Tag Archives: The past

Chysauster & Carn Euny – A Unique Settlement Type.

The landscape of west Cornwall in the late Iron Age is one of hillforts, cliff castles, ancient trackways, enclosures, round houses and courtyard houses.

Many of these features are known throughout the landscap of prehistoric Britain but it is the courtyard house which offers a point of difference from the rest of the country.  Courtyard houses appear to be a unique adaptation of the more traditional round house and are found only in the Land’s End peninsula.  They are usually very substantial ranging in size from 15 – 30 meters with walls up to two meters thick.  Their name is derived from the presence of a series of rooms situated around a central courtyard.  The rooms are partially built into the thickness of the outer walls and may have served as spaces not only for living but also storage, workshops and byres.

“A typical courtyard house has a long recess on one side of the central yard, probably a stable or byre and, on the opposite side, a long, narrow room, perhaps a workshop or store.  Between the two, and directly across the courtyard from the house entrance, is the largest room, circular or oval in shape, which was set aside for the living, eating and sleeping needs of the family.  Other room may be present, too, and some living rooms have a back door leading out of the house.  Stone lined and capped drains are a feature of these houses, as are stone hearths…”

(Weatherhill C 2009 ‘Cornovia’ page 35)

Many would have developed from open settlements of round houses set within fields for agricultural communities.  A landscape already ancient.  When the demand for tin increased during the second century AD there is no doubt that these farming communities would have engaged in this activity.  Gradually these settlements were abandoned between the second and sixth centuries AD although the communities did not leave simply moved to lower ground.

There are around two dozen known courtyard house settlements surviving and at least ten have been destroyed during the last two hundred years.  The best preserved and most easily visited of these sites are Chysauster and Carn Euny.  Both of which represent examples of a village grouping, which included round houses and the mysterious structures known as Fogous (see the January issue of The Celtic Guide for a discussion on Fogous).

CHYSAUSTER

 

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Plan of Chysauster

 

The largest known site of this type, founded during the first century BC it consists of eleven houses in total.  Eight are arranged in pairs on either side  of a street. One is southwest of the main cluster whilst the remaining two are further down the hill to the southwest.  The fields of the village were to the north east and in 1984 rescue work revealed the remains of round houses and a Bronze Age barrow.  It has also been tentatively suggested that cereals were grown in these fields.  Although no pollen evidence has to date been found, furthermore the acidic quality of the soils in the area have resulted in no metal tools or bones being preserved.  making any meaningful interpretations difficult.   Attached to most of the houses are small terraced garden plots.

 

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

 

In 1873 William Copeland Borlase cleared out what is now known as house 6.  Further excavation were done in 1897 on house 4 by two members of the local antiquarian society.  The first major excavation did not take place until 1928 under the direction of T D Kendrick of the British Museum and Dr H. O’Neil Hencken.  It was during this time that the land owner placed a large part of the site under the guardianship of the Office of Works.

 

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One of several stone lined hearths.

 

In 1931 a fuller examination of the site was carried out by Hencken, excavating houses 5 and 7 with more work on houses 3, 4, 6 and 9.  The term ‘courtyard house’ was first coined by  Hencken during these early excavations.  In 1984 the guardianship of the site passed on to the newly constituted English Heritage.

 

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Entering House 6

 

Although later excavations failed to reveal whether or not Chysauster was predated by an earlier site as with Carn Euny there is some suggestion that there is an earlier site further along the hillside yet to be found or indeed it could be associated with the fogou.  A nineteenth century account reported that much of the old village had lately been removed that the fogou no longer lay within it as before (Christie P 1987).  Suggesting that there was a much more substantial settlement on the hillside then what we see today.

 

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Plan of house 6 – note the very thick walls.

 

 

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

 

CARN EUNY

 

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Plan of Carn Euny

 

This site is much smaller than Chysauster consisting of four interlocking structures in addition to a number of smaller roundhouses constructed in the first century BC.  An earlier phase of the site consisted of timber built roundhouses which were occupied for at least 400 years.

The first investigations of the site were in the 1860s in the well preserved fogou but it was not until some hundred years later when a more systematic excavation was undertaken (see the journals Cornish Archaeology from the late 1960s for more detailed information on these excavations).

