More than a bump on the skyline

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Photo credit Catherine Dove (ENPA)

This week’s post looks at something we probably don’t look at closely enough! Ever wondered what those bumps and mounds were that are found all over Exmoor? Here we delve into cairns and barrows – and there are more of them around than you would think (making Exmoor one of the best places in England to explore them!).

Crossing a high point on Exmoor and stopping to admire the surrounding landscape, you are likely not only to be near the site of a barrow or cairn, but observing many others on the hills around you.These appear as either earthen or stony mounds and can be 20 – 30 metres in diameter and 2 metres high (although many are smaller).

There are more than 400 on Exmoor, making it one of the best places in the country to see them. Although we tend to them for granted in our landscape, many are protected as Scheduled Monuments and each one has a unique importance.

These sites are Bronze Age burial mounds about 3500 – 4000 years old. They were built at a time when people were living in small settlements and cultivating small patches of fields. On Exmoor farming was mainly pastoral, principally raising stock such as cattle, sheep and pigs. People were also highly skilled in other areas: pottery making; weaving; creating stone tools such as arrowheads and scrapers; and beginning to work metals by combining copper and tin to make rare precious objects of bronze.

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Auroch skeleton (Porlock Visitor Centre) Photo credit: Catherine Dove (ENPA)

Wild animals such as aurochs, an extinct species of cattle standing as tall as an adult human at the shoulder, still roamed free and were no doubt hunted. The partial skeleton of one found in Porlock Marsh can be seen at Porlock Visitor Centre.

Settlements from the Bronze Age are hard to identify on Exmoor, probably because houses were more commonly built of wood and thatch than stone. Some settlements can be found in the slopes below Dunkery, on Great Hill, in the Valley of Rocks, and above the cliffs at Holdstone Down although they are hard to spot.

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Holdstone Down

Barrows and cairns however, are much more commonly recognised and are very characteristic of the Exmoor skyline. The ‘barrow’ names give many away on Ordnance Survey maps but they are also sometimes labelled ‘tumuli’. Although not all barrows and cairns are high up, many have spectacular views. They are not merely a heap of earth or stones over a single burial. Research is showing that they could have a long life, perhaps of hundreds of years, and great care went in their creation and altering and developing them over time.

These sites are precious survivals of prehistoric religious and social practice. There is wide variety in their composition and size, some starting life as a ring of earth and stones known as a ring cairn, perhaps around a central burial or cremation.

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Setta Barrow

Many barrows are landmarks and may have been important to prehistoric communities as such. A number were incorporated into later boundaries such as the Royal Forest boundary, some of these such as Setta Barrow and Wood Barrow also mark the County Boundary between Devon and Somerset today. There is much to learn about these sites, but there has been no modern excavation of a standing barrow or cairn on Exmoor. The most recently excavated site was one of the Chapman Barrows on Challacombe Common, dug in 1905 by the Rev.Chanter. This group of barrows is now being recorded in detail by a local group as part of the Longstone Landscape Project, revealing much about their character and development.

More information about Exmoor’s Barrows and Cairns as well as other archaeological sites can be found on ‘Exmoor’s Past’ our Historic Environment Website www.exmoorher.co.uk.

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