Why fleeting you might ask? Well in a nutshell, the visit occured a couple of years ago during a whirlwind trip to London with the family and after a protracted visit to the Natural History Museum followed by getting distracted by a well known sci-fi shop I was left with a mere two and half hours to see the Museum…As some of you are well aware this is not nearly enough time and so it was, a fleeting visit. The following are a few of the photos I took along with brief explanations.
One of the first gallerys I made my way to was the early Medieval gallery – I had long wanted to see the artefacts from Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-saxon ship burial. Sutton Hoo is located near Woodbridge in Suffolk and is the remains of a 6th and 7th century AD cemetary. Mound 1 was excavated in 1939 providing the world with a fascinating glimpse of the artistic ability of our Anglo-saxon forebears. The artefacts were richer and more intricate than any other found before.
An ornate purse lid – would have originally covered a leather pouch which hung at the waist.
These ornate shoulder clasps are one of kind in Europe and were originally used to hold together the two halves of a stiff leather cuirass so it can fit the torso snugly in the Roman style.
Not far from the Sutton Hoo treasure is the Lewis Chessmen. These fascinating wee carvings were discovered in 1831 in Uig on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides). They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway. A number of years ago, a travelling exhibition on the Vikings came to the Auckland Museum in New Zealand. Two of the Lewis Chessmen accompanied the exhibition and it was this that inspired me to write “A Viking Moon”.
Staying with the Vikings we have the Cuerdale Hoard from Lancashire. The display at the museum is only part an enormous hoard of silver found in a lead chest beside the River Ribble. The hoard itself consisted of 7500 coins and 1200 pieces of silver bullion, weighing in at forty kilograms. The coins come from a variety of sources – mainly the eastern Viking kingdoms of England but also from King Alfred’s Wessex, Byzantium, Scandinavia, Islamic and Carolingian sources. The Ribble Valley was an important Viking route between the Irish Sea and York and this may have some bearing on why the hoard was found here.
Staying in the early Medieval my next photo is of the Burghead Bull. The town of Burghead in Moray, Scotland occupies part of what was once a Pictish promontory fort of great importance. The Burghead Bulls were discovered in the late nineteenth century when much of the fort was destroyed to make way for more houses. Originally there were thirty panels carrying carved images of bulls, now however, only six remain – one of which is held at the British Museum. They are dated to 5th century AD and it has been suggested they formed a frieze set into the ramparts of the fort and possibly represent a warrior cult which celebrated strength and aggression. Regardless of what the bull represents it is a fabulous piece of Pictish art.
Travelling back in time I moved onto the Roman and Iron Age galleries (this was a flying visit, I had just recieved a text from an impatient husband…)
In the Roman gallery I took a moment to admire a stone sarcophagus found in London in 1853 within what was described as an extensive Roman cemetary outside the city wall to the east. It is dated to the early 4th century AD.
Moving along swiftly I found myself in the British Iron Age and here I had to stop and admire the mirrors. Of all the artefacts from this period these are my favorite (and no its not because I have vain streak…). I have long held the belief that mirrors were more than a toilette item for these were never true mirrors that the modern person might be familiar with. Their surfaces were often burnished bronze and would at best reflect a fuzzy image. Instead I would suggest that the surface of a mirror acted in a similar way to the reflective surface of lake, pond or well providing access to the otherworld – a liminal space/place. Such places are well documented as being special, the vast numbersof artefacts found deposited into watery places at this time speaks for itself. Furthermore, it is surely no coincidence that later myths and stories use a mirror as a storytelling device (think Snow White).
The St Keverne Mirror (Cornwall) 120BC-80BC
The Desborough Mirror (50BC-50AD)
The Wetwang Mirror (Yorkshire) 210BC-160BC
Then of course something shiny caught my eye, first the Snettisham Torc and then the twisted gold torcs from the Ipswich Hoard. The Snettisham Torc was discovered in 1950 near the village of Snettisham in Norfolk. It is made up of a kilo of gold mixed with silver, there are 64 threads and each thread is 1.9mm wide, eight threads were pulled together and twisted then all were twisted again to make the torc. The terminal ends are hollow and were cast from a mould. The torc is dated to between 150BC and 50BC. The Ipswich Hoard was the second hoard to be found in the area, the first being Anglo-saxon in date. This particular hoard was discovered during the construction of a housing estate in 1968 by a digger driver and consisted of six twisted gold torcs. These torcs had less silver in them which has led the musuem to date their manufacture to around 75BC.
The Snettisham Torc
The Ipswich Hoard
Finally I wound my way through the Egyptian gallery and down the stairs to meet up with the family who were marvelling at the large statues from the ancient world. The following is a selection of the photos from this part of the museum.
There was so much else to see but I simply ran out of time and as we were flying out the next day any other sight seeing would have to wait until another visit – although I have heard recently that there are plans afoot for a downloadable VR experience for those who can’t visit in person.
Below are a few links which relate to the above photos.
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.
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.
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.
Looking to the headland – below the rock outcrop is the remains of the internal wall protecting the headland.
The substansial outer bank on the landward side.
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.
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.
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).
Looking east the 15th century castle can be seen in the distance. In the foreground the remains of one of the Iron Age roundhouses is visible as a semi circle of stones.
The path through the inner Neolithic enclosure wall.
Winter is the best time to visit – the outer ramparts are clearly visible.
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.
Looking towards the end of the headland. On the right is the first of two Bronze Age barrows.
Eroded banks and ditches of Trevelgue Head.
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).
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.
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.
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’).
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.
Inside the fogou
Inside the beehive
The entrance to the fogou at Carn Euny – not the original entrance.
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…).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Not a comprehensive list of links but a starting point for further investigation.
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 Guidefor a discussion on Fogous).
The entrance to the fogou at Carn Euny – not the original entrance.
The entrance to the fogou at 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.
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).
A paved entrance to one of the houses.
A quern stone.
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.
Archaeology, History and a little bit of time travel…