Category Archives: Cornwall

Chysauster & Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type.

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).

CHYSAUSTER

 

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Plan of Chysauster

 

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.

 

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Originally interprested as post sockets – now thought to be small grinding stones.

 

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.

 

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One of several stone lined hearths.

 

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.

 

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Entering House 6

 

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.

 

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Plan of house 6 – note the very thick walls.

 

 

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The entrance to the ‘main’ room of house 6.

 

CARN EUNY

 

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Plan of Carn Euny

 

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).

 

 

Practical Issues

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).

 

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In 1993 an experimental roof was built over one of the ‘rooms’ at Chysauster.  It was this exercise which set Jacqui Wood on her path to find an alternative roofing solution.(Photo by P Allison http://www.geograph.co.uk)

 

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.”

 

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Jacqui Wood’s alternative arrangement for the roof of house 6 at Chysauster (Wood J 1997)

 

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.

Final Thoughts

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…

FURTHER READING

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Museum With A Difference

The fog rolled in along the North Cornish coast blanketing the hills.  Coming in fast behind it was a weather front of rain and blustering wind.  What was I doing out in this weather?  Why would anyone venture forth in such conditions, most sensible people were safe inside.  But today I was a tourist and nothing was going to stand between myself and the place I wished to visit.

Tomorrow it would close for the winter and my chances of visiting again would be blown (it’s a long to come from NZ).  My destination?  The Museum of Witchcraft in the wee coastal village of Boscastle on the North Cornish coast.  I had also dragged the husband and kids along (I needed a driver and there’s this funny law which says you can’t leave the kids at home alone…)

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The exterior of the museum – Jan 2015 (it now has new signage…)

The museum is the home to the worlds’ largest collection of “witchcraft-related objects dating from the time of the witch-hunts to the present day.”  A friend recently asked why I would want to visit the museum.  Well, in short it is a fascinating subject because it tells a story of how people have viewed not only themselves but also the world around them on a very deep and personal level.  So my question to her was – why wouldn’t you?

The museum was not always in Boscastle, originally it was based on the Isle of Man in Castleton.  It was first opened by Cecil Williamson in 1951 (the same year the Witchcraft Act was repealed successfully).  He employed Gerald Gardner – the father of modern witchcraft – as “Resident Witch” and the museum was very successful.  But eventually as things go, the two men felt the museum should go in different directions and Williamson sold the building to Gardner and moved his collection to Windsor and then onto the Cotswolds.  Unfortunately a lack of tolerance in the local area resulted in the museum being firebombed several times.  Once more Williamson moved his collection but this time to Boscastle, where it has been ever since.  The current owner is Graham King, who bought it from Williamson in 1996.

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The village of Boscastle looking back from the sea wall.

 In 2004 the whole of Boscastle was brought to its knees when a flash flood filled the valley – the town was swamped by over three metres of flood waters.  The museum was severely damaged however this did not deter King – clean up of the museum began as soon as possible with every inch of mud being sifted and every item found meticulously cleaned and disinfected.  During this time the museum layout was redesigned and gradually the museum rose from mud and sewage all brand new.  I recently read on Facebook, that once more the museum is having a bit of face lift for no other reason than “change is good”.

The museum itself is divided into sections, each section dealing with one particular aspect of the craft.  The descriptions below are from a pamphlet bought at the museum during my visit.

  • Images of Witchcraft – “Although many people today are sceptical about the power of magic, there can be no doubt about the enduring power of the image of the witch.
  • Persecution – “Our display about the witch-hunts begins with a 17th Century copy of Daemonologie – a book condemning magic written by King James I. King James wrote it after personally interrogating the suspects in the North Berwick witchcraft case, who were accused of raising a storm to sink his ship”.
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A witch weighing chair – not everyone was into the witch hunts.  As long as the accused weighed more than the Bible they were proved innocent.
  • The Wheel of the Year – “Modern witches meet on, and celebrate, ancient seasonal festivals and call them Sabbats”.
  • Stangs – “Modern witches refer to forked or skull-topped staffs as stangs”.
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A collection of stangs.
  • Sacred Sites – “Ancient sacred sites are very important to many people who practise Modern Pagan Witchcraft today…however, the witches of the past centuries also valued sacred sites as places to practise magic.”
  • The Hare and Shape-Shifting “Many legends and folktales tell of witches turning into animals – particularly hares, cats and owls. A traditional Cornish term for “cursed” is “owl-blasted”.
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A ceramic hare-woman made in the 1960s by Lionel Miskin.
  • The Magic of Christianity – “Trial records show that most people who practised magic during the witch-hunts were Christians, and often used the sacred object of Christianity in their spells.
  • Herbs and Healing – “Healing has always been an important part of magic. Many people arrested for witchcraft were respected healers using charms and herbal remedies.
  • The Wise Woman – “Our wise woman in her cottage shows just how different real life witches were from the stereotype of the ugly hag muttering curses.”

