Grimspound

History of Grimspound

Grimspound is one of the best known prehistoric settlements on Dartmoor, probably dating from the Late Bronze Age (about 1450–700 BC).

The remains of 24 houses enclosed within a stone wall, and further houses outside the enclosure, lie in a fold in the hills about 450 metres (1,500 feet) above sea level, between Hookney and Hameldown tors.

View of Grimspound from Hookney Tor to the north looking towards Hameldown Tor. The original entrance is to the south east
A view of Grimspound from Hookney Tor in the north - the original entrance is to the south east of the enclosure wall

The earlier Neolithic period, from about 4500 BC, witnessed a transition from a hunting and gathering lifestyle towards a growing reliance on farming. By 2500 BC the early farmers were moving into upland areas like Dartmoor, and settled farms and field systems were becoming commonplace.

The remains of the characteristic round houses (also known as hut circles) in which people lived can still be seen – sometimes standing on their own, like isolated cottages today; sometimes, as here, grouped together in sizeable villages. Such settlements are a defining feature of the Dartmoor landscape.

We do not know precisely how long Grimspound was in use, but by about 1200 BC the settlement pattern was changing. The thin moorland soils appear to have deteriorated very quickly and it also seems that there was a change in the climate. Heavy rainfall reduced the fertility of the Dartmoor soil, so that it could not sustain the same level of occupation.

Excavations

Grimspound was excavated at the end of the 19th century by the newly formed Dartmoor Exploration Committee.

They excavated 16 of the houses and found numerous structures and artefacts, including porches, paved floors, hearths, raised benches, cooking holes, charcoal, pottery and flint. However, no organic matter which might date the site was recovered. The excavators restored parts of the perimeter wall and some of the hut circles, although not very accurately.

The entrance to the enclosure viewed from the inside
View of the entrance from inside the enclosure at Grimspound

Description

The great boundary wall is about 150 metres (500 feet) in diameter. Averaging 3 metres (10 feet) thick and standing up to 1.5 metres (5 feet) high, it is faced with large slabs laid in horizontal courses, with a core of smaller stones between the two faces. However, it seems unlikely that it was intended to be defensive – it was probably simply a barrier to keep wild animals out and farmed animals in.

The site overlooks a valley to the north where there was open grazing land, but the original entrance was on the opposite, uphill side. This imposing entrance is flanked by high walls, with a passage 1.8 metres (6 feet) wide which is roughly paved. A stream running through the northern half of the enclosure would have provided an excellent supply of fresh water, and explains the settlement’s position.

The walls of the houses within the enclosure were probably not much higher than they are now, and covered with conical roofs of turf or thatch. A number of low rubble banks against the internal face of the enclosure wall probably formed sheep or cattle pens. Immediately south-east of the enclosure the remains of at least nine more houses survive, all linked to rubble banks forming part of a field system.

You can climb up Hookney Tor for a good view of the site, and the high ground on Hameldown is another good vantage point.

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A reconstruction painting of Grimspound from the south-west featuring thatched circular huts in the interior and prehistoric cattle and sheep grazing in the foreground
A reconstruction of Grimspound from the south-west © Historic England (illustration by Ivan Lapper)

Further Reading

A Guide to the Archaeology of Dartmoor (Exeter, 1996)

Butler, J, Dartmoor Atlas of Antiquities, 4 vols (Exeter, 1991)

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

Griffith, F, Devon's Past: An Aerial View (Exeter, 1988)

Sale, R, Dartmoor: The Official National Park Guide (Newton Abbot, 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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