Tag Archives: Bronze Age

Stonehenge – more than a ring of stones.

Stonehenge – a name that evokes a great many emotions in a great many people.  For some it is a place of pilgrimage, a place to connect with the ancestors and for others it is seen as a tourist trap or something to tick off the bucket list.  For centuries it has captured our imagination; never has a heritage site been so controversial – something which continues to this day.  In this post it is not my intention to give a full on thesis about Stonehenge, there are plenty of books/websites who do this already.  Instead it is simply an overview of what is currently understood about the site, its surrounding landscape and my own personal thoughts.

Stonehenge is situated on the Salisbury Plains, to the south is the busy A303, a main road between the south-west and London, and for many years the equally busy A344 ran alongside the site.  This latter road was removed sometime ago to improve the visitors experience.  Today there are ongoing discussions regarding the upgrading of the A303 and a proposed tunnel.  It is a highly emotive subject, on one hand I understand the need to improve the road situation (ask anyone who is stuck in a traffic jam on the A303) but as an archaeologist I am also aware of the sensitive nature of the surrounding heritage landscape (and yes I am on the fence).  Mike Pitts in his recent post discusses the pros and cons for those of you who are interested.

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For the visitor today the focus is on the large stone circle with its trilithons, they marvel at how it could have been built by ‘primitive man’ often leading to suggestions of alien intervention and lost technologies.  But such thoughts only serve to belittle our ancestors and our past.  Others may ask why did our ancestors build Stonehenge?  Often the answers are unimaginative and simple – sun-worship; display of power; ancient computer; druid temple – once more when we look only for one answer to a what is obviously a complicated site of great longevity we belittle their achievements.  Instead if Stonehenge was understood in terms of the wider landscape and as a site whose history spanned several millenia we might come to some small understanding of how and why.

In today’s world of instant gratification where everything has a beginning and an end,  it is hard to imagine beginning a project knowing you might not see it finished but this was a reality for the builders of Stonehenge.  It has lead some to suggest that it was not the end product which was important but the doing, the act of building which was in fact the purpose.  Suggesting a cyclical thought pattern which can be seen in other aspects of prehistoric life – round houses, stone circles, round barrows.  in addition, time itself was most likely viewed in cycles, the phases of the moon and the movement of the seasons are all cyclical events which would have been of great importance to prehistoric people trying to make sense of their world.

“So was Stonehenge ever ‘finished’?  The answer to that has to be no, because completion was never the intention of the people who created it.” (Pryor F. 2016 ‘Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape).

It is well known that Stonehenge itself had many incarnations, perhaps meaning new and different things with each alteration or rebuild.  To understand Stonehenge it is important to consider it in the wider context of the surrounding landscape (there are literally hundreds of prehistoric monuments around it) in all the different phases.

The Mesolithic Story

The story of the Stonehenge landscape begins back in the Mesolithic, ongoing recent excavations at Blickmead are providing archaeologists with tantalising clues as to why this area was important to our ancestors.  The site is situated near a spring by the River Avon, excavations began in 2005 and almost immediately were fruitful.  Basically, the deposits consisted of an array of Mesolithic settlement debris, mostly flint fragments (tens of thousands) but also a great number of animal bones.  Interestingly, the site also yielded the largest collection of auroch bones ever found on a Mesolithic site in Britain so far.  Other animals which were hunted and consumed included red deer, wild boar and salmon – this has led archaeologists to suggest that feasting was a common occurence around the spring.  The spring itself is quite unusual as it has the tendency to stain flints and other materials a bright magenta pink – the importance of springs in later prehistory is well attested to.

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In 1966 row of four large pit like features were found during upgrades to the old carpark close by Stonehenge.  When excavated one was found to be a the root-hole of a tree and the other three were holes dugs to hold large poles.   Examination of the material from these features gave a date range from between 8500 and 7000BC.  The posts would have been approximately 75cm in diameter and were from pine trees.  Later in 1988 another post-hole was discovered south and east of the original pits but it was contemporary.

