Dartmoor stone rows – a geospatial study

Stone row at Hurston Ridge

The fragmentary character of the evidence makes the task of understanding the rows more difficult and even on Dartmoor where large numbers are known to survive so many have been lost that detailed analysis is inevitably hampered. Despite this, Dartmoor offers the best opportunity for spatial analysis and this article attempts to look at the relationship between the rows and other broadly contemporary sites to see if we can understand the context of the rows and perhaps an enhanced appreciation of the rows themselves.

The results of the analysis are presented using a series of maps that show the relationship between the rows and other selected types of archaeology. For the purposes of this exercise the stone rows have been divided into single rows and others which includes, double, triple, multiple and combined. Each map is accompanied by a brief commentary.

Figure 1 Distribution of Dartmoor stone rows. The orientation of the symbols indicates the approximate dominant alignment of each row.

This is the base map for all the others and highlights that the distribution of rows on Dartmoor is far from random. It also indicates that single rows are mainly confined to the western side of the moor.  To emphasise this point Figure 2 has been created to illustrate that the single rows and the others are found within clearly defined areas.

Figure 2 Distribution of Dartmoor stone rows showing the areas where only single rows are found (grey) and the areas where double, triple, multiple and combination rows have been identified (green). 

The most likely explanation is that these different areas represent separate “territories” where distinctly different stone row rituals were practised. The largest area containing the more sophisticated stone rows (green) extends without interruption from Cosdon down to Spurrell’s Cross. It can not simply be a coincidence that all the rows in this sizeable part of the moor includes no single rows.  The picture would be even more convincing if it it were not for the single row at Lakehead Hill, East, but as the map shows this site is not an obstacle to the identification of a substantial “territory” where only double, triple, mutilple and combination rows are known. There are several sites where single rows are found in close proximity to the other types of row and each of these provides a clearly de-marked edge to the separate territories.  Thus at Shoveldown, the single row denotes the eastern edge of the “complex row” territory and at Tottiford, Corringdon Ball, Butterbrook, Hart Tor and Merrivale the boundary between the two territories are clearly marked. The two smaller isolated “complex row” areas illustrate that the character and form of the areas where different forms of rows were erected was complicated and the partial survival of evidence means that the true original extent of these areas is not known.  The northern of these areas is partly defined by the stone row complexes at Sharpitor and Drizzlecombe whilst the edge of the smaller southern area is only clearly defined at Trowlesworthy. The identification of separate areas where rows of a different type were erected is significant and strongly supports the idea that the rows were erected by different groups of people.  The suggested interpretation that the row complexes with more than one type of row represent territorial boundaries is certainly supported by their positions relative to the other rows and permits a glimpse at how the landscape was carefully allotted.

Figure 3 Distribution of Dartmoor stone rows and circles.

This map makes it clear that stone circles and rows have a very different, if an overlapping distribution.  The stone circles at Fernworthy, Merrivale, Shoveldown, Tottiford and Sherberton are certainly close to rows and are traditionally seen as forming part of a ritual complex.  With the exception of the row at Sherberton it may be significant that where stone circles are found close to stone rows there are generally more than one.  Thus at Fernworthy there are are three double rows, at Merrivale there are two double rows and four single rows, at Shoveldown there are five double rows and one single row and at Tottiford there is a single row and a double row.  Most of the stone circles are however not found in close proximity to stone rows and indeed the areas of the southern moor where large numbers of stone rows are found have no stone circles at all. Stone circles were therefore clearly not an integral part of the stone row tradition on Dartmoor and whilst their presence at a few shared locations is unlikely to be a coincidence the fact that most rows are not associated with circles means that it is likely that it is what the location offered to the different traditions that was important and occasionally this overlapped. Most of the time the different groups were after something different and this is reflected in the observed distribution differences.  The near absence of stones circles from the southern half of Dartmoor where the bulk of the stone rows are might suggest that the ritual needs of the people who lived there were met by the stone row tradition and the stone circle tradition never became established. In reality the situation is likely to be more complicated than this, but the lack of stone circles in the south is worth mentioning.  Some rows have very fine terminal kerbed cairns which are sometimes confused with stone circles (Figure 4).  The terminal cairns at Hingston Hill, Ringmoor Down, Shaugh Moor, Hart Tor, Upper Erme, Burford Down, Butterdon Hill and Corringdon Ball have distinct visual similarities with stone circles and differ only by being built around a cairn. The possibility exists that the cairn was added later and that these rings of stone were originally true stone circles, but it is unlikely that we will ever know for certain. At Lakehead Hill, East is it is possible to be relatively certain that the row was built before the ring of stones, but even here the relative dates of the circle of stones and central cist are unclear.

