'Extraordinary' Dartmoor find sheds new light on Bronze Age

Discovery of treasure-trove on Whitehorse Hill 'as important' as Stonehenge, say archaeologists

(Image credit: COR/AFP/Getty Images)

RESEARCH into the 4,000-year-old remains of a body, along with a hoard of treasures, discovered on Whitehorse Hill in Dartmoor is said to be "rewriting" British Bronze Age history. The burial relics, which were found in a stone box, are being analysed and assessed by scientists across several continents, with Dartmoor National Park archaeologists describing it as the most important ancient find on the moor.

So what exactly have they found?The cremated bones of a 4,000-year-old body, believed to be a woman, wrapped in fur and buried in a small stone box. Along with the bones are a number of objects, including a unique arm band, plaited from cowhair and originally studded with 34 tin beads, a unique nettle fibre belt with a leather fringe and pre-historic jewellery, such as ear studs made from spindle wood.

What does the discovery tell us?The burial discovery is "rewriting the history of the Bronze Age moor", says The Guardian. The tin studs are the earliest evidence of metal-working in the South West, while the wooden ear studs are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain. The jewellery includes amber from the Baltic and shale from Whitby. Scientists in Britain, Denmark and the Smithsonian Institute in the US have been working on the fur, which is not dog, wolf, deer, horse or sheep, but may be a bear skin, from a species that became extinct in Britain at least 1,000 years ago.

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How unusual is the find?Jane Marchand, chief archaeologist at the Dartmoor National Park Authority, says that the discovery of any one of the artefacts would have been "remarkable". She explains that the last Dartmoor burial with grave goods was found back in the days of Victorian gentleman antiquarians, so this is "the first scientifically excavated burial on the moor, and the most significant ever". The stone box, called a 'cist', was first spotted more than a decade ago by a walker on Duchy of Cornwall land, but it was only excavated three years ago when archaeologists realised the site was eroding so fast that any possible contents would inevitably soon be lost. It was only when they lifted the top slab that the scale of the discovery became apparent. "I knew immediately we had something extraordinary," says Marchand. She has also said that "visibly it's not as impressive as Stonehenge, but archaeologically it's just as important".

Who did the bones belong to?Experts are yet to definitively identify the sex of the fragmented charred bones, but they suggest a "slight individual" aged between 15 and 25 years. Marchand says she has no doubt that it is a woman, given the nature of the objects, believed to be her most valuable possessions, and a lack of a dagger or weapon. Charred scraps of her shroud and the wood from her funeral pyre were still clinging to her cremated bones. Work continues on her remains, says the Guardian, but it is unlikely to answer the mystery of "who she was, how she died, and why at such a young age she merited a burial fit for a queen".

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