The cist is situated near the summit of Whitehorse Hill within an eroding irregularly shaped island of peat at NGR SX 61728547. Standing at over 600m OD, this is one of the highest burial places on Dartmoor. There are no visible contemporary settlements within the vicinity.
The cist measures 40cms external height x 40cms wide x 60cms long. The capstone remains firmly in places suggesting it has not been disturbed internally. When discovered it was overlain by 45cms of peat.
The site was first discovered in 2001 by Joe Turner when the western edge of the cist was exposed as its end stone fell out of the peat hag; this most probably was caused by the weathering away of the peat. There was no previous record of it.
Apart from the recent loss of its end stone, the cist was apparently undisturbed. Acting on advice from Vanessa Straker of English Heritage, the decision was taken to cover up the exposed end. This was always seen to be a temporary measure and involved placing terram sheeting across the face to prevent contamination and securing this with a wooden screen. A stone wall measuring 3m in length and 0.9m high was built in front of the western edge of the cist and either side of it for extra protection. It was scheduled in 2003
In 2006 Vanessa Straker and Zoe Hazell (EH) and Ralph Fyfe opened up a section adjacent to the cist to carry out some palaeoenvironmental sampling. This was to co-incide with the palaeoenvironmental sampling work they were also carrying out on the stone setting on Cut Hill
• The carbon dates obtained from a depth of 45-46cm (i.e. level with the top of the cist) were 2800-1890BC)
• The dates from a depth of 101-102cm (level with the bottom of the cist) produced dates of 3650-3100BC
These dates suggest that the peat at the base of the cist is early Neolithic, the peat at the top of the cist is late Neolithic, giving two alternatives for its construction
• Either the trench was cut into the peat during the late Neolithic down to the level at which peat had accumulated earlier in the period and the cist was inserted
• OR the cist was built onto an early Neolithic ground surface and stood proud of the land surface before being engulfed by formation of peat Analysis of the pollen showed that the peat formation had begun in a predominantly open heather heath landscape. Charcoal is recorded throughout the period. Fluctuations throughout the pollen profile indicated that the character of the local environment had changed through time and included a period of considerably wetter heath.
Over the last nine years the island of peat around the cist has eroded away at an alarming rate. This has led to the collapse of the wall either side of the cist, and from the covering peat mound, which now measures less than 25cm in places, thus exposing what could be sensitive archaeological sasses.
Under the Dartmoor MMS the section of collapse was rebuilt in 2010 and it was very apparent just how much the peat face had receded since the wall was first constructed.
At best the latest repair can only be a temporary measure and the peat will continue to erode away. Once the peat still overlying the top of the cist has gone there will be nothing to prevent the cover of the cist being removed.
There is no obvious long term measure to put into place to ensure the survival of the archaeological information which the cist contains. Fencing the whole island of peat is not an option; this would require Secretary of State’s permission as it is situated on Common Land.
The erosion is caused by a combination of stock coupled with the natural weathering away of the peat due to its exposed location. The monument is deemed to be at high risk under EH’s Heritage at Risk scheme.
There are two courses of action for the future:
The first is to let the monument and its protective wall to continue to decline and to lose any archaeological information contained therein.
The other is to intervene and preserve it by record though controlled excavation. The Scheduling already describes how important environmental information will survive both within and around the cist, as well as crucial evidence relating to its method of construction and its relationship to other features and possibly artefacts associated with it.
The Whitehorse Hill cist is particularly unusual because of its position standing at over 600mOD and its apparent isolated location. Its almost unique position in peat offers clear environmental potential which will help establish details of the contemporary surrounding landscape and land use at the time of its construction.
The small amount of palaeoenvironmental analysis already carried out has shown that further work could also provide information on climate change, the sequence of peat formation, anthropogenic burning, and help decide whether the establishment of grassland recorded relates to a hitherto unknown period of landscape transformation.