 

  • Protection Magic – “The use of objects as protection charms (also known as amulets) is one of the most ancient types of magic – and also one still widely used thoughout the world today.”
  • Magic in Wartime – “This display shows some of the ways people have used magic to help them cope with the stress and danger of war.”
  • Mandrakes – “According to William Shakespeare, human shaped mandrakes roots were worn as good luck charms.”
  • Curses – “Did people really use magic to put curses on their enemies? Of course they did!…Cursing was an instrument of natural justice, and a form of anger management.”
  • Ritual Magic and The Golden Dawn – “At the heart of the display are the colourful and dramatic tools developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.”
  • The Richel Collection – “This collection of magical objects from the Netherlands bequeathed to the museum in 2000, is complex, challenging and sometimes downright mystifying – though sexual symbolism is a recurring theme.”
  • The Devil and the Horned God – “There can be little doubt that the horned Devil of medieval art had its origins in earlier horned deities of nature and fertility, such as the Egyptian goddess Hathor, the Celtic god Cerunnos and the Roman god Pan.”
  • Baphomet and the Green Man
  • Fortune Telling and Divination – “Of all the objects in the museum, the one that most intrigues and fascinates visitors is the dark mirror used by the museums founder Cecil Williamson.”
  • Spells and Charms – “Many of the exhibits in this museum illustrate a central principle of folk magic, that there is magic all around us in the natural objects of everyday life”.
  • Sea Witchcraft – “There are many accounts of witches selling the wind to sailors, by magically knotting it into a length of rope on a windy day.”
  • Tools of the Witch – “Knitting needles might not seem an obvious magical tool – but stitches are really knots, and knot magic is ancient and widespread.”
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    The cauldron – you can’t be a witch without one of these…
  • Modern Witchcraft – “Many of the objects in this section are personal and unusual, such as the Peruvian magic dolls used by Brownie Pate, or the painted altar stone made by Iain Steele, with its dragon like symbol in the centre.”

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This may not be a museum for everyone, some might even find the occasional display uncomfortable (the sideways looks I kept getting from the hubby was proof of that).  Even so, the effort to visit should be made.  To learn about and educate ourselves in the ways  of the craft and its history means that the past won’t be repeated.  When it comes down to it, today witchcraft/paganism is just another form of spirituality which provides harmony and solace in the lives who follow that path.

It was a fascinating museum and well worth the trip, the dreary weather adding to the atmosphere.  To visit on a bright sunny day when Boscastle is thronging with tourists…

 

Contact details:  The Museum of Witchcraft, The Harbour, Boscastle, Cornwall PL35 0HD.

Tel: 01840 250111

www.museumofwitchcraft.com

museumwitchcraft@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

A Cornish Mermaid

“The village of Zennor, about a quarter of a mile distant (from Morvah), lies in a wild and stony district.  Within the very interesting church are some quaint bench ends, one which depicts a mermaid…” (The Cornish Riviera 1911)

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The pub and the church – two essentials in any village.

Zennor is a small but perfectly formed village nestled into the rugged landscape of west Penwith.  It has an air of having been around since the beginning of time and a quick survey of the surrounding landscape would seem to confirm this.  The ancient past is all around you in this part of Cornwall, whether it is the stone walls that snake across the land, the portal dolmens dating back to the Neolithic or the remains of circular huts with dates in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

But perhaps the most well known aspect of Zennor is its connection with mermaids.  In the church there is an ancient oak bench, which at one end has carved into it a mermaid holding a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other (the mirror is sometimes referred to either as a quince or a pomegranate).  As with all matters in this land of stories there is a legend attached to the chair.

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The mermaid chair.