 

 

Practical Issues

One of the main discussions regarding this type of settlement site is in relation to how such massive structures were roofed.  The generally accepted theory states that the individual rooms would be roofed with the central courtyard open to the elements.  In 1997 Jacqui Wood proposed an alternative theory which saw the entire structure being covered by a single roof (Cornish Archaeology 1997 No 36).  Interpretations boards at both sites show individual roofs over each room with some even having flat roofs.

The above two images are pictures taken from the interpretation boards at Carn Euny (left) and Chysauster (right).

 

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

 

The main objection to the conventional thinking relates to the issue of drainage.  The conical roofs are depicted as sitting on top of the thick in-filled walls and given the amount of precipitation Cornwall receives every year, drainage off the roofs would have been an issue, even more so for the flat roofs.  A large single roof  would have prevented this and created a large and cosy interior, the now central courtyard would take on the appearance of a ‘hall’.  With the creation of additional space within the roof space on top of the thick walls.  Thus the courtyard house becomes a ‘galleried house’.

“The purpose of the substantial infill of the walls would now come into its own.  There could have been another shorter ring of posts to support another ring beam nearer to the outer walls, adding stability to the roof.  Looking at the structure from this viewpoint another possible use for the substantial infills becomes evident. The large flat areas at the top of the walls could have been covered with timbers to create another well supported floor.”

 

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

 

Objections to the single roof theory are based upon the size of the roof needed to cover such a large area, although as it has been pointed out equally large structures are known throughout prehistory in both Britain and on the European mainland.  Of course this argument may never come to a satisfactory conclusion without the aid of a time machine, but it is still interesting to offer alternatives to conventional theories.

Carn Euny and Chysauster are  just two of the many similar sites which can be found around West Penwith, others are not so easy to get to and are often overgrown with bracken and brambles.  Standing on the hillside at Chysauster on a brisk winters day,  looking down the valley it feels very easy to put yourself into the ancestors shoes as you hunker down behind the thick walls in an effort to keep warm.

Final Thoughts

One question which has not been addressed is who lived in these settlements and why are they only found in the west of Cornwall?  Contrary to popular belief I do not believe that these sites belonged to your  average Iron Age farming community – this is not to say they did not farm – but rather the people who lived in these substantial structures were different.  Several factors support this idea –

  • The majority of courtyard house settlements have fogous within their bounds.
  • They are associated with hillforts.
  • They are not the only settlement type of this era within west Cornwall; isolated hamlets of round houses and ’round’ are much more prevalent than courtyard houses.

Some have suggested that a priestly class occupied these villages (hence the presence of the fogous).  Without further research and excavation it is difficult to say exactly who lived here but I would certainly suggest they were not your average farming community.  As to why courtyard houses are only found in west Cornwall…the jury is still out on that one.  However, I do have an suspicion that there is a connection with the extraction of tin.  It might just be coincedence that Chysauster, the largest courtyard house village,  is only a short distance from Mounts Bay and a possible site of ‘Ictis’ where it is said the Cornish traded with merchants from the Mediterranean.  Or Bosullow Trehyllys (another less well known and unexcavated site) situated on the slopes below Chun Castle an Iron Age (and later) hillfort is also on the path of a well known trackway called the Tinners Way.

All of which makes for interesting discussions…

FURTHER READING

Christie P. (1978) ‘The excavation of an Iron Age Souterrain and Settlement at Carn Euny, Sancreed Cornwall’  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 44.

Christie P. (1987) Chysauster, Ancient Village.  English Heritage.

Hencken H. (1933) ‘An excavation by H M Office of Works at Chysauster, Cornwall’  Archaeologia 83

Rowe T M (2005) Cornwall in Prehistory.  Tempus

Weatherhill C. (2009) Cornovia. Ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly 4000BC – 1000AD.  Halsgrove

Wood J. (1997) ‘A new perspective on West Cornwall courtyard houses’  Cornish Archaeology No36.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Megaliths From Brittany

There is a bit of a story behind this trip to Brittany…      

It is possible to catch an overnight ferry from Plymouth (Devon, UK) to Roscoff (France).  You arrive in France at about 5am and then you get to spend the day exploring the local environment before catching the ferry back to Plymouth at around 7pm that night.

For my hubby and I this was always a bit of an adventure and a chance to stock up on wine and cheese.  Regardless to say this was in the time before children.

