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 They are 12th century in date and carved from walrus ivory; it is believed they were originally made in Trondheim in Norway – at the time the Outer Hebrides were ruled by Norway.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Yesterday was the first day of New Zealand Archaeology Week, it is the first time in New Zealand that archaeology has been celebrated with its own ‘week’. As part of this celebration of the past I attended a lecture at the Auckland Museum about the long term archaeological project being undertaken on Great Mercury Island entitled The Changing Face of Archaeology – The application of technology to the Ahuahu Great Mercury Island Archaeological Project. The lecture was delivered by Louise Furey, Rebecca Phillipps and Joshua Emmitt.
Great Mercury Island is situated off the east coast of the Coromandel Penninsula and as the name would suggest is the largest island in the Mercury Group. The purpose of the project is to examine the history of the Maori occupation on the island. As an island it provides the ideal opportunity to study a landscape as a whole and how people utilised and interacted with the landscape over time. This post is not a comprehensive study of the archaeology of the island, it is only a brief foray into what is a complex landscape. I have included links for those who wish to do read more about the work that is being carried out by the archaeologists.
There is certainly plenty of archaeology on the island to keep the archaeologists busy for quite some time. Of that which is visible above ground there are twenty-three Pa (defended sites with ditches and banks), large areas of gardens (recognisable by the lines of cleared stones), kumara storage pits, stone working sites and shell middens. As recent excavations have indicated there is even more evidence lying beneath the surface.
Prior to the current project the island was subject to two other single event excavations. The first being undertaken in 1954 in the early days of New Zealand Archaeology by then then newly appointed lecturer in archaeology at the University of Auckland Jack Golson. With a party of archaeology students he excavated a terrace on the Stingray Point Pa (Matakawau) identifying two kumara pits, each pit had more than 80 post holes suggesting a long period of rebuilding the roof structures. Golson’s work was neve published although this is soon to be rectified.
In 1984 Professor Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland excavated a Pa in Huruhi Harbour. In 2009 a sever storm eroded about ten metres of sand from White’s Beach to reveal a shell midden and a rich charcoal layer. Bones from dogs and fish were found within the midden which was dated by radiocarbon to c.1400AD.
From 2012 the University of Auckland and the Auckland Museum have been working in conjunction with Ngati Hei on the previously mentioned long term project. The island is visited on regular basis with the main excavation season being held in Febuary, which is also a training dig for archaeology students from the university. The lecture held yesterday focussed on some of the finds from the excavations such as the large quantities of obsidian flakes some of which come from as far afield as Taupo, Mayor Island and closer to home on the Coromandel Peninsula. Although work/research is still ongoing it is becoming clearer how important Ahuahu is in our understanding of the early prehistory of New Zealand.
Because ultimately excavation is destruction it has long been universally acknowledged how important it is to record as much detail as possible. In the past this was often a labour intensive activity, if done at all. Today’s archaeologists now have a raft of technological tools at there disposal and at Great Mercury they are taking full advantage of what is available. The technology being used on site to record every find, feature and layer includes total stations, laser scanners and drones are in everyday tools for these excavations.
You Tube has several video’s of work being done on the island – the following are links to a couple to get you started if you are interested.
Whenever I go somewhere new my first stop (after a leg stretch and a coffee) is usually to the local museum. I have a deep fondness for museums and the people who put their heart and soul into their creation and upkeep. The Mercury Bay Museum was one of those musuems where the peoples love of their town and surroundings was evident.
Our first visit to Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula was in the winter and unfortunately the musuem was closed however we had much better luck on our second visit. Situated on The Esplanade just opposite the wharf, this small but well thought out musuem tells the history of the area beginning with Kupe who gave the local area the name Te Whitianga nui a Kupe or The Big Crossing Place of Kupe.
Originally the site of the museum was an urupa or cemetary for the local Maori iwi called Ngati Hei up until the 1870s. But when European curio hunters violated the tapu of the site members of the Ngati Hei removed the remains of their people and reinterred them safely elsewhere. The Maori history of the area represents only a small part of the musuem and was my one criticism of this otherwise outstanding museum. The displays of Maori artefacts were not clearly labelled and the display was largely restricted to the walls of the walkway as you entered and could be easily overlooked – personally I think the museum designers may have missed a beat in down playing the 800 years or so of Maori history.
The Museum is very child friendly – my daughter in particular enjoyed dressing up as Captain Cook who visited the area in 1769 on the HMS Endeavour. It was he who gave the area its European name of Mercury Bay after taking his longitude and latitude from the viewing of the transit of the sun across the planet Mercury.
As you head further into the museum there is a significant display on the wreck of The Buffalo which gave the local beach its name (Buffalo Beach), the Kauri room and shanty shack – Kauri were an important part of the economy in the 1800s, either as logs or from the fossilied resin/gum – a 1950s school room, a 1960s bach, a smithy, two rooms displaying birds of the area and displays regarding the importance of the fishing industry (commercially and recreationally) and agriculture to the area. A butter churn display harks back to the days when the museum was once a dairy factory producing butter from cream from all over the Mercury Bay area. The musuem also holds an extensive collection of photos covering the life and times of Mercury Bay and its residents.
