Excavating an Early Bronze Age barrow on the edge of Dartmoor.
Emmets Post is the name given to a small Bronze Age barrow set high on the south-western edge of Dartmoor.
The site is named after a 19th century boundary post erected on top of the barrow mound.
It is surrounded by a rich archaeological landscape including Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ritual and mortuary monuments; extensive Bronze Age ‘reave’ field systems, enclosures and hut circles; and traces of historic settlement and more recent industry. From the medieval period onwards, extractive industries have had a massive impact on this area of the moor. Stream working, deep mining and more recently open-cast quarrying have all left their mark on this landscape.
In 2014 Oxford Archaeology (funded by Historic England and mineral company Silbelco), undertook the topographic survey and full excavation of Emmets Post barrow in advance of china clay quarry expansion. This was followed by a programme of post-excavation research funded by Historic England.
Emmets Post: structure and sequence of construction
The topographic survey showed the barrow to be a small, steep-sided, mound approximately 10 metres in diameter with a maximum height of 1 metre. The mound was irregular in shape with a large central depression. The eponymous Emmets Post was set into the southern side of the top of the mound.
Excavation revealed that the barrow comprised four elements . The earliest consisted of a low, turf-built, flat-topped platform. Set centrally on this platform was a small stone cairn. Fragments of two Early Bronze Age Trevisker ware vessels (typical Early Bronze Age pottery from the area) and several quartz blocks were found within, or close to, the cairn. No human remains were recovered from the cairn. A more substantial turf mound covered both the cairn and most of the turf platform. The fragmentary remains of a probable kerb of granite blocks surrounded the base of the mound.
Barrows on Dartmoor are diverse in size and morphology. Whilst no close parallels exist for the entirety of the Emmets Post barrow, elements of its structure are echoed in neighbouring sites. For example, the conjoined turf-built barrows at Headon Down (Dyer and Quinnell 2013), and some of the smaller cairns recorded at Shaugh Moor (Wainwright et al 1979) have similar features to those of Emmets Post. Several of the cairns at Shaugh Moor and Hemerdon have phases that include kerbing (Wainwright et al 1979). However, none of these examples provide close parallels with the intermittent kerb enclosing the final mound at Emmets Post.
Two later episodes of activity were also recorded. The mound was disturbed by an unrecorded excavation which cut through the upper turf mound and into the central part of the underlying cairn, disturbing and potentially removing any centrally placed deposits. Up-cast from this excavation covered the top and side of the northern quadrant of the barrow mound. The granite pillar ‘Emmets Post’ was inserted into a narrow steep-sided pit cut into the top of the barrow mound.
Dating the barrow
It had been hoped to construct a detailed chronology for the construction and development of the barrow mound. However, this was prevented by the presence of both already-old ‘residual’ material within the turves used to construct the barrow, and of more recent ‘intrusive’ material introduced into the barrow by the unrecorded excavation, or by roots/animal burrows.
By comparison with dates from excavated examples of similar monuments, and the presence of Trevisker ware pottery, a single date of 1750-1560 cal BC is indicated for the base of the turf platform. This date was determined using radiocarbon analysis, incorporating the variations, or ‘wiggles’, in the carbon content of the recovered organic materials. The date is likely to establish the date of construction for the monument.
An earlier group of dates from the site spanning the third and earliest second millennia BC suggest several episodes of burning in the surrounding landscape during the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age caused either by wild fires or possibly by deliberate burning to improve grazing.
The single date of cal AD 1430-1610 from the centre of the cairn is probably too early for the unrecorded barrow excavation. Most antiquarian investigations on Dartmoor were undertaken between the mid-18th and early 19th centuries and it is likely that the dated sample comprised old material that was inadvertently introduced during a later excavation.
How the barrow was constructed
Microscopic analysis suggests that the underlying land surface was stripped of its turf before the construction of the barrow. Occasional lenses of fine granitic gravel observed during the excavation of both the platform and mound are likely to represent the weathered surface of the underlying bedrock adhering to the base of individual turves. Variation in the frequency of these lenses (implying different thicknesses of turf) and in their geological composition, suggest that the turves used came from several sources.
A significant aspect of the cairn is the selection of materials used in its construction.
The cairn is made up of quartz tourmaline blocks, with much smaller quantities of granite blocks. Quartz tourmaline is a grey/blue mineral that exists as an infrequent vein material running through the underlying china clay deposits. Whilst it is occasionally present locally as surface stone, it is much less common than granite. The proportion of quartz tourmaline used therefore suggests that it was deliberately selected, potentially indicating a particular significance or association attached to this material by the cairn’s builders.
The barrow in its landscape setting
The monument would have been a prominent landscape feature.
Examination of both preserved pollen and carbonised plant material samples taken from all phases of the barrow indicate that it was built in rough heather moorland with scrubby hazel vegetation.
