Archaeology on Exmoor
The earliest remains date from the late Mesolithic (8000-4000 BC), and comprise small flint implements called microliths. The first settled communities built a range of monuments and Exmoor is especially rich in prehistoric standing stones as well as nearly 400 burial mounds. Prehistoric hut circles and field systems can also be found on the moors. These sites form a remarkable group dating from the Neolithic (4000-2000BC) and Bronze Age (2000-700BC). The later prehistoric period is characterised by small settlements which archaeologists term `hillslope enclosures', and hillforts. Although none of these have been excavated they are thought to date from the Iron Age. Roman activity on Exmoor is represented by two fortlets on the coast at Old Burrow and Martinhoe, whilst Exmoor is ringed by Roman forts on its southern side. Recent work is showing that the Romans exploited Exmoor’s iron deposits as well.
The evidence for post-Roman Exmoor is several inscribed stones (the Culbone Stone and the Caractacus Stone on Winsford Hill for examples), some early Christian church dedications and some early place-names. Exmoor has three Norman castles one of which, Dunster, was rebuilt in stone. Two priories were founded in the medieval period at Dunster and Barlynch. The settlement pattern of farms, hamlets and villages was largely established by the end of the 13th century. Several settlements were abandoned in the medieval period and these form a valuable insight into life on Exmoor in medieval times - the best preserved is at Badgworthy.
More recently Exmoor has been the home to a number of major estates and `improving' families, who sought to better Exmoor's agriculture and infrastructure. Their influence is a constant presence in the modern landscape, in the architecture, roads, field patterns and settlements.
Three constant themes underpin Exmoor's archaeology and help to explain why the human landscape has developed in the ways it has. Firstly farming has always played and continues to play a central place on Exmoor. Secondly iron mining has been a major influence over the last 2000 years. Thirdly Exmoor's relationship with its coastline. This has been fundamental, both as an essential means of communication and trade, but also since the end of the 18th century as a tourist destination, which has helped to shape the coastal settlements and give them their unique character.
A feature of Exmoor's archaeology is its good preservation. This is in large part due to the lack of intensive agricultural improvement in the past.