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.
In the far west of Cornwall lies a trackway that has been trodden by many feet over many millennia. Once a central part of a wider network of tracks it is now only used by ramblers, dog walkers, horse riders and those interested in the sites along its way. What it was called in the past is unknown but today it has become known as the Tinners Way.
Paths and tracks traverse the landscape creating a maze of possible routes from A to B and are probably one of the least understood aspects of the past in Britain. The greatest issue is in the understanding of the chronology of this particular site type.
“Unmetalled roads and trackways are extremely difficult to date. They have no constructional material to aid interpretation and artefacts are rarely present. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that their form has remained unchanged from prehistoric to modern times and that many were in continuous use for centuries, even millennia” (Prehistoric Roads, Trackways and Canals – Historic England 2011)
Historic England/English Heritage have defined a trackway as a ‘linear route which has been marked on the ground surface over time by the passage of traffic. Trackways are usually relatively short routes for local use’. In west Cornwall the Tinners Way has been identified as one such trackway, one which in all likelihood has a lengthy history going back into prehistory. It follows the granite backbone of West Penwith passing by and sometimes through archaeological sites as well as the remains of later of tin mining.
So, from where does the Tinners Way begin and where does it end? Well the answer to that would very much depend on from what direction you are coming as it travels between Cape Cornwall and St Ives. For our purposes here we will begin at Cape Cornwall in the very far west, stopping at various points and ending up on the Island in St Ives.
It is probable that the Kenidjack Valley which runs alongside the Cape was the source of one of the earliest and most accessible deposits of alluvial tin ore. Tin was an important resource to the Cornish economy from the Bronze Age into the 19th century.
From here the trackway heads inland and up onto the moors of Penwith past Carn Kenidjack and the Tregeseal Stone Circles not to mention the mysterious holed stones. Continuing on to the fascinating sites of Chun Quoit and Chun Castle.
Back long before metals were exploited in Cornwall our Neolithic ancestors built great stone tombs, archaeologically these are known as quoits or chambered cairns. Although this is not the place to go into a lengthy discussion on the function of such sites it should be pointed out that many of these sites do seem to appear in significant places in the landscape and thus would seem to have a function beyond simple burial. Along the Tinners Way there are several quoits which serve to mark the way – Zennor Quoit, Mulfra Quoit, and of course Chun Quoit with the possibility of more having been ravaged by time.
Just past Chun Quoit are the remains of what was once a great stone walled hillfort – Chun Castle. The walls are still impressive even after the attempts at removal for use in other building projects (the pavement on Market Jew St in Penzance is made up of stone from the hillfort). Originally occupied in the Iron Age it straddles the trackway, interestingly it was later occupied in the 5th and 6th centuries – a time of unease – and the evidence does seem to suggest it was used as a stronghold for the storage of tin ore.
All along the Tinners Way there is evidence of tin mining (hence the name) – old mine shafts can be a hazard for those wandering off the beaten track (please remember to keep your dogs under control when walking along here). Much of the visible mining remains date from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
On leaving Chun Castle you pass the overgrown Iron Age courtyard house settlement of Bosullow Trehyllys – see an earlier article on the more well known courtyard house settlements of Chysauster and Carn Euny. From here the trackway follows the well trod path past the Men-an-Tol and Men Scryfa.
The first was probably once a chambered tomb which has suffered at the hands of people over a very long time. The latter an inscribed stone dating to the 5th/6th century and is a memorial stone to “Rialobrani Cunovali Fili’ – roughly translated as ‘the royal raven son of the glorious prince’. It’s position along this important route undoubtedly deliberate.
Not far from Men Scryfa is the Four Parish Stone. This stone indicates the point in which the boundaries of the four ancient parishes of Zennor, Gulval, Madron and Morvah meet. This is not the modern civil parish boundaries but the much older church boundaries. A document from the 17th century mentions this place in the landscape, referring to it as ‘Meane Crouse’ or ‘stone cross’ suggesting the presence of a stone cross which marked this important crossroads. Any traveller to Cornwall will note how stone crosses covered in moss and worn by weather are often found at road junctions.
From here the landscape is dominated by the impressive tor known as Carn Galva and whilst not the highest point in West Penwith (Watch Croft the adjacent tor takes that accolade) it is the most atmospheric of tors with its giant granite boulders standing silent sentinel over the millennia. It is now generally believed that Carn Galva is one of the few Neolithic enclosures to be found in Cornwall – Carn Brea, Helman Tor and Trencrom are the more well known.
Further on the walker can take a minor side trip to see the Nine Maidens stone circle and the remains of a roundhouse settlement probably dating to the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age (Bodrifty). Nearby the farmer at Bodrifty Farm has recreated a roundhouse and it is possible to visit but do ask first. After Bodrifty the trackway goes past Mulfra Quoit.
Alternatively and the most likely direction for the trackway to follow is across the moorland of Bosporthennis Common between the highpoint of The Beacon and Mulfra Hill to the parish boundary stone known as the Bishops Head and Foot.
