The Miniliths of Exmoor Project

Researchers: Dr Mark Gillings, Jeremy Taylor and Josh Pollard

This research project is a collaboration between the Universities of Leicester and Southampton and the Exmoor National Park authority. Its focus is a group of unique, yet largely un-investigated, prehistoric stone monuments – referred to as 'settings' – that occur across the upland landscape of Exmoor, southwest England.

A total of 59 settings have been identified on the moor, with new discoveries taking place regularly (Riley and Wilson-North, 2001). Assumed to be of later Neolithic/early Bronze Age date, these monuments take a variety of geometric, semi-geometric and apparently random forms (with no known parallels). They are remarkable for their diminutive size: component stones frequently stand to heights of 20cm or less; leading Aubrey Burl to refer to them as 'minilithic'. They are virtually invisible in the landscape and each could be erected by a single person in the space of an afternoon; their survival is in itself remarkable.

Exmoor minilith

Despite their frequency and unique character, the Exmoor settings have escaped any sustained archaeological research beyond basic mapping (designed to determine the plan form of the individual settings with the goal of fitting them into typologies), with no attempt to explore through excavation the settings themselves or their broader landscape context. Yet, the Exmoor settings have great potential to enrich current understandings of the processes of, and motivations for, monument construction and use in British prehistory, because they defy existing classifications and represent episodes of landscape 'marking' grossly divergent in scale and impact to that of conventional megaliths. Like those monuments found in the pre-eminent megalithic landscapes, the settings gained physical form through the careful selection, movement and erection of standing stones. However, in marked contrast to the former, they are tiny, occur in a bewildering array of configurations and lack evidence of direct cosmological concerns through alignment/orientation.

Current approaches to monumentality in prehistory – which stress group participation, bodily access, the choreographing and control of social encounters, and the manner in which the morphology of monuments visually referenced and echoed wider topographic configurations (e.g. Cummings, 2008) – thus seem redundant when faced with these settings. Recent interest in the experiential and biographical qualities of substances such as stone and wood has also focused upon the more dramatic constructions (large stone and timber circles, for example) – the proverbial palisades rather than the stakeholes. The potential therefore exists to use the case of the Exmoor settings to challenge current orthodoxies regarding the creation, maintenance and role of monuments in Neolithic and Bronze Age societies. In order to understand these settings an integrated contextual approach is necessary.

Exmoor minilith-excavation

The first step was taken with pilot work between 2005-8, which took the innovative approach of expanding the focus beyond the settings and out into their immediate landscape context. In so doing, this has suggested a dense, wholly unexpected, 'hidden' landscape of related cairns, structures and field boundaries (Gillings et al, in prepn). Rather than isolated ritual/ceremonial structures, the settings may have originally been part of a rich contemporary landscape. In short, the presence of adjacent features suggests the tradition of erecting the settings was embedded in complex ways of inhabiting and marking this landscape.

However, until the monument groups have been recorded in detail (and on a sufficient scale) and their landscape context fully analysed, especially through techniques such as geophysical survey and excavation, it is impossible to do more than speculate about their chronology, landscape associations, attendant practices (e.g. artefact deposition or burial) and possible roles, let alone explore their broader social implications.

Report on the 2005 fieldwork

Report on the 2007 fieldwork

Report on the 2009 fieldwork

Report on the 2010 fieldwork

Bibliography

Cummings V. 2008. The architecture of monuments. In J. Pollard (ed.), Prehistoric Britain, 135-59. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gillings M, Pollard J, Taylor J. The Miniliths of Exmoor. Submitted for publication to the Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, December 2008.

Riley H, Wilson-North R. 2001. The Field Archaeology of Exmoor. Swindon: English Heritage

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