The landscape of west Cornwall in the late Iron Age is one of hillforts, cliff castles, ancient trackways, enclosures, round houses and courtyard houses.
Many of these features are known throughout the landscap of prehistoric Britain but it is the courtyard house which offers a point of difference from the rest of the country. Courtyard houses appear to be a unique adaptation of the more traditional round house and are found only in the Land’s End peninsula. They are usually very substantial ranging in size from 15 – 30 meters with walls up to two meters thick. Their name is derived from the presence of a series of rooms situated around a central courtyard. The rooms are partially built into the thickness of the outer walls and may have served as spaces not only for living but also storage, workshops and byres.
“A typical courtyard house has a long recess on one side of the central yard, probably a stable or byre and, on the opposite side, a long, narrow room, perhaps a workshop or store. Between the two, and directly across the courtyard from the house entrance, is the largest room, circular or oval in shape, which was set aside for the living, eating and sleeping needs of the family. Other room may be present, too, and some living rooms have a back door leading out of the house. Stone lined and capped drains are a feature of these houses, as are stone hearths…”
(Weatherhill C 2009 ‘Cornovia’ page 35)
Many would have developed from open settlements of round houses set within fields for agricultural communities. A landscape already ancient. When the demand for tin increased during the second century AD there is no doubt that these farming communities would have engaged in this activity. Gradually these settlements were abandoned between the second and sixth centuries AD although the communities did not leave simply moved to lower ground.
There are around two dozen known courtyard house settlements surviving and at least ten have been destroyed during the last two hundred years. The best preserved and most easily visited of these sites are Chysauster and Carn Euny. Both of which represent examples of a village grouping, which included round houses and the mysterious structures known as Fogous (see the January issue of The Celtic Guide for a discussion on Fogous).
The largest known site of this type, founded during the first century BC it consists of eleven houses in total. Eight are arranged in pairs on either side of a street. One is southwest of the main cluster whilst the remaining two are further down the hill to the southwest. The fields of the village were to the north east and in 1984 rescue work revealed the remains of round houses and a Bronze Age barrow. It has also been tentatively suggested that cereals were grown in these fields. Although no pollen evidence has to date been found, furthermore the acidic quality of the soils in the area have resulted in no metal tools or bones being preserved. making any meaningful interpretations difficult. Attached to most of the houses are small terraced garden plots.
In 1873 William Copeland Borlase cleared out what is now known as house 6. Further excavation were done in 1897 on house 4 by two members of the local antiquarian society. The first major excavation did not take place until 1928 under the direction of T D Kendrick of the British Museum and Dr H. O’Neil Hencken. It was during this time that the land owner placed a large part of the site under the guardianship of the Office of Works.
In 1931 a fuller examination of the site was carried out by Hencken, excavating houses 5 and 7 with more work on houses 3, 4, 6 and 9. The term ‘courtyard house’ was first coined by Hencken during these early excavations. In 1984 the guardianship of the site passed on to the newly constituted English Heritage.
Although later excavations failed to reveal whether or not Chysauster was predated by an earlier site as with Carn Euny there is some suggestion that there is an earlier site further along the hillside yet to be found or indeed it could be associated with the fogou. A nineteenth century account reported that much of the old village had lately been removed that the fogou no longer lay within it as before (Christie P 1987). Suggesting that there was a much more substantial settlement on the hillside then what we see today.
This site is much smaller than Chysauster consisting of four interlocking structures in addition to a number of smaller roundhouses constructed in the first century BC. An earlier phase of the site consisted of timber built roundhouses which were occupied for at least 400 years.
The first investigations of the site were in the 1860s in the well preserved fogou but it was not until some hundred years later when a more systematic excavation was undertaken (see the journals Cornish Archaeology from the late 1960s for more detailed information on these excavations).
One of the main discussions regarding this type of settlement site is in relation to how such massive structures were roofed. The generally accepted theory states that the individual rooms would be roofed with the central courtyard open to the elements. In 1997 Jacqui Wood proposed an alternative theory which saw the entire structure being covered by a single roof (Cornish Archaeology 1997 No 36). Interpretations boards at both sites show individual roofs over each room with some even having flat roofs.
The above two images are pictures taken from the interpretation boards at Carn Euny (left) and Chysauster (right).
The main objection to the conventional thinking relates to the issue of drainage. The conical roofs are depicted as sitting on top of the thick in-filled walls and given the amount of precipitation Cornwall receives every year, drainage off the roofs would have been an issue, even more so for the flat roofs. A large single roof would have prevented this and created a large and cosy interior, the now central courtyard would take on the appearance of a ‘hall’. With the creation of additional space within the roof space on top of the thick walls. Thus the courtyard house becomes a ‘galleried house’.
“The purpose of the substantial infill of the walls would now come into its own. There could have been another shorter ring of posts to support another ring beam nearer to the outer walls, adding stability to the roof. Looking at the structure from this viewpoint another possible use for the substantial infills becomes evident. The large flat areas at the top of the walls could have been covered with timbers to create another well supported floor.”
Objections to the single roof theory are based upon the size of the roof needed to cover such a large area, although as it has been pointed out equally large structures are known throughout prehistory in both Britain and on the European mainland. Of course this argument may never come to a satisfactory conclusion without the aid of a time machine, but it is still interesting to offer alternatives to conventional theories.
Carn Euny and Chysauster are just two of the many similar sites which can be found around West Penwith, others are not so easy to get to and are often overgrown with bracken and brambles. Standing on the hillside at Chysauster on a brisk winters day, looking down the valley it feels very easy to put yourself into the ancestors shoes as you hunker down behind the thick walls in an effort to keep warm.
One question which has not been addressed is who lived in these settlements and why are they only found in the west of Cornwall? Contrary to popular belief I do not believe that these sites belonged to your average Iron Age farming community – this is not to say they did not farm – but rather the people who lived in these substantial structures were different. Several factors support this idea –
- The majority of courtyard house settlements have fogous within their bounds.
- They are associated with hillforts.
- They are not the only settlement type of this era within west Cornwall; isolated hamlets of round houses and ’round’ are much more prevalent than courtyard houses.
Some have suggested that a priestly class occupied these villages (hence the presence of the fogous). Without further research and excavation it is difficult to say exactly who lived here but I would certainly suggest they were not your average farming community. As to why courtyard houses are only found in west Cornwall…the jury is still out on that one. However, I do have an suspicion that there is a connection with the extraction of tin. It might just be coincedence that Chysauster, the largest courtyard house village, is only a short distance from Mounts Bay and a possible site of ‘Ictis’ where it is said the Cornish traded with merchants from the Mediterranean. Or Bosullow Trehyllys (another less well known and unexcavated site) situated on the slopes below Chun Castle an Iron Age (and later) hillfort is also on the path of a well known trackway called the Tinners Way.
All of which makes for interesting discussions…
Christie P. (1978) ‘The excavation of an Iron Age Souterrain and Settlement at Carn Euny, Sancreed Cornwall’ Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 44.
Christie P. (1987) Chysauster, Ancient Village. English Heritage.
Hencken H. (1933) ‘An excavation by H M Office of Works at Chysauster, Cornwall’ Archaeologia 83
Rowe T M (2005) Cornwall in Prehistory. Tempus
Weatherhill C. (2009) Cornovia. Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000BC – 1000AD. Halsgrove
Wood J. (1997) ‘A new perspective on West Cornwall courtyard houses’ Cornish Archaeology No36.