History of Merrivale Prehistoric Settlement

The Dartmoor landscape is rich in prehistoric antiquities, preserved by the abandonment of the high moor when poor weather and the build-up of peat in the soil made further cultivation impossible. The group of monuments at Merrivale, where a settlement site and ritual complex lie side by side, is one of the finest on the moor. It is also one of the most accessible, being close to a road. 

Some of the houses of the Bronze Age settlement, seen from the air

Some of the houses of the Bronze Age settlement, seen from the air

Archaeological Features

Merrivale includes many of the archaeological features associated with the Neolithic to Middle Bronze Age (about 2500–1000 BC). The monuments here comprise a group of round houses; two double stone rows and one single row; a small stone circle, with two standing stones nearby; and a number of cairns (earthen mounds), associated with burials. Nearest to the road is the area of a typical Bronze Age settlement, a large cluster of round houses. The huge rounded stone here, often mistaken for a chambered tomb, is in fact a post-medieval apple-crusher stone, used in the process of cider-making. 

The apple-crusher stone sits among a jumble of other stones

The apple-crusher stone

Stones and Rows

South of the settlement and running east–west are two double stone rows, separated by a stream: each consists of more than 150 stones, mostly under a metre high. 

The northern double row is 182 metres (596 feet) long, with an average width between the rows of 1m (3 feet). The second row runs roughly parallel with the first but is longer, stretching 263 metres (865 feet) across the moor. It has terminal stones blocking each end. Near the middle of this row a ring of stones marks the kerb of a small cairn: this unusual feature may mark the burial of an important person.

A few metres south is a stone-lined burial chamber or cist with a massive, though damaged, capstone. Further west and just to the south of the row, a cairn marks the start of a single row of stones, running for about 40 metres (132 feet) at an angle to the double row.

To the west of these rows is a circle of 11 low-lying stones of local granite, about 18 metres (60 feet) in diameter. There is a tall stone, or menhir, nearby, which at more than 3 metres (10 feet) high is the most conspicuous object in the area.

The southern double row looking west

The southern double row looking west

It is quite possible that the ritual monuments of the Merrivale landscape belong to several different periods. In what way they might be related is a matter of conjecture, but such a vast array of monuments indicates that the site was of great spiritual importance to the people who lived in the area.

Whatever ceremonies were held here, the amount of planning, motivation and organisation that went into creating such a complex of sites is astonishing. Stone rows have been described as the most distinctive monuments of prehistoric Dartmoor: there are at least 70 examples, often built in conjunction with cairns as at Merrivale.

Running west of the site is the Great Western Reave, the longest of the many reaves – earth or stone banks, probably representing ancient field boundaries – that are a distinctive feature of Dartmoor, many of them stretching for miles across the moor.


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Further Reading

Butler, J, Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities (Plymouth, 1991) 

Anon, A Guide to the Archaeology of Dartmoor (Plymouth, 1996)

Gerrard, S, Dartmoor (English Heritage, London, 1997) 

Greeves, T, The Archaeology of Dartmoor from the Air (Plymouth, 1985) 

Griffith, F, Devon’s Past: An Aerial View (Plymouth, 1988) 

Sale, R, Dartmoor: The Official National Park Guide (Plymouth, 2000)

 

Note

The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.

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