So here we have a landscape already well populated by hunter-gatherer communities who revered certain natural features long before Stonehenge makes an appearance.  A landscape which had meaning to the people who inhabit it; who had traditions and memories of place.

At around 3500BC (Neolithic) with the arrival of farming these communities and their traditions had evolved and more permenant features began to make an appearance on the landscape.   Long barrows such as those at East and West Kennet or Winterbourne Stoke were the first to appear and by 3400BC the Stonehenge Cursus and Lesser Cursus was under construction.

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3000BC – The first official phase of construction

In many parts of Britian at this time a new type of monument was being constructed, these were earthwork enclosures which are referred to as henges.  They consist of irregular cut ditches encircling a defined area with corresponding banks.  Stonehenge’s earliest phase was one such earthwork.  Here there were two entrances one faced north-east and the other faced south.  The north-easterly entrance remained in use for much of the sites lifetime and appears to be important to its function.  The entrance is aligned along a line of natural gullies which face towards the midsummer sunrise in one direction and the midwinter sunset in the other.

 

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The bank and ditch of the first phase of construction – often overlooked by the visitor as they focus on the stones.

 

These natural gullies would have been visible to the people of the Mesolithic and may have been why the large pine posts were erected where they were – the midsummer and midwinter solstices were just as important then as they were to the later prehistoric communities.

Inside the earthwork enclosure around the inner edge of the bank were fifty-six regularly spaced pits – these are now known as the Aubrey Holes.  There is some discussion as to what they were or what they contained – small stone uprights or wooden posts?  However, what is known is that eventually they did contain cremated human remains.  Similar deposits have been found in the partly filled ditch and cut into the bank suggesting that at this stage in its history Stonehenge was used as a cemetary, among other things.

 

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These circular markers define the spot where an Abrey Hole can be found.

 

The Building of the Stone Monument

At around 2500BC Stonehenge began to resemble a site we are much more familiar with. It is at this time that the massive sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs were moved to the site and erected.  If that was not all at the same time the smaller but no less cumbersome, blue stones from the Preseli Mountains in Wales were transported and erected at Stonehenge.  The Heel stone was moved to its current position and four smaller sarsen stones (the station stones) were erected  inside the enclosure just inside the bank.

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The first two diagrams above demonstrate one theory of how the trilithon stones were erected.  The third diagram shows the sophistication of the construction, with each lintel fitting neatly into each other – borrowed from the Univeristy of Buckingham’s MOOC “Stonehenge”.

 

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The friendly raven accentuating the knob which would have ensured a lintel that did not move.

 

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Stonehenge in 1917 – taken from a hot air balloon.

 

 

In a mere one hundred years it seems the two main structures of the trilithon horseshoe and the circle was completed. Interestingly it seems that greater care was taken in the shaping and construction of the stones visible from the north-east side and the main entrance.  The bluestones were also erected at this time but not in the form we see today at Stonehenge.  Excavation has shown us that there were two concentric arcs of stone holes, known as the Q and R holes were found on the north and east sides of the central area.  It has been suggested that these were not representative of a complete circle as there is little to no evidence on the southern or western sides of corresponding holes.

 

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The Heel stone – it is thought that unlike the other sarsen stones which come from the Marlborough Downs, the Heel stone was always here and simply raised upright.

 

2200BC – Consolidation and Alterations

From this time on Stonehenge underwent a series of minor alterations although the large sarsen stones remained in their positions although much later in the Bronze Age shallow carvings of axeheads and the occasional dagger were added.  There are some 115 carvings and these have been dated stylistically to between 1750 and 1500BC.

The smaller bluestones however were rearranged and by 2200BC the incomplete circles were dismantled and repositioned to form a circle concentric to and just inside the circle of larger sarsen circle whilst a second oval of bluestones (spotted dolerite) was also formed within the trilithon setting.  Later a number of stones were removed from the oval to form the horseshoe setting which is seen today.

