The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 668/Neolithic Life in Devon and Cornwall

Neolithic Life in Devon and Cornwall  (1897) 
by Alfred Lionel Lewis

Published in: The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 1, issues 668 (February, 1897), p. 49–55


No. 668.— February, 1897.


By A.L. Lewis, F.C.A.,
Treasurer of the Anthropological Institute.

During the last few years much useful work has been done by certain members of the Devonshire Association and of the Royal Institution of Cornwall in surveying and exploring the prehistoric monuments which, though sadly reduced in number, still abound on Dartmoor and in various parts of Cornwall. Admirably illustrated reports of the work done have been published in the Journals of the two societies, but, as these are not very largely circulated outside the two south-western counties, there may be many readers of 'The Zoologist' to whom a brief account of the results obtained may not be unwelcome.

Visitors to the central parts of Dartmoor will remember the various remains which they have met with there—long "rows" or lines of stones, sometimes single, sometimes double—stones standing or lying in circles, sometimes in connection with the "rows," but more frequently not—single stones or menhirs—and rude enclosures formed by low walls of smaller stones without mortar, sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, with or without a similar wall enclosing the group. The smaller of these are called "hutcircles," the larger ones "pounds"; they are the remains of prehistoric dwellings, and it is in them that the most interesting discoveries have been made.

The most generally known collection of hut-circles, and the first to be explored, is that at "Grimspound," near Moreton Hampstead. "Grimspound" is an irregularly shaped piece of ground, lying between two tors, with a small streamlet running through it, and enclosed by an unmortared stone wall, more than fifteen hundred feet in circumference. This was originally about five feet high and nine or ten thick, but, in some places at least, it seems to have been divided into two walls with a space between them; this space may have been filled up with turf, or it may have been used for dwelling or storage purposes. Inside this enclosure are the foundations of about two dozen roughly circular enclosures, from nine to sixteen feet in diameter, some of which were probably cattle pens, while others were certainly human dwellings. The latter had originally consisted of slabs of granite set up in a ring to a height of about three feet, the spaces between being filled in with smaller stones, and the whole backed up outside with turf; the doors were generally constructed of two upright jambs of granite between two and three feet high, on the top of which lintels of granite were placed; the floors of the huts were of the subsoil of clay and granite grit and rolled pebbles, beaten hard, and occasionally, and in places, paved; the roof is believed to have been formed by poles sloping from the top of the low wall to the centre, and covered with turf, rushes, &c, as there were not sufficient stones found to form a domed roof. Most of the huts, when cleared of the accumulation of vegetable soil with which they were filled, were found to contain a low platform or dais, formed of curbstones with straight edges, all natural, but selected for the purpose, and laid in the soil, cutting off a portion of the circumference, which portion was generally carried out so as to afford additional width and depth to the dais, which was usually paved, and probably served as a seat for the inhabitants by day and as a bed at night. There were generally a flat stone in the middle of the hut, without any indication of fire upon it, which had probably been used as a table, or as a base for a post to support the conical roof, and another flat stone, with considerable marks of fire, which had evidently been a hearthstone; near the latter was usually found a hole in the floor, about nine inches deep, lined with stones set on edge, and full of peat ashes and charcoal, which was doubtless used as a cooking hole, into which, after it had been thoroughly heated, meat was put with hot pebbles and covered over until it was sufficiently baked. One small piece of pottery, a flint knife, and two flint scrapers, are all the articles of human workmanship found in the twenty circles cleared at Grimspound.

Other collections of circles have, however, been explored in different parts of Dartmoor which, while their general characteristics were very similar, have supplied some further remains of the handiwork of their former occupants. Several flint knives, scrapers and flakes, hones, rubbers, and mullers, one stone with a hole bored nearly through it, a spindle whorl of baked clay (a most important indication of the comparative civilization of the inhabitants), and some very rude pottery, are the produce of later excavations.

