Fogous – An Archaeological Mystery

Fabulous Facts about Fogous

Before we delve too deeply into fogous and the mystery surrounding them it is probably a good idea to describe what a fogou is.  The word ‘fogou’ is very simply Cornish for ‘cave’ and this gives us our first clue.  It is, in essence a subterranean (or semi-subterranean) structure.  Occasionally other writers will compare the Cornish fogou with the Scottish or Irish souterrain but beware of this pitfall; the Cornish will not thank you for it.

The structures in themselves are “…a low passage walled with dry masonry and roofed with large stone slabs, generally but not invariable underground and generally attached to an Iron Age settlement.” (Weatherhill, Pool and Thomas 1980 ‘The Principle Antiquities of the Land’s End District’).

 

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The passagway at Halligye Fogou on the Trelowarren Estate – photo by Jim Champion (geograph.co.uk)

 

Typically, fogous vary between 12 to 15 metres in length and 1.5 to 1.8 metres in width.  The passage walls have a degree of curvature with courses of corbelled masonry to reduce roof width and in most cases the passage itself curves or branches making it difficult to see the end as you enter.  Most have a wide accessible entrance today, but it does seem that for many the original access point was a low restrictive doorway called a ‘creep’.

As mentioned before fogous are almost always associated with a settlement dating to the Iron Age and for many they would have been the only stone structure within that settlement.  The distribution of these sites is restricted to areas west of the Fal Estuary with the majority being in West Penwith.  There are at least twelve sites known for certain and at least another a dozen or so possible sites suggested from placenames, fieldnames and those described by past antiquarians.  For example, the West Penwith Survey identified one such site at Lower Leah from a description left by J T Blight in 1850 of a subterranean chamber in which burial urns and fused tin were found.

No two fogous are exactly alike and to further emphasise this, the structures at Carn Euny and Bosporthennis each have what is known as a ‘beehive hut’.  The name is something of misnomer as the structures were highly unlikely to have anything to do with bees or bee keeping.  The name was given due to the shape of the chamber, which resembles a beehive.

Excavations at Carn Euny during the 1960s and 70s depict a settlement which was occupied for about seven hundred years from around 500BC. There were several phases, the earliest consisted of timber structures and the last was the construction of the stone courtyard houses which are visible today.  The ‘beehive hut’ is associated with the earliest phase of settlement, a second phase of roundhouses are associated with the construction of the long passage and by the time the courtyard houses were constructed the passage was made to link into the courtyard house north of it.

The most recent fogou to be excavated is that of Boden Vean on the Lizard Pennisula.  This particular site was first recorded in 1816 by the vicar of Manaccan and then was promptly lost.  In 1991 the current landowner was having some pipe work done in a field when a cavity emerged and the fogou was rediscovered.  Geophysical survey identified several anomalies, one of which turned out to be a Bronze Age roundhouse and subsequent excavations demonstrated that the fogou was part of an enclosed Iron Age settlement known as a ‘round’ (which can rather confusingly be anything but round…).

 

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Bodean Fogou under excavation.

 

 

Fogous and their Function

What were fogous used for?  This is the heart of the mystery. The lack of consensus, of agreement as to what the function of a fogou is defines Cornish archaeology and archaeologists.  There are three possible explanations – a place of refuge, storage and ritual.  Lets’ examine each of these in turn.

Refuge – this particular theory has generally fallen out of favour.  The argument against this theory relates to the accessibility of the fogou.  When most fogous were built the only access was through the creep and whilst it is an easy enough task to crawl through if you are young, fit and not claustrophobic, an elderly or infirm person would find it difficult.  The second point against this theory is the lack of an exit strategy.  It would be an easy enough task for any would be raiders to smoke out the people hiding in these passages, there are no air vents and no other way out.  The third and final nail in the coffin relates to the overall position of these structures within the landscape, many are situated within easy distance of well defended site such at Carn Euny with the hillfort of Caer Bran only a short distance uphill.

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The orignal entrance at Carn Euny known as the creep.

Storage – for many archaeologists this is the prevailing theory.  Comparisons are often made to souterrains found in Brittany, Scotland and Ireland which did have a more utilitarian purpose and are often of very different dates.  However, Ian Cooke suggests that the fogou is not an imported concept, they “…represent a continuation of long established local megalithic traditions.” (Antiquities of West Cornwall 3 Carn Euny Village and Fogou).

In Cornwall there is a tradition of building places of storage, these are called ‘crows’ or ‘hulls’.  A crow is a small stone hovel used to store tools, fuel and in some cases livestock.  They are often built into the side of a field hedge or bank and most are at best two centuries old.  A hull is a chamber dug out of the ground and faced with stone; often there will be a lintelled doorway to prevent collapse.  They are found close to settlements and were used to store perishable foods.  These structures were common from around fourteenth or fifteenth century.

However, the argument against the use of fogous as a place of storage considers how damp and airless they are (a visit to any fogou requires a pair waterproof shoes at anytime of the year).  Research has shown that the only foodstuffs suitable to storing in this environment are beer and dairy produce.  There is also the accessibility issue, clambering down the creep with a barrel of beer is not the most efficient means of storing your excess foodstuffs.  It is possible that the fogou did change in use over time, the later opening up of the fogou during its last phase at Carn Euny would have made it a better option for the storing of foodstuffs.

A secondary argument also looks at the effort required to build the fogou and as mentioned before, at the time of construction it would have been the only stone building in the settlement.  Both suggest that the fogou was a socially important structure, which leads us the final possible explanation.

