Dartmouth's Pre History
Dartmouth's Pre History
When is pre-history? It’s not an easy answer. Pre history indicates, perhaps obviously, the time before we have a written account of events. We therefore base our beliefs on what has happened by artifacts and geological data to piece together a not very clear story of what happened to the peoples of the world over time.
So to ask the questions “who lived in Dartmouth in Pre-history” and “what was their life like” is difficult – because it has to be pieced together to create a general picture.
It was recently discovered that modern humans were in Torquay around 40,000 years ago – much earlier than was previously thought. This was in the Paleolithic era, in the middle of the last age. Humans were spreading out of Africa where the species had evolved more than 200,000 years before. A brief warming of a little over 1,000 years allowed men to push up into Britain, following herds of deer and mammoths.
This warm window was a brief interlude in the glacial age and soon the cold weather returned and would have made life nigh impossible for any group living in the area.
The first evidence of settlement around Dartmouth was found on the beach below South Town – showing occupation of some kind during the Mesolithic Era between 10,000 and 4,000 years ago.
Flints, used as cutting tools were found on the beach, which would have been the highest point of the riverbank, as sea levels were lower (Blackpool Sands has a drowned forest at the very lowest tides).
Historians believe the people of the time spent winter by the coast and summer on Dartmoor hunting deer and other animals, including wild boar, wolf and even goat. The moors had been mostly forested at that time, so they were sheltered and attractive places to spend the warm summer months.
Capton, on the road to Dittisham, provides the next evidence of human habitation around Dartmouth. A large number of flint tools were found there, along with a beautiful carving of a human face. These date from the Neolithic Era, around 4,000 years ago and seem to show a change in the way the people of Devon were living.
During the Neolithic age there was a move towards farming as the prevalent way of life in the South West - before which most had been hunter-gatherers. Men started to mark off fields, domesticate animals and even honour their dead with permanent burials. Capton was probably one of many small settlements that began to spring up.
At about this time Stonehenge was being constructed and it is clear that the communities and cultures that did exist were structured, complex and settled.
As the Neolithic age passed, men from the south brought technology - specifically the ability to smelt metal and so the Bronze Age was born.
Barrows, a new way of interring the dead, are found all over the South Hams from this period and there is one at Brownstone near Kingswear. Even if no record of habitations exists, Dartmouth and the river Dart must have been vital to the many people who lived in South Devon – it was a source of food and would have been a convenient way to easily launch boats for fishing and trading trips.
In Egypt at this time the first dynasty was beginning and the first written language was being used – but in Britain we have no such record.
Dartmouth’s sheltered harbour would have made it an attractive place for the attacking Celts who came raiding – and eventually settled – between 800 and 500BC.
This is the time when the South Hams started to see more concerted settlements and the start of trading using the river, focused on Totnes as a trading post. The Iron Age had begun, and trade with the continent made Dartmouth extremely attractive. Forts were built near Dartmouth and at Noss on the Kingswear side.
When the Romans invaded in the first Century BC the Celts along the Dart seem to have accepted them and actually struck up a successful and profitable trading relationship with them as they developed Exeter as a base.
When the Romans left in the fifth century AD it left a power vacuum which was exploited by the Saxons and the Vikings, who came raiding and by all accounts made it to the Dart in the early eighth century.
Dittisham is rumoured to have been started by an invading Saxon called Dida – Dittisham being a corruption of ‘Dida’s Ham’ or ‘Dida’s Home’.
British culture developed, eventually becoming the kingdom of Wessex. It was a successful kingdom – so successful it was ripe for invasion by the Norman lord William – forever known to history as ‘The Conqueror’. After his victory at Hastings in 1066 his determination to subjugate and tax his realm resulted in the ‘Domesday Book’ that details the owners of all the land and property in the country.
This document gives the world its most detailed account of life in and around the South Hams and Dartmouth to date – and takes us out of Pre History and into History, which is where this account must end.
First Published May/June 2012 By The Dart