AN undisturbed stone circle which has been buried in the peat since its abandonment in prehistory has been lovingly excavated.
Sittaford Stone Circle, discovered in 2008 by Alan Endacott, a local amateur archaeologist, appeared to have remained undisturbed. It was revealed by the actions of peat cutters in more recent centuries and then a moorland fire in 2008 enabled Alan to spot some of the stones poking out of the surface.
A stone circle which has remained undisturbed is highly unusual. Many of Dartmoor’s stone circles have been subjected to various degrees of disturbance, ranging from ‘mining’ of the sites for stone, to investigation by antiquarians and early archaeologists.
Dartmoor National Park Authority archaeologist Lee Bray said: ‘This lack of disturbance is one of the facts that makes the site special. That this hasn’t happened at Sittaford — as far as we know — makes the site of national significance as it has the potential to shed light on stone circles which is unclouded by the activities of intervening periods.’
The monument itself is located about 300m south west of Sittaford Tor at over 520m elevation, on the summit of the ridge separating the catchments of the North Teign and East Dart. It consists of 30 stones, all of which are currently recumbent, arranged in a circle with a diameter of in excess of 30m.
Lee added: ‘It’s difficult to be more precise as we don’t yet know where the stones stood exactly — if they were ever standing. However, the diameter as it now appears makes Sittaford one of the largest stone circles in the national park.’
Previous work undertaken since the site’s discovery included a geophysical survey which detected several anomalies suggesting the possible presence of archaeological features not visible on the surface. The circle is also located on the edge of the blanket bog which covered much of the area and a peat depth survey, undertaken in April this year, showed that the peat on the western and southern sides of the monument reaches 0.6m but on the opposite side is only a few centimetres.
There were five objectives for the dig, aimed at answering a few basic questions in order to provide a firm foundation for any future, more extensive investigation. These were: to determine whether the stones were originally upright; to improve the known chronology of the circle through the acquisition of further dateable material; to improve understanding of the development of peat across the site; to identify and understand the development of any paleosols which may be present on the site; and to understand the origins of the anomalies identified by the geophysical and peat depth surveys.
‘In total we excavated four trenches, three of which targeted stones of the circle while the fourth investigated an anomalously deep area of peat within the monument,’ said Lee.
‘Only one of the stones investigated was associated with convincing packing stones indicating that it had been placed upright and none of them had a socket which would have been dug to stand it in. None of the trenches revealed a socket in which the stones could have been set firmly in the ground.
‘This is intriguing and seems to indicate quite a “flimsy” construction. Perhaps the circle was never finished or maybe it wasn’t intended to last long?
‘Various interpretations are possible and we’re currently considering all the available evidence to try to identify the most likely conclusion.’
The excavations, which lasted five days, did not recover any artefactual material which would have helped date the stones but samples of peat taken from beneath them by Prof Ralph Fyfe of Plymouth University will hopefully contain material that will allow the team to estimate the date they fell or were placed in their current positions.
Two similar dates have been obtained during previous work on the site and both suggested the stones were lying down by around 2,000BC — a period known as the Early Bronze Age — and within the accepted date range for stone circles elsewhere.
Lee added: ‘The samples will also shed light on Dartmoor’s deeper past as the natural subsoil revealed under the peat by the excavations was not like that found elsewhere on Dartmoor. Analysis should reveal more about its formation and why it is different.’