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Page last updated at 11:48 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 12:48 UK
Stone row sheds new light on Dartmoor prehistoric life
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Stone 1
This image is looking north-east from stone 1 ŠTom Greeves

A recently discovered prehistoric stone row on Dartmoor is the first to be accurately dated in the world.

The nine stones at Cut Hill on northern Dartmoor have been dated at 3,500BC and they shed new light on an area where previously there were no signs of prehistoric life.

The granite stones also have the same NE-SW orientation as Stonehenge.

"These findings are of worldwide significance," said Dr Tom Greeves, the archaeologist who found the stones.

Dr Greeves, a cultural environmentalist from Tavistock, spotted the stones while out walking at the isolated spot in 2004.

Tom Greeves at the site
Tom Greeves stumbled on the site by accident ŠElisabeth Stanbrook

Since then, work has been ongoing with archaeologists, environmentalists and the Dartmoor National Park Authority to find out more about the stones, which lie flat in peat in a dead straight line.

Dr Greeves believes the information now coming out of the research is just the tip of the iceberg and that buried beneath miles of peat on northern Dartmoor could be more evidence of prehistoric life.

"This has really changed our thinking about this part of Dartmoor," Dr Greeves told BBC Devon. "Literally nothing has been recorded, structure-wise, over a four-mile circular diameter until now.

"It opens up all sorts of possibilities - this is only the beginning.

"And it has received worldwide interest because this is the first time really that we have been able to accurately date a stone row.

"That is because there was peat below and above the stones, which was sent away for carbon dating. This is a unique opportunity, because of the peat."

Cut Hill is a high, remote spot which is a two hour walk from anywhere. It seems that at one time, the stones were upright and that they were later deliberately laid flat in the peat.

"If that is the case, then the stones would date back earlier than 3,500BC," said Dr Greeves.

It was by pure chance initially that Dr Greeves stumbled on the stones: "I was out walking with my wife Elisabeth and we decided to walk to the top of Cut Hill, which you would usually avoid and skirt around.

The barrow
The barrow which raised Dr Greeves' antennae ŠTom Greeves

"I spotted a barrow - a burial mound - which I knew hadn't been recorded, and that set my antennae going.

"We moved to a point north-east and there was a stretch, about 100 yards wide, where peat had been eroded and there were pale stones laid down so regularly that I immediately knew they had been placed.

"I was absolutely astonished.

"They were all laid flat, about 25 metres (80ft) to 30 metres (100ft) apart.

"People must have spotted them before but obviously with my trained eye, I recognised the significance."

At first, five stones were spotted, but now nine have been uncovered - all about 6ft long, 2ft wide, and 8in thick.

"The interesting thing is the NE-SW orientation, so the midsummer sunrise is over the north-east axis and the midwinter sunset is over the south-west axis.

"This is the same as Stonehenge, but these stones predate the ones at Stonehenge.

"So we know that prehistoric people had a sophisticated interest in midsummer and midwinter. And this is clearly a sacred hill.

Ralph Fyfe
Ralph Fyfe unearthing stone 9 ŠTom Greeves

"I prefer to think of these stone rows as parish churches really, and, like a parish church, the site would have been modified over many hundreds of years."

The latest revelations are of international significance, according to archaeologist Mike Pitts, editor of the magazine published by the Council for British Archaeology.

"There are hundreds of stone rows in the British Isles and northern France and none have been accurately dated," he told BBC Devon.

"It had been assumed they were Bronze Age - 2,000BC, so this is Neolithic at 3,500BC.

"The other significant thing is that the stones are in a dead straight line. It points to the midsummer sunrise on one axis and in the other direction, it points to the midwinter sunset. That is the same orientation as at Stonehenge."

Research at the site has established that some 1,000 years after 3,500BC, the stones had all become completely covered by peat, before recent erosion exposed them again.

Dr Greeves does not expect Cut Hill to be inundated with visitors, like Stonehenge: "It is too remote and hostile, and the MoD has firing ranges in the area so access isn't always possible."

"But it will will be a place of great interest to people who are interested in history."

Environmental and climate work led by Dr Ralph Fyfe, and further archaeological work continues at the site, with the MoD and Dartmoor National Park helping with the removal of samples.

And there are hopes of more important finds: "The chances are there are other things buried under the peat," said Dr Greeves.

"It just requires people to keep their eyes peeled."

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