The East Devon Pebblebeds Project

Christopher Tilley, Anthropology, UCL
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The East Devon Pebblebeds project is an interdisciplinary investigation of the prehistoric, historic and contemporary landscapes of the East Devon Pebblebed heathlands of south-west England, UK. This area is one of the largest surviving areas of lowland heathlands in the UK and is a site of special scientific interest. To the south it borders the Jurassic coast World Heritage site. The heathlands survive on a geologically unique low ridge comprised entirely of water worn pebbles, the remains of a huge river which flowed through the area 240 million years ago and bounded today by the river Exe to the west and the river Otter to the east. Here there are a series of archaeologically unique Bronze Age cairns built out of bright multicoloured pebbles. A project investigating the landscape settings and the structure and form of the cairns began in 2008 and will continue for the next four years.
The heathlands also have a series of unusual landscaping mounds constructed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that are fake prehistoric barrows. Their design seems to have been inspired not by the local pebble cairns but by monuments found elsewhere in southern England, probably those documented by antiquarians around Stonehenge and Avebury. These lined carriage drives to the grand house and 18th and 19th century landscape gardens of Bicton to which a dismantled prehistoric stone circle was taken to form part of a rockery. The contrast between the fake prehistoric barrows constructed on the pagan heathlands and the vision of nature produced in the landscaping of Bicton Park is quite striking.
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Today the heathlands are very much a contested landscape being used for military training while also being a wildlife conservation area and a recreational resource for local populations. Topsoil scraping practices are, on the one hand improving bird habitats, but on the other threatening the archaeological resource. Pebble structures (walls, pavements, barn floors, house walls etc.) form a significant component of the vernacular architecture and heritage of the area.
The Pebblebeds project is researching all these different aspects of the landscape of these heathlands and is based in the UCL Anthropology department as well as involving scholars from the Institute of Archaeology, UCL and the Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton.
For more details see www.pebblebedsproject.org.uk

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