Figure 4 Map highlighting the position of terminal kerbed cairns and stone circles.

It is worth mentioning that most of the stone row terminal kerbed cairns are in the areas where there are no stone circles. Indeed in the north where the stone circles are relatively abundant only the rows at Assycombe and Shoveldown 2 have terminal kerbed cairns with the latter one having a concentric structure. In the south where there are no stone circles there are a large number of terminal kerbed cairns. It is temping to see this as evidence to support the idea that these rings of stones were originally stone circles to which a cairn was added later.  With the possible exception of Sherberton there are no stone rows on Dartmoor leading from stone circles and therefore tempting although this idea may seem the evidence to support it is entirely lacking.  Elsewhere in Great Britain rows are known to have led from stone circles and amongst the better known examples are the Beckhampton and West Kennet Avenues leading from Avebury, the rows leading from stone circles at Stanton Drew, Lacra, and of course Callanish. Twenty one or (9% of the total number of rows) lead from stone circles and the obvious question is why did rows in some parts of the country lead from stone circles but not on Dartmoor where cairns are a more common terminal feature. These sorts of differences emphasise the varied character of Neolithic/Early Bronze Age ritual and in part explain why the rows themselves are so distinctive.

Figure 5 Distribution of Dartmoor stone rows and cairns.

There are substantial numbers of cairns (at least 1,222) on Dartmoor and many are found in close association with the rows (Figure 5). Only the rows at Sherberton and Tottiford have no associated cairns and this may because the surrounding area has seen considerable “improvement” over the years. The link with cairns is obvious and implies that the rows were connected in some way with funerary activity.  On the other hand stone rows were clearly not an integral part of funerary activity on the moor.  There are several areas with substantial numbers of cairns and no recorded rows. The inevitable conclusion is that stone rows were not seen seen as essential element of funerary custom. Could it be that some communities never built and used stone rows? Alternatively perhaps the cairns themselves provided the linear ritual framework that was needed.  In this regard it worth noting the linear distribution of some cairns and more pertinently highlighting the presence of what the late Joe Turner describes as a cairn alignment on Sourton Common (Figure 6). This monument survives as a line of 74 small cairns leading between two larger terminal cairns.  The similarities with a stone row are obvious and supports the idea that cairns could have been utilised instead of stones.

Figure 6 Cairn alignment on Sourton Common (After Turner, J.R. and Google Maps)

Figure 7 Distribution of Dartmoor stone rows and prehistoric roundhouses.

The stone rows are generally found in the vicinity of the prehistoric settlements (Figure 7). Some settlements stand a long distance from rows but with the exception of Tottiford the rows are close to known settlements.  The problems of dating mean that it is not possible to be certain that the rows and settlements are contemporary, although the distribution does support the idea that many were. Some rows such as those at Merrivale, Hart Tor, Assycombe and Shoveldown stand adjacent to settlements and it is difficult to explain how they have survived so well if they were not contemporary or later than the settlements. The relationship between the settlements in the Erme valley and the long row is of interest.  All of the roundhouses are to the east of the row and there are none for a considerable distance west of the row.  In this instance the row seems to be forming a boundary between settled areas. This supports the idea that the rows could have been erected as territorial markers.

Figure 8 Distribution of stone rows and simplified reaves (reaves derived from Fleming, A., 1988, 54).

The Middle Bronze Age territories and coaxial field systems survive very well and are known from the work carried out by Andrew Fleming. They represent evidence of territorial division of the landscape and widespread agricultural activity on the moor at this time. Reaves is the name given to the boundary banks and in some instances they appear to post-date some rows such as those at Yar Tor, Hurston Ridge and Leeden Tor whilst in other places (e.g. Holne Moor, Shell Top, SW and Penn Beacon, South) the rows appear to respect the reaves.  This may suggest that the row building tradition started in the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age but continued into the Middle Bronze Age. Many of the rows appear to stand on the edge of the coaxial field systems perhaps confirming that the reave builders and row builders were at least sometimes the same people. A small number of rows in the north western part of the moor are situated a long way from reaves, but this may because the evidence for the rows and reaves has been buried beneath deep peat deposits.

