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4,000-year-old pelt

4,000-year-old pelt found in princess grave reveals bears roamed Dartmoor, England


A 4,000-year-old fur pelt found in an ancient burial chamber belonging to a Bronze Age princess has revealed that brown bears once roamed Dartmoor, England, according to a BBC report. The discovery of the ancient burial cist along with a hoard of grave goods in 2011 was described at the time as being the most outstanding discovery on Dartmoor in over a century.

Dartmoor is an area of moorland in south Devon, England, which covers nearly 1000 square kilometres, and is an area of prehistoric importance. The remains of 5,000 Bronze Age houses have been discovered so far, as well as fenced enclosures that would have protected people from wild animals. Archaeologists have also found hundreds of burial chambers on Dartmoor, however few as spectacular as the tomb found in a peat bog on Whitehorse Hill in 2011.

The 4,000-year-old cist uncovered on Whitehorse Hill

The 4,000-year-old cist uncovered on Whitehorse Hill. Credit: Dartmoor National Park Authority.

The ancient tomb, known as a cist, was found to contain an intact cremation deposit (human bones) alongside a number of grave goods, which included a skilfully-made decorative belt, earrings, a studded bracelet, a near perfectly preserved basket, and beads made of amber, all wrapped in a well-preserved animal pelt.

While researchers at the time initially thought the pelt would be easy to identify, the effect of the bog on the pelt meant that the usual process of analysing DNA was not possible. English Heritage, which oversaw the project, therefore hired a specialist from the USA to test the pelt using peptide mass fingerprinting. The results revealed that the pelt belonged to a brown bear that probably resided in the area.

The species of bear was most likely a Eurasian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos), which became extinct in Britain and Ireland no later than 1,000 AD, when they were exterminated through overhunting. However, they still exist in Northern Europe and in Russia. There is a tiny population in the Pyrenees, on the border between Spain and France, which is on the edge of extinction, as well as an equally threatened group in the Cantabrian Mountains in Spain.

The Eurasian Brown Bear

The Eurasian Brown Bear. Image source: Wikipedia

“It's entirely possible bears were living in the local area. We think bears were spread around Britain at the time. Their natural habitat was around woodland so they may have been around Dartmoor,” said Fiona Pitt, curator of Plymouth Museum, which is exhibiting the grave finds.

"The pelt ties in with the high status of the person suggested by the other artifacts," said Vanessa Straker, English Heritage's science advisor for the South West.  The amber, which came from the Baltic, was associated with supernatural powers and used as an amulet, which suggests a very high status burial as well as demonstrating that Bronze Age Britons traded with people from the continent. There were also some beads made with tin, which archaeologists have said points to the earliest evidence of tin found in the South West of England.

Some of the items found in the tomb

Some of the items found in the tomb, including a bracelet and beads. Credit: BBC

Ms Pitt said that "the items that were discovered in the cist are of national and international importance and provide one of the best glimpses into life in Bronze Age southern England that academics and scientists have ever had”.

Featured image: Credit: Wilts Conservation Service / SWN

By April Holloway



angieblackmon's picture

that's what i wondered, too, David. isn't there even a remote chance that it was traded or gifted to someone from a great distance where the bears might have been more abundant?

love, light and blessings


How do they know the pelt didn't come from another area in England or another country altogether?

Justbod's picture

What a fascinating and evocative discovery!

Sculptures, carvings & artwork inspired by a love of history & nature:



aprilholloway's picture


April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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