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The Upton Pyne Barrows and the Early Bronze Age in Devon (History Section)

Mon. 11 October 2021 at 7:30 pm

To be held by Zoom video conferencing.

A talk “The Upton Pyne Barrows and the Early Bronze Age in Devon” to be given by Henrietta Quinnell.

The talk will look at what is known about these barrows from excavation and modern research and set this in a summary of our knowledge of other Devon barrows and the information these provide about people in Devon during the Early Bronze Age, c. 2400 – 1500 BC.

Henrietta is a prehistorian specialising in the West Country, formerly Lecturer in Archaeology at Exeter University Adult Education Department. She is a former President and currently Vice-President of the Devon Archaeological Society. She has been actively involved in researching Devon’s prehistory for some 50 years and has a special interest in barrows and what they can tell us about the societies who built and used them.

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Report on the talk

Henrietta Quinnell gave members an interesting illustrated talk via Zoom on “The Upton Pyne Barrows and the Early Bronze Age in Devon”.

Most barrows were built between 2500 BC and 1500 BC, during the Beaker and Early Bronze Age periods. This was a time of change when a good deal of clearing of woodland was taking place. The Upton Pyne barrows are located in a settled area, at the junction of the rivers Exe, Culm and Creedy. Originally there were probably more than forty barrows but most of them are now flattened.

Between 2500 BC and 2400 BC many immigrants came to Britain. They bought new pots, new arrow heads, copper and gold and they built round barrows. As they buried their dead with beakers, they became known as the Beaker people. Now DNA can identify where people came from; the Amesbury Archer was raised in the Alpine foothills though he was buried near Stonehenge and his grave goods included arrowheads and a copper dagger as well as beakers. The nearest Beaker burial to Upton Pyne is at Cranbrook, about 5 or 6 miles away, where a ring ditch survives from a small barrow.

Most barrows were built in the Early Bronze Age and contained flanged axes, arrowheads and urns. Collared urns spread into Devon from Wessex, showing that communities communicated with each other. As virtually nothing is known about settlements from this time, it is thought their houses must have been made with wattle and daub that leave little trace and any evidence has been ploughed out.

At Upton Pyne, two barrows have been excavated. In 1967 a team from the Devon Archaeological Society decided to excavate one of the barrows before it was lost like many of the others to the plough. The team had three weeks to complete their work. This barrow was unusual in that it was built into a slope. A platform had been cut into the slope which had then been left for some while before being covered over with sandstone. Deposits had been put in a small mound in the centre of the barrow – four pots of which only two had remains of cremated bone. It is evident that not all burials were in a barrow. There was a cist (a hole lined with stones) whose sides were made of local stone but the cover stone had been brought from over a mile away. The pots have been radiocarbon dated and come from a period between 1750 BC and 1500 BC. One of the pots is a collared urn, but the smallest pot had come from Cornwall – more evidence that there was contact with other communities. All four pots are now in the RAMM.

Over the central mound a ring of turf had been laid and then a ring of whitish sand covered the turf. It had then been left for some while. Finally, maybe decades later, red and yellow clay had been brought in to cover the barrow. Geology suggests that the soils had been kept off-site for several years.

The other barrow that had been excavated had been dug in 1870 by a Rector from the Honiton area. This one is difficult to see now. The Rector made good notes, describing the stones and noting that there was a centre of burnt clay. There was a fair amount of cremated bone and associated deposits. These included a pin, a necklace, a dagger and a small vessel known as an accessory cup or an incense cup. The necklace (again to be found in the RAMM) was made of shale beads, lignite and clay beads, some of which had come from Dorset.

In 2011 the Horse Hill cist was excavated. This was unusual in that it was in a peat bog (which meant the items had been better preserved) and the objects were still there. The deposits had been wrapped in a bear skin, together with a basket and a piece of fabric. The fabric was particularly fine, not an everyday item. The basket had been made of lime bast and a necklace and bracelet were found in the basket. There was a sophisticated standard of craftwork and the necklace has been reconstructed and can be seen at the RAMM.

After the Early Bronze Age, barrows are rare. At that time, about 1500 BC, there was a major shift towards settled landscapes with fields and houses.

Henrietta’s talk can be summarised:

  • Barrows are nothing like the traditional view of them being of an individual equipped for the afterlife
  • Human remains may be absent or often present in small quantities
  • Deposited artefacts and pots/sherds can be few or broken
  • They reflect a complex relationship between people, communities, artefacts and the afterlife
  • Their position in the landscape is important – they are to be seen from certain areas and distances but we cannot pick up on most of this.

Barrows are important because they provide information for a thousand years of prehistory when settlement sites hardly survive.

Henrietta’s talk was recorded and is available on request to members (see this page).

Chris Reader
December 2021


Mon. 11 October 2021
7:30 pm
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History Section (Derek Smithers)
History Section (Lynda Vickery)
01409 253927


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