In this relatively treeless environment, sightlines would have been virtually uninterrupted and the monument would have been a prominent landscape feature , particularly after it was enlarged by the addition of the final mound.
The modern landscape has been drastically altered by the effects of quarrying but it has been possible to construct a model of the pre-quarry topography using a combination of present-day Lidar data and contour information from 1950s Ordnance Survey mapping. This has established that Emmets Post would have sat on an east-to-west running ridge separating the catchments of the Blackabrook to the north and the Tory Brook to the south. The barrow mound is most prominent when approached upslope across this ridge from the valley of the Blackabrook to the north east.
The mound may still have been recognised as an ancestral monument during the middle Bronze Age, when the landscape of ceremonial and funerary monuments gave way to one of domestic settlements and agriculture. The barrow would have been overlooked by the field systems and enclosed settlements on the rising ground of Trowlesworthy Warren, Lee Moor and Shell Top to the east and north east.
It is likely that the monument would have been completely hidden from the more or less contemporary field system, enclosures and cairns on Shaugh Moor, only 1 kilometre to the west, by the rising ground of Saddelsborough Tor.
Marking a boundary
By the mid-19th century the barrow and its newly erected post was used to demarcate land holding on the unenclosed landscape of the Moor. This may well reflect a longer tradition of using the mound as a boundary marker. Emmets Post is one of a series of granite pillars, some of which bear the date 1835, used to mark the boundary between the estates of Lord Morley and Sir Ralph Lopes (Brewer 2002, 232-33). The letters ‘SM’ for Shaugh Moor (owned by Lopes) and ‘LM’ for Lee Moor (owned by Morley) are carved into the north and south faces of Emmets Post respectively.
China clay quarrying on Dartmoor began on Lee Moor in 1830 (Harris 1992), and the boundary stones would have marked the northern limits of the initial china clay leases. How the post, and hence the barrow on which it stood, came to be associated with the name ‘Emmet’, a family that lived in nearby Shaugh Prior in the late 18th century (Hemery 1986, 211), remains unclear.
The full excavation of Emmets Post has given archaeologists a rare opportunity to reveal the complexity of one of Dartmoor’s Bronze Age funerary monuments.
It has also enabled us to consider its post-medieval afterlife both as focus for antiquarian excavation and as a boundary marker. Information gained here will enable a richer understanding of hundreds of similar barrows on Dartmoor and beyond.
About the authors
Dr Olaf Bayer MA, MCIfA
Archaeological Investigator with Historic England.
Olaf is an archaeological Investigator in the Archaeological Survey and Investigation Team, based in Swindon. He joined Historic England in October 2015, having previously worked in academic, commercial and community archaeology for over 20 years. In 1999 whilst working for Exeter Archaeology he undertook emergency recording at Emmets Post barrow and in 2014 whilst working for Oxford Archaeology he supervised its full excavation. He has a PhD in prehistoric landscape archaeology, and has a particular research interest in the prehistoric landscapes of south-west Britain.
Andrew Simmonds PG Dip, ACIfA
Senior Project Manager with Oxford Archaeology
Andrew has 20 years' experience in professional archaeology and has been working in Oxford Archaeology’s post-excavation department since 2005. Major projects that he has been involved in include a Roman villa on the outskirts of Cirencester at Kingshill South, a late Roman cemetery at Lankhills School, Winchester and a multi-period excavation in advance of construction of Banbury Flood Alleviation Scheme. He is currently working on the post-excavation analysis stage of an excavation of a middle Bronze Age settlement and cremation cemetery near Bridgwater, Somerset.
Regional Manager with Oxford Archaeology
Ken has over 20 years' experience in professional archaeology. After graduating in 1986 with a BSc (Hons) in Environmental Science, Ken worked as a geologist before transferring to archaeology in 1988. Since joining Oxford Archaeology in 1995, Ken has managed a wide range of archaeological projects, including large-scale mineral extraction schemes, housing developments, pipelines and road schemes. He was Project Manager for the archaeological fieldwork at Terminal 5 and has also been Project Manager for a number of other fieldwork projects at Heathrow, Stansted and Edinburgh Airports.
Bayer, O Simmonds, A and Welsh, K 2017. ‘Excavation of an Early Bronze Age round barrow at Emmets Post, Shaugh Prior, Dartmoor’. Proc. Devon Archaeol. Soc. 75: 51-96
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Harris, H 1992 The industrial archaeology of Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press
Hemery, E 1986 Walking Dartmoor’s ancient tracks. London: Robert Hale
Newman, P 2011 The field archaeology of Dartmoor. Swindon: English Heritage
Wainwright, G J Fleming, A and Smith, K 1979 ‘The Shaugh Moor Project: first report’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 45: 1–34
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