Ritual – some archaeologists tend to shy away from using ‘ritual’ to describe a sites function.  This is a backlash from criticism in the 80s and 90s when archaeologists were accused of using ‘ritual’ as a definition when nothing else fitted.  The term was certainly bandied about…even so, the idea of the fogou as a place of ritual does need to be examined because interpretations as places of storage or refuge are at this point unsatisfactory.

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The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster.

Ian Cooke has spent a substantial amount of time recording and analysing fogous throughout Cornwall.  For him and many others involved in earth mysteries fogous were definitely places of ritual.  Cooke found that all but two were ‘symbolically’ aligned to the rising midsummer sun and the two that weren’t were aligned on the setting of the midsummer sun.  He says symbolically as at the time no light would have entered the passages.  The importance of midsummer needs no explanation here.  Some archaeologists have questioned these alignments but have noted the monumental nature of the fogou, drawing analogies with a medieval church within a settlement of less substantial structures (P. Herring 1994 CA Journal 33).

Cooke also noted how “…the majority of fogous, where sufficient remains can be traced, have the northern end of their long curved passage aligned north-east to correspond with the prevailing direction taken by the subterranean mineral lodes…”  Drawing a connection between the tin trade and the construction of the fogous, perhaps it is not unsurprising then when we here of small finds of fused tin found inside the passages and in the backfill of the creep such as at Carn Euny.

“…the rationale behind building fogous was the need to provide a place of contact between the plunderers of the earth and the dieites believed to control the fertility of the land and the mineral wealth beneath it, and that these places were used for the performance of rituals related to the pagan religion of Iron Age West Cornwall in which a Sun God and Earth Mother Goddess formed the central element.” (Ian Cooke The Mother and the Sun 1993).

It has also been suggested fogous may have been a place where important rituals took place which relate to transformation such as when a child becomes an adult or during death.  The dark places of the world have always represented an otherworldliness to human beings, even to this day, caves are regarded as special places.

The more sceptical who argue against a ritual function point out, “by and large fogous lack obvious design features or contexts that make them stand out as undoubted ritual structures,” (P. Rose ‘Shadows in the Imagination: Encounters with caves in Cornwall CA Journal 2000/1).  The argument follows that because we have been unable to identify any elements within Celtic belief that may be associated with the fogou then a ritual function is unlikely.

However lets briefly consider what we do know, it is fairly well understood that the people of the Celtic Iron Age attributed all aspects of the world around them with a spirit of some kind and that ‘no activity however trivial would have been entered into without some thought for the attitudes of those who inhabited the other world’ (B Cunliffe Facing the Ocean 1995).  Surely this would have extended to the extraction of tin and other metals from the ground.

“As tin extraction is an activity that is unique to Cornwall, particularly west Cornwall, is it not possible that the fogou is a unique regional response to this,” (TM Rowe Cornwall in Prehistory 2005).  The continuing fertility of the land and its mineral wealth would have been important concerns in this period.

Further reading – ‘Fogous’ by Andy Norfolk

 

Fogous and Folklore     

All of the folk stories which surround fogous can be traced back to one of three themes.

  • It’s the location of hidden treasure.
  • They have impossibly long passages.
  • Associated with demons, witches, giants and other ‘dangerous’ creatures.

Thus, Piskey’s Hall was long thought to contain fairy treasure, at Boleigh there was a belief that the passage ran for many miles under the Penwith landscape and at Pendeen Vau there is a tale of a young woman dressed in white and carrying a red rose appearing at the mouth of the fogou on Christmas day.  It is said if you see her you will die within the year.

There were giants at the fogous of Lower Boscaswell and Higher Bodinar and at Boleigh it is said that the Penwith witches were in the habit of meeting the Devil here.

It is not difficult to see how such stories might begin.  Treasure seekers have for centuries dug holes in curious mounds in search of riches, the mound covering a fogou would have been no different.  Should you ever visit a fogou without a torch (not recommended, by the way) the passage will seem to go on forever, it often feels as if time has stood still and the passage is never ending.  As for demons, giants, witches and ladies in white foretelling your death, well, the ever active imagination of the human species may well be responsible.

Or, perhaps local folklore can give us hints about the fogou, as it is with a game of Chinese whispers, folk memory can distort ancient knowledge of a place as time goes by and other influences intervene.  Stories of lost treasure might relate to knowledge of precious mineral lodes; the fear of the never ending passage may be just an extension of the fogou representing the underworld; the association of the devil and witches perhaps an attempt in early Christian fervour to discourage people away from ancient places of worship.  For those who follow the path of the Goddess today, the role of the witch in the past is a manifestation of the Goddess, hence the persecution (put very simply).

 

Final thoughts

So are we any closer in solving this archaeological mystery?  In short, no.  Like so much when we are dealing with a time so very distant from our own it is difficult to make assumptions about sites such as fogous when the evidence is so sparse.  It has been suggested in order to get a much clearer idea of the function a detailed excavation of a fogou undisturbed since time of abandonment would be ideal.

Even so, solving this mystery is left to the individual, only he or she can decide how these places were used and that is why fogous are special places – they are different things for different folks.

NB when visiting a fogou please take a torch and if you don’t like spiders, don’t look up…really, do not look up!

 

Links

Not a comprehensive list of links but a starting point for further investigation.

Halligye Fogou

Pendeen Fogou

Boleigh Fogou

Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network

Cornwall Heritage Trust

A Fogou List

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