Devon: A Bronze Age Landscape?

by Steve

Devon has some of the most beautiful and unspoilt landscape in Britain. When you walk down a Devon lane with its towering banks it is easy to imagine yourself meeting a seventeenth century milkmaid coming the other way.  The banks are so high and the path so deeply cut that you might wonder whether your way is not just centuries but perhaps millennia old.

Devon is blessed with a large variety of landscape and in the West sits the glowering plateau of Dartmoor.  Dartmoor is cold and wet but on a rare sunny spring day it is like paradise.

Dartmoor Weather

There have been hotter periods in the past and there were more trees to keep off the cold winds so people settled and farmed on the moor.  The good conditions did not last and by 2500 years ago much of the settlement had ended as the moor became cold, wet and windswept.  The Bronze Age settlement of Dartmoor has left clear traces as an extensive system of field boundaries known as the "Dartmoor Reaves".

We are lucky today because the National Library of Scotland (NLS) has provided maps that allow LIDAR to be overlaid on Victorian Ordinance Survey maps so that we can explore the history of the landscape.  LIDAR is an acronym for Laser Imaging Dection and Ranging.  The NLS LIDAR maps show the topography of the ground so than bumps and depression of a metre or more can be seen. We can zoom in on the Internet to see the settlement patterns on the moor (click here).

Dartmoor Reaves

It is fascinating that the reaves extend into the surrounding landscape:

Extension of Reaves

The blue lines in the image above show the position of present day field boundaries that seem to be direct extensions of the bronze age boundaries of Dartmoor.  This has been spotted by archaeologists in the past.  The Reaves are about 50m apart which is too narrow for a more modern field so where reaves abut modern field boundaries every other reave is often removed. 

When we look at the Devon landscape there are many places where the bronze age style of long, winding, parallel boundaries is obvious.

Compare this with a part of Gloucestershire that has similar topography to the part of Devon shown above:

In Gloucestershire the field boundaries tend to be straighter and much less prone to having parallel companions.  In parts of Britain where the land is flat the fields tend to have straight boundaries. Even the Gloucestershire field boundaries above are far more geometrical than the Devon field boundaries.

The bronze age style consists of Devon banks acting as long boundaries with gentle curves, frequently in parallel groups.

The Devon bank is no mean feat of construction being 4-5 feet high, 5 feet wide, with a hedge on top:

Devon bank

(See Defra: Earth Bank Restoration for a description of bank construction).

It would not be surprising to find that some of the reaves constructed like this have survived for three millennia across Devon.

Devon banks are not just a barrier for cattle and sheep, they also stop people. In the first century AD it is probable that there were winding, parallel Devon banks at 50m intervals across the county.

The Romans seem to have come to an accommodation with the Dumnonii tribe in Devon and Cornwall and allowed them a measure of independence. In general this means that the Romans could not beat them on the battlefield but this is not surprising because there were few fields available for battle. You can imagine the difficulty of taking Roman legions with their baggage trains down narrow Devon tracks, hemmed in by high banks with no view of the surrounding countryside.

A Devon lane, Photo: Alex Graeme.

I have been unable to find any systematic studies of the radiocarbon date of Devon banks.  Is it possible that we are still living in a partly Bronze Age landscape in some parts of the county without realising it?

If the work on dating the banks has not been done it would be an excellent project for an undergraduate thesis, and if successful, a PhD project.

Some further links:

Land and society : the Bronze Age cairnfields and field systems of Britain