 

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The smaller stones are the remnants of the bluestone circle.

 

At around the same time the ditch was recut and a small bank was constructed and the Avenue was constructed.  This later feature follows the solstice alignment with ditches and banks for part of the way and then veers off to the east ending in a valley of the River Avon.  Recent excavations at the place where the Avenue meets the River Avon have uncovered evidence for a previously unknown henge monument made up of bluestones. These were likely to have been removed to supplement the bluestones already at Stonehenge.

Surrounding the monument are significant numbers of round barrows dating from the Bronze Age, some of which contained rich burials with artefacts made of bronze, gold, jet and amber.  Suggesting a society rather different from the one which was able to come together communally to construct Stonehenge and yet the place, the landscape and the site still had a powerful pull to these people – it is no different today…

Above are two of the many round barrows littering the landscape around Stonehenge.

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A map showing the distribuiton of barrows in the Stonehenge landscape.

The pictures above show a reconstruction of houses found during excavations at Durrington Walls which date to approximately the same time as when the main phase of construction at Stonehenge was underway.  It is interesting to note the layout of the houses with the ‘dresser’ opposite the door and the beds to the right as you enter.  This layout is reminiscent of house layouts at Skara Brae and later similar layouts are seen in Bronze Age roundhouses.

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Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Britain; it evokes a variety of emotions; it is a British icon and yet so many people still only today see the stones.  Yes they are impressive but there is so much more to their story than what you see.  To really understand Stonehenge the curious need to look at the wider landscape and then look further again.  Afterall, not too far away is the equally astounding landscape surrounding Avebury.  What was the relationship between these two sacred landscapes?  What can they tell us about the people who lived at the time?  These landscapes were created by a people who viewed the world very differently to ourselves and carry a language, a dialogue that would have been obvious to those who lived in the Neolithic and even the Bronze Age.  In our modern world where landscapes are viewed as places to use – either to make money or in terms of leisure pursuits – it is often hard for us to step back in time to view the landscape as living breathing entity without which we could not survive.

Stonehenge and its surrounding landscape undoubtedly meant many things to the people who occupied it (and probably those further afield too), the stones themselves were taken from the land and perhaps used to create a space where the natural world could be contained; where a semblance of control was maintained; where perhaps a balance was found between the natural world and the constructed world.

There are a great deal of books and websites which delve into the Stonehenge enigma in far greater detail.  I have listed some of those below (browse Amazon for comprehensive lists).  In particular I would like to recommend the free online course run by Buckingham University via Iversity (click here for more details).

Further Reading

Pryor F (2016) Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape

Parker-Pearson M  et al (2015) Stonehenge: Making Sense of Prehistoric Mystery

Parker Pearson M (2013) Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery

Bowden M et al (2015) The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.

 

 

 

Archaeology in Cornwall – My Top Ten Sites.

If archaeology is your thing (and it’s certainly mine) then Cornwall is a great county to visit with a mulititude of sites to visit, especially if you want to get away from the crowds and sitting on the beach has lost its appeal.  From the outset I should point out the following are my favourite sites/landscapes to visit (it was quite difficult to keep it to just ten and yes they are mostly prehistoric sites), others may have different views – the list is purely my own opinion.  Feel free to comment on your favourites.

1. Chun Castle and Quoit

Okay so I have cheated a bit – here we have two very different sites but their proximity to each other I think allows for a bit of cheating…

Firstly, Chun Quoit – quoits are neolithic monuments found throughout Cornwall (there are about a dozen known sites) consisting of upright granite slabs topped by a large capstone.  They can also be called portal dolmens, chamber tombs or cromlechs.  Some are in a better state of repair than others and Chun Quoit is perhaps one of the few which has been interferred with the least.  Chun Quoit consists of four large uprights supporting a capstone which is estimated to weigh over 8 tonnes.  It is also possible to see the remains of a circular stone cairn and associated kerbstones (the stone rubble at ground level) which would have originally surrounded the Quoit but not covering it leaving a the facade and the capstone visible.

