Last Updated on May 5, 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Right on the northeastern edge of Dartmoor, in an isolated flat field that’s often filled with sheep, is a most unexpected site – Spinsters’ Rock. This is the remains of an ancient neolithic burial chamber otherwise known as a Dolmen or a Cromlech.
What is a Dolmen?
The word Dolmen first seems to have been used as an archaeological term towards the end of the 18th century. It’s a word used to describe a megalithic Burial Chamber, where a large horizontal flattish stone is supported by at least two vertical standing stones.
In the case of Spinsters’ Rock three uprights have been used and the tomb would have been set within the chamber created by this stone structure. Earth would have originally been banked up and over the top creating a burial mound called a long or round barrow otherwise known as a tumulus.
Spinsters’ Rock – A Neolithic Burial Chamber
It’s believed that Spinsters’ Rock is an ancient late Neolithic burial chamber, but, due to soil erosion there is nothing left except for the stone ‘skeleton’ itself. The structure is believed to have been erected c.3,500-2,500 B.C.E. and would probably have contained a number of bodies.
The monument stands approximately nine feet high and the capstone weighs approximately sixteen tonnes.
Below is an excerpt from Sabine Baring-Gould’s – ‘A Book of Dartmoor’ (published in 1900):
“At Shilstone in Drewsteignton is the only cromlech in the county. It is a fine monument. A few years ago it fell, but has been re-erected in its old position. After recent ploughing flints may be picked up in the field where it stands.”
It’s interesting that Baring-Gould mentions flints perhaps alluding to flint scatters that are a type of Neolithic and Bronze Age tool.
Earlier accounts of Spinsters’ Rock at Shilstone Farm and a potential ceremonial site
In the 18th century there were a number of accounts of the remains of stone rows and circles, similar to the existing site at Merrivale, that could be found within the vicinity at nearby Shilstone Common. R. Polwhele (1793-1806) in his ‘The History of Devonshire’ and the Rev. John Swete ‘A Tour Across Dartmoor into North Devon (1789) both mentioned this potential ceremonial site.
Nothing of these remains are left in existence and some of the stones mentioned may have referred to hut circles rather than stone circles. Some question whether these structures ever existed in the first place; or whether the site had random clitter which can be seen across much of Dartmoor. However, it’s possible that all the said stones were removed for buildwork or walling by the local farmers, disused structures have been recycled since time immemorial.
The Drewsteignton Dolmen/Cromlech Collapses
On the 31st January 1862 the Dolmen collapsed and this was blamed by William Crossing in the Antiquary, in large part, on the farmer disturbing the ground as he ploughed the field.
However, in an article dated February 1881 in the Antiquary, Volume 3, pages 91/2 G Wareing Ormerod, a local Chagford solicitor who was a keen geologist and antiquarian disputes Crossings account writing:
“Having for the last twenty-five years carefully studied the ‘Rude Stone Remains’ on the Eastern side of Dartmoor, I read with interest Mr. Crossing’s remarks upon the damage that had been done to these relics…On the afternoon of Monday, January 27, 1862, I visited it to take a photograph, and was there for about three-quarters of an hour. On Friday, January 31 the cromlech fell; and on the following Wednesday I took a photograph of the cromlech in its fallen condition, and there was not the slightest trace, at either visit, of the ground having been disturbed, except where it was broken by the accident…”
The winter of 1861/62 was extremely wet and it was potentially the saturated ground that contributed to the collapse.
The stones were reconstructed just ten months later, quite possibly under the supervision of Ormerod, by local workmen using pulleys and a screw-jack. The supporting stones were not placed exactly in their original positions. We know this because Ormerod had made meticulous sketches prior to their fall.
… and what about the Legend of Spinsters’ Rock?
Little is known about when the legend was first recounted or indeed why but it’s a tale of three spinsters, and no, they were not old unmarried women as we automatically think upon seeing the word nowadays. Spinster was originally a term to describe a woman whose occupation was to spin yarn, in this case most probably wool.
Anyway, according to legend, these three spinsters on walking past the stones decided to erect the structure that we see today, and complete it before breakfast just to amuse themselves. With the top slab weighing in at an estimated sixteen tonnes it really does seem like an early case of extreme girl-power!
Castle Drogo – The last castle built in England in the first part of the 20th century for entrepreneur Julius Drewe and designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Owned by the National Trust.
Grimspound – An impressive Bronze Age settlement that is probably the most famous archaeological site on Dartmoor.
Finch Foundry – The attractive village of Sticklepath on Dartmoor is home to Finch Foundry, a feat of Victorian ingenuity and engineering that produced industrial tools right through to 1960, and is now part of our rich and varied industrial heritage.