For many people, Dartmoor is synonomous with bleak, untamed wilderness, but archaeologists will immediately think of this landscape's rich archaeological heritage. The moorland has long been known for its extensive and well-preserved Bronze Age landscapes, which featured, along with the infamous Victorian penal colony, in Sherlock Holmes' encounter with 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. In addition to settlements, there are many well-known ritual monuments, including some impressive 'stone rows'.
Research by Andrew Fleming from the 1970s onwards drew attention to 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.
Archaeological field survey by English Heritage and others has continued to flesh out the picture of a landscape that was quite intensively used for much of the Bronze Age. But Dartmoor also has an impressive sequence of later remains from its medieval crosses, to its post-medieval industrial complexes, and even military remains that represent the legacy of 20th century training.
Rediscovering Dartmoor’s metal mines
The extraction of tin on Dartmoor has a documented history and associated archaeology stretching back well into the medieval period and by the 18th century, tin, together with copper, silver-lead and iron, had all become part of a thriving mining industry.
Although a fair amount of research has taken place into Dartmoor’s industrial past, fieldwork has been confined mostly to the uplands where mining remains are freely accessible, though even here, fieldwork has been minimal.
For the peripheries of Dartmoor, where tin, copper and other metals have been mined, much less is known. The majority of these mines lie in secluded, private and often wooded areas, where little systematic field investigation has taken place. However, a great many mines are known from documentation and of these a good number are known to possess field remains.
Contemporary photography and documentary record alone can tell us that these were in some instances large, productive complexes and important places of work. They employed hundreds of people, often forming the economic heart of small rural communities. Upon abandonment the machinery was removed and the sites left to decay undisturbed to be overwhelmed by trees and undergrowth.
In 2006 English Heritage’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation team began a systematic examination of surface evidence of mining on both the uplands and peripheral woodlands within Dartmoor National Park, looking specifically at mines from the 18th to 20th centuries.
Work initially focussed on the Ashburton and Buckfastleigh district, which covers an area of approximately 174 km2 on the south-east corner of the National Park. Within this pilot area, a total of 35 sites where field evidence of mining is present have been identified and a series of analytical surveys have been carried out to record them.
Dartmoor's military training areas
In early 2007, English Heritage successfully concluded a five-year project to record the historic environment of the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) five military training areas on Dartmoor. The MoD had long been conscious of the wealth of significant archaeological remains contained within its Dartmoor Training Areas but until 2000 had very little information about the great expanses of moorland for which they are responsible.
With the introduction of electronic mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the opportunity was taken to completely re-evaluate all archaeological sites within the Dartmoor training areas. The project was undertaken by the English Heritage Archaeological Survey and Investigation team in partnership with the MoD’s Defence Estates team.
The aim was to undertake a new programme of reconnaissance, survey and mapping, the results of which would form the basis for future monitoring of the entire archaeological resource. The five Dartmoor Training Areas cover a total of 13,000 hectares, and include some of the most spectacular landscapes in the National Park, such as Tavy Cleave, High Willhays and parts of the Plym Valley. Three of the training areas are used for live firing.
Altogether within the five training areas 809 archaeological sites - many previously unrecorded - have now been investigated, including isolated monuments such as small cairns, boundary stones and ruined buildings, but also many more complicated landscapes. These include prehistoric field systems, settlements and ritual monuments, medieval and post-medieval settlements and fields, and industrial features from the medieval period onwards, particularly tinworks and mines.
Every site has been mapped electronically and photographed. Following on from the completion of the surveys by English Heritage, the MoD is funding a rolling programme of condition monitoring every five years.
The Archaeological Landscape of Dartmoor
English Heritage is currently producing a book to be entitled 'The Archaeological Landscape of Dartmoor', bringing together highlights of all the work done on Dartmoor by us and its predecessors over many years.