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In January 2012 a previously unrecorded alignment of stones was identified on the southern slope of Bancbryn, Carmarthenshire. Subsequent research has indicated that this stone alignment shares many characteristics with examples in South West England, but one particular aspect – a specific and pronounced visual link to the sea and a coastal headland – apparently had no English parallels.  Preliminary research has revealed that this is not the case and that many of the Dartmoor rows have been specifically positioned and orientated taking often precise cognisance of the local topography to create tangible visual links with the sea.

This new series of articles by Sandy Gerrard will investigate and document these alignments and over time build a compelling body of evidence to support the hypothesis that many stone alignments represent special way-marked routes which were designed to provide the “traveller” with extraordinary visual treats. In turn this discovery may provide fresh insights into the character of Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age society.

Location of the Shaugh Moor stone alignment.

Location of the Shaugh Moor stone alignment.

Leading up a gentle north facing slope of Shaugh Moor at SX 55422 63429 on Dartmoor is a single stone row which was discovered by Hugh Breton in 1917. The row is aligned approximately NNE to SSW and is at least 179m long. Walking along the row from its lower NNE end the nearby sea is hidden from sight. As one proceeds up the hill the sea framed by the headlands of Staddon Heights and Penlee Point appears at precisely the point where the row shifts alignment to point directly at Staddon Heights. From this point as you continue walking along the row the sea view slowly develops into a spectacular vista as you reach the cairn at the top. The appearance of the sea view at the precise spot where the alignment changes course very strongly supports the idea that the row was positioned to maximise and emphasise a particular visual relationship between the row and sea.

An identical relationship was recognised at Bancbryn where adjustments in the orientation of the alignment were visually connected to the sea and a prominent headland. To dismiss such observations as coincidence would seem unwise particularly as a growing body of evidence is building of similar precise relationships between stone alignments and prominent features in the landscape.

The stone alignment includes a line of small stones leading NNE up a gentle slope on Shaugh Moor.

The stone alignment includes a line of small stones leading NNE up a gentle slope on Shaugh Moor.

The lower end of stone alignment. View from above and south west. This length of the alignment has no views towards Plymouth Sound.

The lower end of stone alignment. View from above and south west. This length of the alignment has no views towards Plymouth Sound.

View from above and north east of the stone alignment. The length of row in the foreground up to the alignment shift has no views of Plymouth Sound. The length of alignment in the background has views of Penlee Point, Staddon Heights and Plymouth Sound.

View from above and north east of the stone alignment. The length of row in the foreground up to the alignment shift has no views of Plymouth Sound. The length of alignment in the background has views of Penlee Point, Staddon Heights and Plymouth Sound.

At the point where the alignment shifts Staddon Heights, Penlee Point and Plymouth Sound become visible for the first time

At the point where the alignment shifts Staddon Heights, Penlee Point and Plymouth Sound become visible for the first time

View from the point where the alignment shifts. Penlee Point is clearly visible although Staddon Heights is hidden behind a gorse bush.  From this point as you walk up the row the sea becomes increasingly visible.

View from the point where the alignment shifts. Penlee Point is clearly visible although Staddon Heights is hidden behind a gorse bush. From this point as you walk up the row the sea becomes increasingly visible.

View of the upper part of the row. The photograph is taken from a short distance west of the row because a gorse bush obscures the direct view to Staddon Heights along the row.

View of the upper part of the row. The photograph is taken from a short distance west of the row because a gorse bush obscures the direct view to Staddon Heights along the row.

View from above of the upper part of the row illustrates that it is aligned with the western end of Staddon Heights.

View from above of the upper part of the row illustrates that it is aligned with the western end of Staddon Heights.

View from the top of the row as it would appear with low sunlight on the water. This is view available at the top of the row and is slowly revealed after passing the alignment shift point.

View from the top of the row as it would appear with low sunlight on the water. This is view available at the top of the row and is slowly revealed after passing the alignment shift point.

Profile Analysis

A helpful way to illustrate the character of the local topography is with a series of cross-sectional profiles. The first shows the profile from the cairn at the top of the alignment to Penlee Point. The sea is visible in front and behind the headland. The second profile illustrates that the Plym Estuary is visible as a small body of water from the alignment as well as Plymouth Sound beyond. The third profile illustrates the impact of Staddon Heights on restricting but not preventing a view to the sea. This technique for examining the views from stone alignments will be utilised at other sites to demonstrate particular links between rows and the sea.

Map showing the position of the cross-section profiles.

Map showing the position of the cross-section profiles.

Cross-section profiles from the alignment to the sea.  The water visible from the alignment is shown blue.

Cross-section profiles from the alignment to the sea. The water visible from the alignment is shown blue.

Sea Levels and Forests

The late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age natural environment would have been somewhat different than today’s.  Sea level would have been lower and distribution of tree cover would have been rather different.  The sea level is unlikely to be a significant factor given the distances involved, but clearly a single copse in the foreground in the wrong place could significantly affect the character of views and any reveals.  Clearly there is no way that we can establish the precise character or distribution of woodland at the time the rows were built and therefore it is not possible to factor this in. This is unfortunate but the evidence for strong, deliberate visual links between the sea and many rows would support the idea that the major topographic features being acknowledged by the rows are likely to have presented themselves in a similar if not identical way today.  The journey is hopefully one that you agree is worth making – if lack of conclusive evidence was seen as a reason not to pursue explanations then the library shelves in the archaeology section would be very empty indeed.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank a number of people who have helped formulate the ideas behind this series of articles. In particular, special thanks are due to Helen Woodley who has generously contributed many of her thoughts and observations regarding sea triangles and their association with prehistoric monuments. George Currie, Nigel Swift, Alan Simkins and Sophie Smith have provided much useful feedback and suggested helpful directions. Finally I would like to thank Cadw whose infuriating failure to acknowledge the obvious provided the impetus for this re-appraisal of this enigmatic group of monuments.

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