At Legis Tor, where a very interesting collection of eleven huts was thoroughly excavated only last year, an urn, ten inches in diameter and twelve deep, was found set in the ground in place of a cooking hole; its bottom had been broken by use, and mended anciently with a lump of china clay, without its being removed; two cooking stones and some earth and ashes were found in it, but there were no ashes round the outside; fragments of urns were also found in the cooking holes of the other huts at this place, several of which were rudely ornamented, but all were of very poor construction.

Up to the end of last season seventy-nine huts which showed signs of human occupancy had been explored in various parts of Dartmoor, of which thirty-seven have yielded tools, flakes, and cores of flint; twenty-six have shown remains of pottery; thirty had cooking holes, some of which contained round-bottomed vessels of coarse pottery, red outside and black within; twelve have produced rubbing stones, and nearly all have contained cooking stones.

The long steep hill of Carnbrê, near Redruth, with its mediæval tower at one end, and the Dunstanville monument at the other end, is well known to all visitors to western Cornwall. Here Dr. Borlase wandered and found various Druidic remains which I entirely failed to identify when I visited the spot in 1869, but both he and I were ignorant of what was really there beneath our feet. It had long been known that there were a few hut circles, and the remains of walls for the protection of the hill; but, when Mr. Thurstan Peter undertook the excavation of the circles in 1895, it was his young daughter who induced him to extend his researches to the spaces between the naturally placed boulders near the circles, with the result that some of them also were found to have been roofed in and used as dwellings. The circular huts appear to have been of the same type as those at Grimspound, but larger, the diameter of one being as much as twenty-six feet; some of them had hearths and cooking holes like those on Dartmoor, but there were no raised platforms. A few broken spindle whorls, some fragments of pottery of a better kind than that found on Dartmoor, some stone mullers and rubbers, a polished celt, some flint spearheads, knives, flakes, and cores, and about five hundred flint arrowheads of all shapes,—thirty of them in faultless condition and of most beautiful workmanship,—were the reward of the exploration of nearly one hundred hut-circles and inter-boulder dwellings.

The fact that so many arrowheads and several spearheads have been found at Carnbrê, while none have been found at Grimspound, and not many on Dartmoor at all, has been held to indicate that the Cornishmen were a warlike people, either from choice or necessity, while those of Dartmoor were more peaceful and pastoral; and it has also been pointed out that Grimspound is commanded from higher ground on three sides, and is rather a protected village or cattle station than a fortress like Carnbrê. Seeing, however, that arrows are useful for hunting as well as for fighting, it may be questioned whether this difference (should it be sustained by future explorations) may not be due to racial or tribal peculiarities, or may not rather show that Grimspound belongs to a somewhat earlier period than Carnbrê; and this view may be supported by a reference to the great quantity of "stone rows" on Dartmoor, the like of which cannot be found in Cornwall or anywhere else. The existence of flint weapons in Cornwall opens up an interesting question, for there is little, if any, flint in the county suitable for them. In the wildest part of it, between the Cheesewring and Brown Willy, is a piece of water, called Dozmarè Pool,[1] from the peat on the banks of which great numbers of beautiful flakes have been obtained, but the raw material was brought from a part of Devonshire thirty miles away, to be worked up at this place. Mr. Francis Brent, F.S.A., of Plymouth, has collected much valuable information about flint stations in Cornwall, but has unfortunately not yet published it.

On the slopes of Brown Willy and Rough Tor, which are the highest points of Cornwall, there are numerous hut-circles and enclosures which have not yet been explored; some of these are smaller than those of Dartmoor and Carnbrê, and were covered with roofs of stone and turf built up in the same way as the walls; one of them is still perfect, and at least one other has part of the roof remaining. There also are five circles of standing stones, the diameters of which, as I have pointed out elsewhere,[2] seem to have been carefully measured, as indeed do the distances between the circles themselves; their positions also appear to have been carefully selected, so as to bring them into certain lines with the tops of the surrounding hills. All these things point to an observance of the sun and stars for religious or astronomical purposes, or both, and to some amount of communication, casual it may be rather than regular, with the East, which we should hardly expect to find in conjunction with such rude dwellings and appliances of living as the excavations already described show to have belonged to the people by whom the circles were almost certainly erected. But it must be borne in mind that rough ways of living are by no means incompatible with high intellectual capacity, and that the habitations of parts of Ireland and Scotland in which many of our most useful public men have first seen the light have not been very superior to those of Carnbrê or Dartmoor. Another reflection arising from this is that the dwellings in Ireland and elsewhere which strike visitors from England as being so extremely uncivilized, are not the result of degradation of the inhabitants, but rather of their not having advanced in that particular much beyond the fashions of their ancestors of two or three thousand years ago.