“Used over generations, these trackways created permanent scars across hills and valleys, and formed a web of easily followed routes which were later utilised to mark the extent of private estates which had superseded previous communal use of tribal lands. When the system of parishes was established about the 12th century additional use was made of these muddy tracks to form their boundaries in conjunction with streams and prominent rocks” (Antiquities of West Cornwall – The Tinners Way. Ian Cooke 1991)
It is often speculated that the old parish boundaries are based on ancient trackways and at the Bishops Head and Foot there are important paths which traverse Penwith from Zennor to Castle-an- Dinas and Chysauster (both important Iron Age sites) and on to Mounts Bay. The Tinners Way as already demonstrated follows several sections of parish boundaries along the high ground. The trackway then continues through the parish of Towednack along the base of Rosewall Hill covered in old mining shafts and then onto the village of St Ives and The Island.
Although today there stands a small chapel to St Nicholas on the Island it is thought that originally the headland was a much older promontory fort. Its position which overlooks Porthmeor Beach and the wider expanse of St Ives bay including the entry to Hayle Harbour and with views all the way up the coast would suggest it was an important site.
The Hayle Estuary was an important trading port on this coast until the Medieval period. Dredging in the now silted harbour has in the past brought up finds from all periods including the Roman period and earlier. Overlooking the harbour is the ancient enclosure of Trencrom Hill which as mentioned before can be dated to the Neolithic and later.
“It used to be thought that the earliest routes in Britain were prehistoric ‘ridgeways’, long distance trackways…This idea grew up in the early years of archaeological studies when the most obvious prehistoric monuments, such as Bronze Age burial mounds and Iron Age hillforts, were found concentrated in upland areas.” (Pre-industrial Roads, Trackways and Canals Historic England 2011).
Even though there is no concrete way of dating this particular route there are certainly a lot of indicators which point to it being an important part of the landscape in West Penwith with a long and fascinating history.
A useful wee book to read if you can get hold of one is “The Tinners Way”by Ian Cooke. It is in essence a guidebook for walkers wishing to do the the Tinners Way, detailing the route and the various features along the way.
Summertime in New Zealand means roadtrips and exploring all that our lovely country has to offer. Me and mine decided to spend some time in the goldmining town of Waihi and of course as always this meant a lesson in history, in particular the area around the Karangahake Gorge.
The Karangahake Gorge is situated between the Coromandel and Kaimai ranges and was formed by the flow of the Ohinemuri River. It’s steep sides are covered in native bush, a haven for those wanting to experience the great outdoors. There are plenty of walks and cycle trails to enjoy or you can simply sit by the river and enjoy a picnic. However not so long ago the visitor would have been greeted by an entirely different scene.
On this visit we did the Windows Walk which takes you past and through several of the stamping batterys and the many associated building ruins then into the old tramway tunnels along the Waitawheta Gorge (an offshoot of the Karangahake Gorge). Unlike other goldmining areas, alluvial gold is rare in the gorge and almost all of the gold and silver recovered from here was done by deep quartz mining. This meant only the large well funded companies could afford to operate in the gorge. The three main players were the Talisman Mining Company, The Woodstock Mining Company and the Crown Mining Company. (The latter will ring some bells with those of you interested in Cornish mining history as they were a major player in the mining industry of Cornwall. In fact many of the miners came from Cornwall which was at the time undergoing a decline in mining. Their skills in hard rock mining was in great demand in colonial lands). Today so much of the ruins are covered in dense bush, their edges softened by vegetation and with the sound of either the Ohinemuri or Waitawheta rivers filling your ears it is hard to imagine this as a place of heavy industry.
“A continous rythmic thumping once filled the air here, as stamper batteries (gold recovery plants) of the Talisman, Woodstock and Crown Mining Companies pulverised quartz rock to free the gold within.” (taken from an information board at the beginning of the walk)
Much of the ore came from the steep sided Waitwheta Gorge and was then transported via aerial tramway across the gorge to the tramway and delivered to the stamping battery where it would undergo a series of crushings to extract the gold and silver which was then smelted into bullion bars. The Talisman and Crown Mines were two of the largest of their type in New Zealand and together produced in the region of four million ounces of gold bullion.
The following are some of the photographs taken during our time exploring the industrial archaeology of the Karangahake Gorge.
“Once the ore had been crushed in the upper levels of the battery the fine powder that resulted was subjected to the cyanide process. This involved mixing potassium cyanide with the finely crushed ore in tanks for several days then drawing off the solution and passing it through wooden boxes where the dissolved gold and silver precipitated as a black sludge on zinc shavings. The sludge was then treated with sulphuric acid to remove the zinc. The residue was then smelted into bullion bars (of gold and silver)” – From the above information board.
One of the main features of the Windows Walk is the tramway, part of which goes through the side of the gorge (a torch is a must if you do this walk). In its heyday, the ore was transported via tram but because of the steep sides of the gorge a trail had to be cut out of and through the rockface.
The Crown tramway…then…
A bit further on from the modern suspension bridge is the remains of the Crown Mine.
Today goldmining in the area is representated by the large open cast mine in nearby Waihi with the now defunct Cornish Pumphouse from the earlier 19th Century Martha Mine standing ever watchful over.