Brown bears 'roamed Dartmoor', suggests grave pelt

Image caption The pelt was wrapped around finds including cremated human remains

A fur pelt found in an ancient burial chamber suggests that bears once roamed Dartmoor, it has been claimed.

Experts have confirmed the pelt, found by archaeologists in the bronze age granite cist on the moor in 2011, is from a brown bear.

Fiona Pitt, curator of Plymouth Museum, which is exhibiting the grave finds, said: "It's entirely possible bears were living in the local area."

The grave was found in a peat bog on White Horse Hill.

Image caption A woven basket found in the grave is "exceptionally" well preserved
Image caption Amber beads found in the grave suggest a person of high social stature was buried there
Image caption Some wooden ear studs are thought to be the earliest examples of turned wood in Britain

The bear pelt was wrapped around artefacts found in the grave, including cremated human remains.

It has only been identified now because the effect of the Dartmoor bog on the pelt meant the usual process of analysing its DNA was not possible.

English Heritage, which oversaw the project, employed a specialist from the Smithsonian Institute in the USA to test the pelt using a process called peptide mass fingerprinting.

Vanessa Straker, English Heritage's science advisor for the South West, said: "Finding the right technique to analyse it took some time.

"We thought it would be one of the easiest finds to identify, it looked very well preserved, but these things are so rarely preserved at all that we have little experience of working on them."

She added:"We think bears were spread around Britain at the time.

Grave robbing

"Their natural habitat was around woodland so they may have been around Dartmoor."

Other discoveries at the 4,000-year-old site include a woven basket and a hoard of about 150 beads.

Some of the beads were made from amber which would have been traded from abroad, suggesting a person of high social status, said Ms Pitt.

"The pelt ties in with the high status of the person suggested by the other artefacts," Ms Straker said.

Despite there being about 200 burial cists on Dartmoor, the moor has offered up few secrets before due to grave robbing.

Ms Pitt said: "This is the most outstanding site to have been excavated locally in over 100 years.

"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.

"Many of the finds are made from organic materials and are in an exceptional state of preservation."

Find out more on BBC Inside Out South West, on BBC One on Monday, 8 September at 20:00 GMT.

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