village and the surrounding moors.