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Two hundred metres to the east of the quoit are the impressive remains of Chun Castle.  Unlike many other Iron Age hillforts which utilise an earthen ditch and bank system Chun Castle is entirely stone built.  It consists of two large concentric stone walls and is 85 metres in diameter.  There is some evidence that the hillfort was built over an earlier enclosure represented by a shallow ditch and low bank on the southwest side.  Inside the hillfort there is a stone lined well and escavations during the late 1920s found evidence for a later post Roman occupation of the hill fort.  Iron Age occupation consisted of at least a dozen round houses which based on the pottery found date the site to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC.  Sitting high on the ridgeway known as the Tinners Way the site would have been visible from many miles around, from here it is possible to make out several other hillforts in the distance such as Caer Bran.  Below the hillfort about 500metres to the north east is the site of Bosullow Trehyllys – a courtyard house settlement of the late Iron Age (see the earlier post on  Chysauster and Carn Euny), it is unexcavated but appears to consist of at least three detached courtyard houses and a number of round houses.

2. Chysauster

I wanted to include a courtyard house settlement in the list and it was a choice between Carn Euny and Chysauster. In the end Chysauster won mainly because it is easier to get to but also because the visitor can get a good idea of size of this unique house type. However, I would recommend a visit to Carn Euny too – the fogou makes it well worth while.  I have discussed both sites already in a previous post – Chysauster and Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type – so won’t say much more than that.

3. Treryn Dinas

Treryn Dinas falls into the category of Iron Age cliff castle or promontory fort – one of many coastal headlands with Iron Age defences in the form of earthen or stone ramparts and external ditches usually across the neck of the headland.  The term ‘cliff castle’ does not denote a particular function, some were large enough to have settlements within their walls, such as The Rumps and Trevelgue Head, others were much smaller and perhaps served as trading posts or lookouts.  Treryn Dinas, however, appears to more than that – the visitor only need to look at the position and surroundings of this site to realise it is special.

Overlooking the beach at Porthcurno, the ramparts enclose a large rocky headland which contains the Logan Rock – a substantial boulder perched on the outcrop which in times past would rock in the wind and was only dislodged in 1824 by cocky young lieutenant and the crew of the HMS Nimble.  The local people were rightfully upset at this and the lieutenant was charged to replace the rock at his own expense and with the help of the admiralty it was eventually returned to its original position, although it is said to no longer rock as easily as it had done once before.

According to folklore the earliest inhabitants of the headland were the giants who protected the neighbouring communities in return for cattle and other necessaries.  Giants are a common feature in Cornish folkore and seem to be particularly associated with large outcrops of granite which feature in the landscape.  From an archaeological point of view Treryn Dinas has four lines of defence with the last crossing the low neck of the headland.  It consists of a deep ditch and a stone faced wall behind which are the foundations of two buildings either side of the presumed entrance.  The general view is that this site is one of spiritual significance which may date many centuries earlier than the Iron Age.  Finds of Bronze Age pottery have been found wedged in the crevices  of the outcrop, the Logan Rock itself may have been seen as supernatural and there is the problem of that fourth line of defence.  You will note in the photograph below that this line of defence is not particulary defensible as it easily looked down from the landward side, in addition the amount of useful land on the headland is extremely limited and the only thing the fourth rampart is ‘protecting’ are the rocks themselves.

 

4. Boscawen-Un

In the parish of St Buryan is the stone circle of Boscawen-Un, dating to the early Bronze Age and consisting of nineteen stones there are several interesting features of the site.  The most obvious is the stone which is slightly south of center, it leans sharply towards the north east and at its base there are two very faint relief carvings of axe heads.  A past student once suggested to me that the stone itself looked like a large stone axehead which had been struck into the ground.  Minor excavations have further revealed that its leaning position was intentional and not the result of subsidence.  The second interesting feature of this stone circle is the large block of quartz to the south west which is part of the circle.  Our understanding of the role of quartz within prehistoric rituals is poorly understood but there is an increasing amount of evidence which points to its importance.

