DARTMOOR is an area of wild moorland in southwest England, a mist-veiled landscape of hidden valleys and bare tors where the stone circles and settlements of ancient people exist at the fringes of present time. It is one of the most undisturbed prehistoric landscapes within the British Isles. We have worked on Dartmoor for over 30 years, living with our family in a 1000-year-old traditional longhouse, one of the oldest inhabited dwellings on the moor, on a hill farm located in the heart of the moors. Wild pony herds roam the slopes and valleys, and we are both Dartmoor Commoners and traditional pony herders. Our own herd is small, all born from a single foal orphaned 25 years ago, who became the feisty matriarch of her own group. Four generations of daughters and sons now graze the hills above this farm.
In recent years there have been new discoveries on the high moors about how our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors lived and died. The rescue excavation in 2011 of a burial cistvaen on one of the highest ridges on Dartmoor, located in the centre of a complex and ancient ritual landscape, uncovered the intact bone bundle of White Horse Hill Woman, an ancestor from 4000 years ago. Her cremated bone fragments were tenderly wrapped inside a bear skin, along with many delicately preserved burial goods, including an intricate clay, shale, amber and tin necklace; a tiny copper pin; a wrist band made from braided animal hair and tin studs; woven cloth fragments with a fine leather trim; ear studs hand-turned from spindlewood; and the remnants of meadowsweet flowers, once laid into her granite tomb. Very soon after she emerged from the crumbling stone and eroding peat, a large Neolithic ceremonial circle was uncovered on the high slopes of a nearby tor, the beautifully carved large granite stones laid in position within earthy graves by the Bronze Age people. This central part of the north moors is rich with ancestral memory that is still slowly being revealed.
We have always drawn our inspiration from the raw and primordial landscape that surrounds us, constantly reaching to catch something of the moor’s deep mystery and wild momentum into our music, instruments, paintings and words. Both the roundhouse that we built in 2002 to honour the ancestors of these hills and the burial cistvaen that we created in 2014 to celebrate White Horse Hill Woman, have been part of our long journey to anchor the piece of land of which we have guardianship, into the broader sacred landscape of Dartmoor. We try to express our gratitude to these moors by sharing this farmstead – with its growing woodlands, peat bogs, organic flower meadows, salmon stream, shrines and sanctuary – through the festivals, workshops, gatherings, circles and quiet moments that take place here. And often we find ourselves returning to the question: where will we lay our bones, when all is said and done? Below this peat, beneath this granite, into this ancient, constant, blessed moor… (Dartmoor photos by Nigel Shaw and Cedar Shaw)