There are circles of standing stones on Dartmoor, some of which seem to have been arranged in relation to some of the surrounding hills, or to single stones standing near, and which were almost certainly constructed by the people who lived in the hut circles. Many there are who hold that these circles were places of burial and nothing more; interments have been found in some (just as they may be found in some churches), but not in all of them, and the absence of interments in some shows that burial was not, as a rule, their primary object. Others consider the circles of standing stones to be merely the remains of the circular walls of large stone towers, but that idea hardly requires serious notice. On Dartmoor there are also numerous long rows of small standing stones, which frequently have a small circle, with or without a barrow inside it, at one end of the line, or it may be a barrow without a circle. One of these lines is nearly two miles long, and extends from one of the "sacred" circles to a barrow, which was no doubt a tomb. Nothing really like these stone rows is found anywhere but on Dartmoor, and what the idea underlying their construction was is most uncertain. If, when they were erected, the fogs on Dartmoor were as frequent as they are now, the "rows" might have helped the inhabitants to find their way about; but there was most likely some more occult reason for their construction than that. About forty of these rows are still left on different parts of Dartmoor.

The ancient population of the moors, which was apparently more numerous than that of the present day, must have left considerable quantities of refuse in the shape of bones, which, if they could be found, would enable zoologists to tell us what animals and birds they reared, or hunted, and lived upon; and amongst the bone and shell-heaps might be found further fragments of tools, weapons, and pottery, which would also add to our information about their manners and customs, but their "kitchen-middens" have yet to be discovered and reported upon.

The tombs of the hut-dwellers have for the most part been broken into and their contents scattered long ago, so that we know little about their physical characteristics. They are generally supposed to have been a small dark-haired race, and the size of some of their dwellings, and particularly the dimensions of the entrances to them, seem to favour that view; but, although we are not so well informed upon these points as we could wish, the excavations recently made enable us to form a fair idea of their manner of life. We can imagine the women spinning, cooking in the holes by the hearths, and preparing the skins of the animals killed in the chase by the men, and making garments from them; while around them the children, who probably wore no clothes at all in hot weather, played at rude games, or imitated the more serious pursuits of their parents. We can picture to ourselves the men hunting, fishing, tending their cattle, and perhaps engaging in some rudimentary agricultural employment, or manufacturing flint tools and weapons from the lumps of flint which in Cornwall were obtained from the north-east, either by parties organized from their own villages, or from caravans of traders from beyond the Tamar. We may even suppose a priesthood supervising the erection of the sacred circles, and carrying on some sort of ceremonies therein, or taking part in funereal rites, and in the construction of barrows with long lines of stones stretching away across the country from them; and we may conclude our brief and imperfect survey of this ancient people and their remains with the reflection that the mere erection of regular circles and long lines of stones, although the stones were much smaller than those of Abury, Stonehenge, or Stanton Drew, demanded an amount of constructive skill, of careful planning, and of organized effort, actuated by some common underlying purpose or idea, which we cannot properly attribute to savages of so low a type as those by whom some other parts of the world are even yet populated; and that, poor as the manner of life of these early inhabitants of Devon and Cornwall may have been, they had yet advanced some distance beyond the first steps of civilization.

  1. unreadable; probably Dozmary Pool is meant. (Wikisource-ed).
  2. 'Journal of the Anthropological Institute,' August, 1895.

This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.