Boscawen-Un is one of several archaeological sites which feature in my novels – The Adventures of Sarah Tremayne.

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5. A Fogou

Okay, so now I really am cheating but the fact is any visit to Cornwall should definitly include a fogou and I couldn’t decide which I preferred – Carn Euny or Halligye are the easiest to get to and Halligye the largest (it can be found on the Trelowarren Estate, near Helston) however, Carn Euny does have a courtyard settlement, the nearby hillfort of Caer Bran and the fogou itself has a beehive shaped internal chamber.  So you can see my dilemma…I have already written about fogous in an earlier blog so shall not rehash what we know and don’t know about these enigmatic structures.

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The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster.

6. Carn Brea

Situated between Redruth and Camborne is long hill easily visible from the A30, it is a hill with a long history beginning as far back as the Neolithic.  Today two features stand out the most, firstly the the tall monument on the central summit erected in 1836 in the memory of Francis Bassett of Tehidy and the second is the small medieval castle perched on an outcrop.  The latter was most likely a hunting lodge belonging to the Bassetts, an ancient local family and was first recorded in the fifteenth century.  The land surrounding the hill was prime tin mining country and the flanks of the hill are covered in shafts and pits.

Heading further back in time the astute visitor might notice the remains of eleven Iron Age roundhouses on the saddle between the east and central summits, these are part of a much larger settlement on the hilltop, set within a substantial hillfort of forty-six acres.  The defences are made up of two ramparts enclosing the hill.  However, the occupation of Carn Brea began much earlier in the Neolithic.  Surounding the eastern and central summits are another two smaller enclosures, of these the eastern summit has been partially excavated.  The date range showed that the ramparts had been built somewhere between 4000 and 3500BC, making it the oldest known fortified settlement in Britain.  There were traces of wooden buildings and Neolithic pottery, in addition a large number of flint arrowheads (700+) were uncovered along with evidence for the destruction of the site suggesting the site had been under attack (Cornish Archaeology, 1981, 20).

 

7.  Trevelgue Head

So many visitors to Cornwall will invariably end up in Newquay without realising the long and fascinating history of this seaside town.  Just north of St Columb Porth on the road to Watergate Bay is the impressive cliff castle of Trevegue Head.  It is the most heavily defended of all the cliff castles with seven lines of defence.  The first ditch and bank is not so obvious as the next six with largest bank being roughly four metres high.  Erosion over the centuries has seen much of the land disappear and it is suggested this included the original entrance.  Excavation in th 1930s demonstrated that Trevelgue was continously occupied from the  thrid century BC until the fifth/sixth century AD.  At least fourteen roundhouses were identified (it is still possible to see the house platforms with a keen eye).  Given its position in the landscape, the sheer scale of the defences, some of the artefacts found (bronze horse harness and Roman coins) in addition to the significant amount of evidence for both bronze and iron smelting, it is fair to say Trevelgue Head was most likely a high status site, the home ground of someone of great import.

The importance of this headland and other similar to it along the coast is further attested to by the presence of the two bowl barrows dating to the Bronze Age – these were opened in late 1800s but nothing is known of their contents.  Further along the coast is Trevelgue Downs where a further two barrows can be seen.  In the eastern barrow a crouched adult skeleton was found within a stone cist with a stone battlexe close to hand.  From personal experience I have walked this cliff castle many times and it was not uncommon to espy tiny Mesolithic flints protruding from the exposed edges of the paths.  Further testament to the sites long history.

 

8.  Tintagel

It had to be on the list – perhaps one of the most controversial of all sites in Cornwall from local resistance to English Heritage’s plans for the site to the myriad of myths and legends associated with Tintagel – no where captures the imagination more.  Like several other sites on this list I have already waxed lyrical about Tintagel so will not bore the reader with much of the same (but do follow the link if you want to seperate fact from fiction).

