Aligning the Past and the Present

This blog marks the start of week of archaeology at East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve.  Starting on site today, a team of local residents guided by archaeologists, will be carrying out an archaeological dig at the site of a post medieval farmstead in the Bovey Valley. The lead archaeologists will be posting daily field reports on the East Dartmoor Woods blog this week and they will be sharing their findings from the excavation, at the Vinnimore Community Archaeology Dig – Open Day next Saturday 29th April.  

But how did the archaeologists know where to focus their excavations? This is where the dedicated work of a small band of volunteers comes in.  In this blog, Matt Parkins, describes a field visit with the History Hunters of East Dartmoor NNR, as they demonstrated the array of survey techniques they have developed, enabling them to create a picture of the lives of previous generations in the Bovey Valley stretching back thousands of years. 

Looking back into Dartmoor’s past requires a complex combination of digital technology, historic maps and vintage photos blended with skill, patience and some good old-fashioned hard work.

OS map snip

When searching for these ancient remains, work starts on the office desk with a pile of old maps and a laptop screen. Bringing together the landscape records from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, the painstaking study begins. LiDAR is the newest of these technologies, created from an aerial study it can show the humps and bumps of the ground surface in amazing detail, but this on its own, will only tell part of the story. During the last three years, the History Hunters have mastered the LiDAR plots.  Aligning them on-screen, with 20th century black and white photos and older maps, they are starting to show how all these features link up on the landscape.

Reg Lander, the team leader, explained how “a known feature such as a post or a boulder is used as a geo-reference, so we can overlay all these maps to get a more comprehensive topography”. But the job still isn’t complete, as he went on to say, “once we have found the targets on LiDAR the only way to really understand the archaeology is to get out there and survey the area”. One of his colleagues, Janet added that “we do the ground proofing during the winter and spring before the bracken and brambles go bananas!”

One Land Rover trek later and the volunteers are walking through, what appears to be an ancient oak wood, but the story unfolds that “local people from the Manaton area can remember fishing in the river Bovey when there were very few trees here, just a few veteran oaks. The landscape is constantly changing”. Walking a bit further, they point out ancient features among the leaf litter. “This old wall here was mapped in the 1800s, so the path that crosses it must be more recent. We also know that the wall links to a Bronze Age feature further down the hill”.

Caroline, kitted up with a laptop connected to a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver explains how “you can see our position relative to all the features we have already plotted. There are walls, field systems and other enclosures. Some days the GPS signal is affected by cloudy weather, it can shift and float but today it’s sunny and should be spot-on”.

Lower down in the oak woods the group starts to study a set of new finds, small stone structures, a few metres across. Discussing one of them, they decide “it’s probably not a beehive hut because there is no door. It’s exciting because it could be Bronze Age, around 4000 years BC is the current hypothesis”. Exploring further, they begin to uncover a line of features, piles of boulders that have clearly been placed with a purpose. Reg positions his survey poles and takes notes to record a description of their discovery. A GPS location is added to the record and photographs are taken.

Many of the small Bronze Age features do have an opening. “They are livestock pounds where pigs and probably ducks were kept”. Built from giant granite boulders, it’s difficult to imagine how they were hauled into place but the History Hunters described some recent archaeological trials where two bullocks pulled a harness linked to a boulder resting on brushwood. “They could move enormous rocks by doing that!”

An image of the Bovey Valley of old has really started to emerge and, while Reg measured up a livestock pound, Caroline and Janet paced out the edge of an ancient field. Using very subtle signs on the ground, the banks and boulders could be linked up to plot the edge of the grazing area. Even today, there is a small woodland glade in the same boulder-free area. Now, thousands of years later, deer browse here where animals were once kept safe from prowling wolves.

Between the volunteer members of the History Hunters they have developed a range of survey skills to a professional level. Their landscape assessments are also in demand from other groups across Dartmoor, who are in search of Devon Longhouses and mining sites of heritage interest. Standing in the oak woods, Reg said “Caroline’s skill level is now such that the ‘acorn’ of Moor than meets the eye training has blossomed, she’s been invited to work on an international archaeology project in Africa!”

by Matt Parkins 

To read more about the History Hunters research at Vinnimore farmstead, the site of this weeks’ archaeological excavation, follow the links to the Vinnimore Diaries (part 1 and 2) below.  Also do look out for the daily field reports from the team, all this week.
Medieval Farming in the Bovey Valley – Vinnimore Diary Part 1
Gems Set in the Sparkling Bovey Valley – Vinnimore Diary part 2 

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