 

“One Christmas morning, long ago, so the local tradition runs, the mermaid came to the church, attracted by the marvellous singing of the squire’s son, a handsome youth, who considered by the ladies of Zennor the most desirable “future husband” in the district.  Moreover, so the story goes, the mermaid changed herself into a beautiful human maid wearing a gown of woven silver filament, which gave off a bright incandescence, and sitting beside the squire’s son she cast a spell on him.  Suddenly a terrific storm raged around the church and several flashes of lightening zigzagged at the windows, filling the church with a blinding glare.  The storm only lasted a few moments, and when it had abated the mermaid had vanished – and so had the squire’s son.” (Cornwall by R. Thurston Hopkins date unknown).

There are a few variations on this version but the essentials stay the same.  In the official pamphlet from the church at Zennor the legend tells “…how a beautiful young woman in a long dress used to sit at the back of the church listening to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. One evening she succeeded in luring him down to the stream which runs through the village.  Together they went down the stream and into the sea at Pendour Cove, now known as Mermaid’s Cove.  It is said that if you listen carefully on warm summer’s evening you can hear the pair of lovers singing together.”

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Detail of the mermaid chair – the comb and the mirror are recurring themes in depictions of mermaids.

It is believed that the carved chair which commemorates this story dates back to the late Medieval some five to six hundred years ago.  Stories of mermaids go back centuries, the first record of a mermaid tradition comes from the Assyrians and in Ancient Greece the mermaid was the symbol of Aphrodite who was not only the goddess of love but also the sea. Tumultuous and unpredictable, both can be said of the sea and love.  In many stories surrounding mermaids they are both beautiful/kind and ugly/evil – the two sides of the same coin.

It is not surprising then to learn that in the churchyard at Zennor there are many unmarked graves of unknown sailors who died during shipwrecks on this perilous stretch of coastline.  The sea can be both kind and bounteous but can turn in an instant taking life without remorse.

“It is a fact that, to this day, the women of the choir at Zennor sit between the male choristers and the church porch, and this, the village people say, is to protect their menfolk from the wiles of seductive “merry maidens”.” (R. Thurston Hopkins)

During the Middle Ages the mermaid appears in carvings at churches around the UK, becoming a symbol for the evils of lust, the fishy tail reminiscent of the scales on a serpent providing a link to the idea of ‘original sin’.  The mirror and the comb features in many depictions and are sometimes regarded as symbols of the mermaids (and thus female) vanity and it is through vanity that sin occurs.

Throughout time men have gone to sea to make their fortune or simply to provide for their families, it is a fact that some have never returned leaving families behind wondering what had happened to their menfolk.  Perhaps the legend is born from a truth – the mermaid is the capricious sea – a beautiful woman who lures men away often never to be seen again.  Is it not said that the sea is a ‘harsh mistress’?

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

The Church  itself is dedicated to St Senara  – the earliest record of a church here dates to 1150 AD but the circular shape of the churchyard and the 6th century saints name would indicate that there has been a church here from around the earlier date.  St Senara is often associated with the legend of Princess Asenara of Brittany who married King Goello.  Her stepmother was jealous of her beauty and accused her of infidelity condemning her to be burnt however when it was found that she was pregnant her gaolers nailed her into a barrel and set her to sea.  It is said the child was born in the barrel and named Budoc, eventually the barrel washed up onto the Irish coast and Asenara and Budoc stayed for awhile.  As in all good stories King Goello discovered the truth of the matter and Asenara returned to Brittany with Budoc via Cornwall. Along the way they founded the parishes of Zennor and Budoc (near Falmouth).

Within the church there are two fonts, one is Norman in date and the other is 13th/14th century in date and is still in use today.

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

In 1270 the church was appropriated by the Provost and Canons of Glasney College, at this time much of it was rebuilt.  The builders were housed in what is now ‘The Tinners Arms’, the local pub which was built in 1271.  In 1450 the tower and north aisle were added to the church.

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One of several stone crosses to be found in the churchyard. These originally marked the path for the ‘coffin way’.

Apart from all the great scenic walks (‘the coffin way’ to St Ives being one) around the area there is also a working water wheel and local museum – ‘The Wayside Folk Museum’.  This is a private museum of rural and local artefacts with everything from stone axeheads dating from the Neolithic to farm implements from the 18th century.

NB – It has come to my attention that The Wayside Folk Museum has closed and was sold recently (2016).