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9.  Castle an Dinas

An impressive example of an Iron Age hill fort found in mid Cornwall near St Columb Major.  Measuring 260m across it would have been a formidable place in its heyday, the substantial ramparts are visible for many kilometres even today.  There is some faint evidence for a much earlier enclosure on this hilltop possibly dating from the Neolithic or Bronze Age and the presence of two Bronze Age barrows within the hillfort is further testament to the importance of this place throughout prehistory.  In the early 1960s a relatively small excavation was undertaken with the idea of prove the tradition of such places being re-used during the post-Roman phase and although they failed to do this a fine cobbled road was found.

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The earthworks of Castle an Dinas – note the commanding view from the hillfort.  Photo by Mike Hanncock (geograph.co.uk)

10. Bodmin Moor

Yes I know this really is cheating…but no list of sites to visit is complete with at least one from Bodmin Moor.  However the problem is I could not choose just one, there are so many wonderful sites to visit on the moor.  Like its much larger cousin in the next county over, Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor has a wide variety of archaeological sites to visit beginning way back into the Mesolithic (flint scatters possible representing seasonal camps as found on Butterstor)  and the Neolithic such as Stowes Pound and Rough Tor which are thought to be tor enclosures similar to Carn Brea and Trencrom further to the west, but it is the Bronze Age which dominates the archaeological record.

There are stone circles, stone rows, menhirs, barrows (earthen mounds), cairns (stone mounds) and of the latter there is in excess of 300 known.  The most well known barrow is the Rillaton barrow which is the largest on the moor and where an individual was buried with a bronze dagger, an urn and a beaten gold cup.

“…the distribution of the monuments throughout the whole of the upland suggests that its use had intensified enormously. Virtually every block of land (as defined for example by prominent hills and divided by rivers and streams) is marked by a group of cairns, as if all available land was claimed and accounted for.  The analysis of fossil pollens fromthe ancient land surfaces sealed beneath the excavated cairns shows that by this date the upland was predominantly open grassland, with woodland confined to the steep valley sides.” (Herring P & Rose P Bodmin Moors Archaeological Heritage pp17-18)

There are sixteen known stone circles of which the best known is the Hurlers.  All the circles seem to have been placed carefully within the landscape – nearly all are within sight of tor which is always to the north of the circle, with Roughtor being the most dominant (nine of the sixteen circles).  The stone rows, menhirs and embanked avenues are not as numerous but still make up an important part of the ritual landscape.

A feature of the later Bronze Age landscape of the moor is represented by the vast numbers of settlements represented by field walls and the stone foundations of round houses.  There are approximately 1500 prehistoric round houses representing around 200 settlements and although only three have been excavated they are assumed to be all by analogy with Dartmoor to belong in the second millenium BC.  Often found associated with these settements are field systems of varying shape and size best seen from the air and on large scale maps.

Ar around 1000BC a deteriorating climate and soils resulted in most settlements being abandoned and the use of the moor being less intensive.  The hillfort sites of Bury Castle, Cardinham and Berry Castle are the only easily identifiable settlements of the Iron Age, although it is assumed that the moor continued to be used for the seasonal grazing of livestock, much as parts of it are today.

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Stowes Pound – the tumbled wall of stones in the foreground represents the early and possibly Neolithic enclosure wall.
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Two upright menhirs frame the view to Stowes Pound and the Cheesewring.
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Looking south at the Hurlers.

Further Reading

Rowe T M (2005) Cornwall in Prehistory Tempus/History Press

Weatherhill C (2009) Cornovia Ancient Sites of Cornwall and Scilly Halsgrove

Johnson N & Rose P (2003) Cornwall’s Archaeological Heritage Twelveheads Press

Herring P & Rose P (2001) Bodmin Moor’s Archaeological Heritage Cornwall County Council