The Archaeological Legacy of the Dartmoor Carbonarii 

Project background and future research proposal 

 October 2019  

The Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA) has agreed to fund a programme of archaeological research to investigate medieval and post-medieval production of peat charcoal on the uplands of Dartmoor. The work will be carried out by Dr Phil Newman as a continuation of research he has undertaken independently over several years.

The existence of a peat charcoal industry on Dartmoor, with origins at least within the 13th century, has long been known from documentation, which suggests that this activity occurred on a massive scale. Although peat charcoal was often used as a source of heat for iron smithing from the medieval period up until the 19th century, the major demand for the fuel was in the smelting of tin, for which it was used from the 13th century until probably as late as the 19th. This demand, which initially came from the Devon tinners, was augmented during the 15th century when a charter of Edward IV allowed Cornish tinners to procure their supply from Dartmoor after Cornish peat sources  became depleted.  The production of this fuel therefore became crucial to the viability of the tin industry in the Southwest as a whole and for that reason was an essential component of the Devon economy.

Knowledge of the subtle evidence for the burning and production of peat charcoal has until now been limited. The only published research to look at peat charcoal production is Diana Woolner’s short paper of 1966, wherein she recorded a cluster of earthen platforms, which she asserted were the bases for hearths or ‘meilers’, on Wild Tor Ridge, and from which, samples of peat charcoal were retrieved.  Woolner’s findings have been largely overlooked and no other archaeologist has taken this subject any further until now.

Building on Wooler’s work, Dr Newman has, over the past ten years substantially increased the number of recorded sites where peat charcoal was produced on the high moors, many now being incorporated into the Devon/Dartmoor historic environment record database.

The renewed fieldwork activity, which will take place over three seasons, commencing in 2020, will enable the discovery of more charcoal burning sites as well as aspects of their infrastructure, to provide a body of data, followed by selective examination and sampling of individual hearths. The project will culminate in a published summary of the research.

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