A History of Devon

A History of Devon

Timeline of Events & Developments
Timeline of Events & Developments


The first traces of man in Devon are Old Stone Age tools foud in the gravels near Axminster, and others, with signs of habitation, in coastal caves at Torquay, Brixham, and Plymouth. The Old Stone Age covered an immense period – fifty times as long as anything since -but at its most flourishing there were probably under a hundred people in the county. Since they lived a nomad existence, and left behind them nothing but crude stone or bone tools, it is not surprising that their traces are rare.

With the New Stone Age, beginning in Britain (but not necessarily in Devon) about 4000 BC, fresh arrivals from the Continent brought farming and hut-building, with a variety of new crafts, and a con­siderably denser population was possible. Devon, however, was much less attractive to them than the chalk lands to eastward, where they could find pasture and corn-plots clear of the forest and on well-drained soils. The climate was wet, and the valleys either swamp or forest, and Dartmoor must have been uninhabitable. New Stone Age traces are therefore much rarer than, for example, in Dorset.

To the east of the county, at Hembury, was made the most westerly of the causewayed camps which have been traced at intervals along the southern chalk hills. These peculiar earthworks, which seem to have been put up by early neolithic invaders, took the form of at least two and sometimes four concen­tric rings of low rampart and ditch, broken by many ’causeways’. They were not defences, since there were too many entrances,, and they have perhaps been best explained as corrals for herding cattle at the autumn slaughter time, or as ‘fair grounds’ for periodical meetings of a scattered population. Here, and also on Haldon, have been found traces of rectangular huts which show some ability to build in timber, quite unlike the round form with conical roof which is normal throughout prehistoric times.

Long-barrows, the ‘family vaults’ of neolithic chieftains, are unknown in Devon; but near Drewsteignton is a dolmen or burial chamber, called Spinster’s Rock, made of great stones, similar to those found in long-barrows, and the name ‘Shil­ston’ (shelf-stone) elsewhere in the county makes it probable that others once existed. All Shilston sites, as well as the Spinster’s Rock, are marked on the map.

With the Bronze Age, beginning about 1900 BC, the climate seems to have been entering a long warm and dry spell, and signs of population in Devon become much more marked. Several of the ‘beakers’ which the first Bronze Age people buried with their dead have been found on Dartmoor. The Beaker, Folk, who reached Devon from Brittany, evidently found the Moor, in drier conditions, a suitable forest-free area for their pastoral farming. They brought with them the mysterious megalithic re­ligion, which involved setting up large stones either singly, in circles, or in rows. We shall never know just what these monuments meant, but they were probably connected with some form of seasonal nature-worship and with the service of the mighty dead. Possibly the fact that the moor was strewn with suitable rocks made it particularly attractive for this purpose.

The stone rows, common in Brittany but rare in England outside Dartmoor, number over sixty. Many are aligned on burial sites, and may have been processional. In additional there are ninety circles, and a number of large single upright stones called menhirs. Only the more impressive of the rows can be shown on the map.

The Beaker Folk also introduced the round bar­row, covering a single important (and generally cremated) burial. This remained the standard shape,. with changes of detail, throughout the Bronze Age. Where these are found, we can be sure that the district carried a population at some period of its 1500 years. The map shows only the most prominent

of those surviving today, but it indicates that people spread on to most of the high ground above the swamps and forests. The soils they lived on were poor, but, at least until the Late Bronze Age, culti­vation mattered much less than herding. Much of Dartmoor was enclosed for cattle with ‘reaves’ (boundaries) made of bank and ditch or drystone walling.

Much of this pioneering dates from the Middle Bronze Age, which began about 1400 BC. People known to us as the Urn Folk, after the large pots in which they buried the ashes of their dead, built on Dartmoor over 150 pounds or enclosures, most of which contain the remains of huts. Grimspound, the most famous, had a dozen circular dwelling huts with walls of earth and rubble faced with stone, besides several others which were probably cattle byres. The pound wall seems to have been a cattle‑corral rather than a defence against enemies. Many other settlements, marked by stone ‘hut-circles’, had no pound, but had instead an arrangement of walls between the huts to enclose corn-plots or cattle-pens. The little fields which the Urn Folk cleared of stones for their hoe-farming can still be traced by the ring of boulders, and are the earliest relics of culti­vation in Britain. One expert guess is that the population of England reached some 40000 by about 1000 BC, and that might mean perhaps 2000 in Devon.

Throughout most of the Bronze Age the metal was too scarce for the everyday purposes of ordinary folk, and stone remained in use. Only in the Late Bronze Age, from about 750 BC, did bronze become more plentiful, and it was never as easy to get as iron later became, though it was easier to smelt and work. The Late Bronze Age saw the arrival in Britain of Celtic people who used a simple plough and culti­vated much more efficiently, and a few of the en­closures attached to Dartmoor pounds show larger and more regular fields which may have been laid out for their cross-ploughing. This involved shallow ploughing first across the field and then up and down it, to ensure that the soil was thoroughly broken up. Mostly the newcomers preferred the chalk lands further east; and soon after their arrival the climate again began to grow wetter. By the end of the Bronze Age, about 450 BC, it is probable that the moor, and some of the other upland heaths, were again be­coming uninhabitable. They were never to be culti­vated again, since the iron axe allowed later pioneers in search of land to clear the forest from richer lowland soils. This fact, coupled with the plentiful supply of surface rocks on Dartmoor, explains why so much of Bronze Age date survives to the present.