Figure 9 Distribution of stone rows, cairns and roundhouses.

The cairns and roundhouses share similar distributions and the rows generally stand within the same areas.  There are parts of the moor where there are large numbers of settlements and cairns but no rows.  This could be the result of differential survival, incomplete fieldwork or the identification of areas where the stone row tradition was absent. In the north western part of the moor the explanation is likely to be the result of historic peat accumulation, but in the area south of Trendlebere the absence of rows is more likely to be the result of an original absence of rows or later localised systematic destruction.  What ever the reason it does imply the existence of an area with a different response to stone rows.

Figure 10 Distribution of stone rows, cairns, roundhouses and stone circles.

It is clear that the stone circles like the stone rows are normally associated with cairns. The area in the north with the densest concentration of stone circles also has associated settlements. Only the areas between Trendlebere and Sherberton Common and between Holne Moor and Black Tor (Avon) lack both stone circles and stone rows. If this is an original feature it is likely to be significant.  Why did the Bronze Age people who lived in these two areas have neither stone circles nor stone rows? This despite the considerable evidence that the area was occupied and funerary practices similar to the other parts of the moor are clearly evident.

Figure 11 Distribution map showing stone rows, cairns, roundhouses, stone circle and reaves.

The area between Trendlebeere and Sherberton Common is dominated by a substantial coaxial field system.  Could this be the reason that there are no rows in this area? Certainly the survival of the fields indicates very good preservation and therefore if rows had existed at the time the fields were abandoned one would expect them to have survived.  Could the lack of rows be because the reave builders removed them all?  We know from elsewhere that earlier rows were retained by the reave builders and this is therefore not likely to be the answer, unless of course this particular community had absolutely no regard for the rows, removing them all and building no new ones. If this was the case this would strongly suggest that the separate groups living on Dartmoor in the Bronze had very different attitudes to the rows and what they represented. A more mundane explanation is that the rows in these areas have yet to be identified.

Figure 12 Map highlighting the areas (yellow) of Dartmoor that are within 1.5km of at least one stone row. 

A substantial proportion of settlements and cairns are within 1.5km of a stone row. This map shows that there are five substantial areas where stone rows clearly formed part of the infrastructure emphasising their importance to the people who lived here.

Figure 13 Map highlighting the areas (yellow) of Dartmoor that are within 2.5km of at least one stone row. 

Large swathes of the moor are within 2.5km of a stone row and most of the cairns and settlements would have been comfortably within an hours walk from a stone row. This is important as it emphasises that the stone rows were integral part of society and access to them whilst not always easy was at least manageable.  One is perhaps reminded of the provision of parish churches where most parishioners lived relatively close to the church, but others had to make a bit more of an effort. There are five small areas which do not have ready access to a row. The implications of this have been discussed and this map confirms that either there were areas where stone rows were not built or an indication of where further search could prove fruitful. Support for the idea that the rows were at least in part territorial is provided the Upper Erme row which seems to demarcate and area of settlement from an area with none.  The acceptance that the rows formed part of a sophisticated territorial system does not contradict the idea that they were also of ritual significance and that the ritual was focused on a sense of place embodying the landscape, skyscape and sometimes seascape. Indeed the two ideas are mutually supportive and if accepted, provide a framework for a better appreciation and understanding of the complex inter-related but distinctly different groups on Dartmoor.


Despite the fragmentary character of the evidence, preliminary geospatial analysis has demonstrated the nature of the relationship between the stone rows and other broadly contemporary remains on Dartmoor. The identification of possible separate “territories” where similar forms of row are exclusively found, the resolution of the stone row complexes into this proposed territorial pattern confirms that the distribution is far from random and suggests that the rows formed part of a territorial land division scheme. The identification of areas with prehistoric archaeology but no stone rows suggests that either more rows remain to be identified or that some groups of people did not embrace stone rows within their culture. Evidence to support the second interpretation comes from the identification of areas where stone circles rather than stone rows were predominantly used.


Fleming, A., 1988, TheDartmoor Reaves – Investigating Prehistoric Land Divisions, B.T. Batsford

Turner, J.R, 1991, “A Cairn alignment on Sourton Common, Dartmoor”, Proceedings Devon Archaeological Society, 49, 143-4.

FIRST PUBLISHED: 2nd July 2020


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