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6 June 2014
Ancient tomb on Dartmoor gives up its secrets

A Prehistoric tomb discovered on North Dartmoor (Devon, England) is slowly revealing its ancient secrets, as final analysis work on the artefacts found within nears completion.
     In August 2011, excavation work began on a cremation burial chamber discovered on Whitehorse Hill near Fernworthy Forest. Co-ordinated by Dartmoor National Park Authority with funding from English Heritage, the excavation has revealed an  important collection of early Bronze Age organic remains and artefacts. The find is now considered to be the most important assemblage of prehistoric grave goods ever recovered in South West England.
     The assessment of the cremated human remains has revealed that these represent no more than one individual, with an age at death of about 15 to 25 years old. The gender is unknown. The overall impression is of a small, gracile person. A number of small textile fragments were recovered from the cremation, their charred state suggesting that the textile accompanied the body into the cremation, maybe worn as clothing, or added as a shroud or used to bind the body.
     Analysis of the skilfully-made textile and animal skin object found in the cist has revealed that this is a band of textile made from finely woven nettle fibre. Stitched to the outer edges of this were two rows of leather binding with a fringe of outward pointing leather triangles made from thin calf skin. This object seems to be unique in North Western Europe, its fine decorative work suggests it was an item to be worn, possibly as a sash or belt.
     An arm band was also found within the tomb, with domed rivets made of tin and fibres made from cow hair. The use of tin for decorative objects is exceptionally rare within prehistoric burial contexts in Britain. Cow hair was also used to make a basket containing the majority of over 200 beads discovered, by far the largest number of beads found from a single Bronze Age discovery in South West England. Seven of those beads discovered are made of amber from the Baltic. The presence of these beads strongly suggests that this was a high status burial. There are also 92 individually perforated disc or sphere-shaped shale beads. The shale has been identified as coming from Kimmeridge in Dorset.
     Other discoveries within the cist include four wooden studs, probably used in ears or elsewhere on the body, or set into leather belts or clothing, two wooden stakes, some fragments of a copper alloy, and an animal pelt.
     The painstaking conservation work was undertaken by the Wilshire Conservation Service and the artefacts will soon be transferred to the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, with a major exhibition 'Whitehorse Hill: A Prehistoric Dartmoor Discovery' planned at the museum from September 13 to December 13.

Edited from Okehampton Times (4 June 2014)

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