Sunday, June 17, 2007

When I was sixteen I first discovered archaeology on a family holiday to Dartmoor (moorland area in Devon, U.K.) - and that one holiday lead me to do a degree in prehistory. Archaeology has been an obsession ever since. It is always rather nice, therefore, to see the results of the latest archaeological investigation in the Dartmoor area.

Through a thin shroud of mist seeping from low-lying cloud, the shadowy forms of hree huge ghostly standing stones stare across the wide bog in Drizzle Combe, one of the more remote parts of Dartmoor, a vast national park in Devon in southwest England.

As the fog slowly crept down the valley, it was not hard to see why Dartmoor was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic tale of horror, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and also why 200 years ago it was chosen for the location of one of England's grimmest prisons, which at one time held the country's worst offenders.

This solitary place is encircled by softly rounded hills littered with boulders of granite and bearing the outlines of ancient field systems and hut-circles (remains of prehistoric stone dwellings). It is easy to imagine that nothing much had changed since Bronze Age settlers abandoned the place more than 3,000 years ago. Dartmoor's granite base is covered by moorland of dried grasses and bracken, sodden bog land, and boulder-strewn tors, or peaks. It's also the repository of the largest number of prehistoric ceremonial remains in northwest Europe.

Here are more than 1,500 stone cairns, (burial places), the remains of more than 5,000 Bronze Age huts, more than 75 stone rows, numerous standing stones known as megaliths and stone circles. Most, with the help of an Ordnance Survey map, can be reached on foot within a few hours from villages on the fringes of the moor.

Drizzle Combe is one of Dartmoor's most important prehistoric sites, and we were determined to get close to those stones. A quick glance at the map showed we were not far from Evil Combe, Deadman's Bottom and Grim's Grave. Skirting these daunting-sounding places, we followed the course of the tumbling Plym River, scrambling along its banks lined with the spoil heaps from tin-mining operations that studded the area as far back as the 12th century.