Well it just so happens that on one trip I convinced my hapless other half to drive just a ‘wee’ way down to Brittany to see the stones at Carnac.  Anyway, the drive was longer than expected and I wish we had more time, it was quite literally a flying visit, as there was a very real possibility of us missing the ferry back to the UK.

The sites I visited were the stone alignments at Kerzerho and Le Menec as well as the Giants of Kerzerho.

Le Menec

Probably the most popular of all the stone alignments in this part of France, it is certainly the one everyone thinks of when talking of Carnac.  The alignment consists of 12 lines of some 1100 stones.  The orientation begins southwest – northeast and then about halfway makes a minor adjustment to its direction and ends in the east.  The stones have an average height of one metre although the tallest stones are found at the western end standing at three metres and the shortest stones are at the eastern end measuring 1.5 metres.

The remains of a stone enclosure can be seen at the western end amongst some farm buildings.  There was once a similar enclosure at its western end.

Kerzerho Alignments

These have a similar layout to Le Menec and cover almost two kilometres.  Today there are several hundred stones but it is believed the original number at least 1100.  The alignment  runs east to west and is intersected by a road and a village.

Kerzerho Giants

Two huge standing stones sit nestled in forest, they are six metres high and weigh approximately 40 tonnes between them.  They are aligned north to south and are thus perpendicular to the Kerzerho alignment.

The following are the few photos I managed to take.

 

Useful websites include:

www.megalithes-morbihan.com

Megaliths of Carnac

Megalithic Portal – Guide to Brittany

 

Megalithic Malta

In 1999 I visited the fascinating island of Malta with my then boyfriend (now husband), dragging the poor lad around more archaeology than he had seen in all his life…

Whilst there is a huge amount of archaeology in Malta, from all periods in time, it was the megalithic monuments which caught my attention during this trip.  Not to mention we only had a week on the island and you would probably need a whole lot more time to visit all the archaeological sites Malta has to offer.

Unfortunately at the time of our visit the Hypogeum or Hal Saflieni was closed for some desperately needed love and attention – much to my disappointment.

It is believed the first human inhabitants of Malta came from Sicily in the Neolithic.  This early phase is named for the site that epitomises this time – Ghar Dalam, a cave site in the south of the island.  This early phase begins approximately 5000BC and ends with the first temples being built around 4100BC.  The Temple Period is divided into four phases.

Zebbug – 4100-3700BC

Mgarr – 3800-3600BC

Safliene – 3300-3000BC

Tarxien – 3150-2500BC

The temples for which the first two phases are named have now disappeared either under the urban sprawl of Valetta or as is the case of Mgarr subsumed into the backstreets of the town itself.  The Safliene phase is characterised by Hal Safliene (Hypogeum), a subterranean temple carved out of the limestone bedrock to accommodate 7000 dead.

The final Tarxien phase is the one visitors to Malta will be most aware of.  The temple complexes of Tarxien, Mnajdra, Hagar Qim on Malta and Ggantija on Gozo constitute the climax of the temple building phase.

Although the temples complexes span quite a period of time they do have some common features in terms of the architecture.  To begin each will have a oval forecourt bounded by the temple facade constructed of large stone slabs.  The doorways all consist of two large uprights topped with an equally large lintel.  The passageways are always paved.  Once inside the complex, the visitor finds themselves in an open area which then  gives way to a series of D-shaped chambers or ‘apses’.

The main variation from one site to another is the number of ‘apses’. Often the walls of the temples are decorated with carvings in relief of spirals and naturalistic forms of plants and animals.  Cup marks are also a popular form of decoration.

Here are some of the photos of this trip.

Further sources of information:

Sacred Sites Webpage

The Megalithic European by Julian Cope

Visit Malta Webpage

Megalithic Temples of Malta – Wikipedia

 

The Place I Call Home

For the majority of the time I will be blogging about either New Zealand or Cornwall and if you read the page which tells you about me, you’ll know why.  But as a first post I thought I would share a little of the early history of the place I call home.  I live in a small suburb on Auckland’s North Shore – Birkdale.  Wedged between the greater suburbs of Birkenhead and Beachhaven it tends to be forgotten a little or included into the either of those other suburb and to be honest, the story of Birkdale is inextricably tied to the stories of both Beachhaven and Birkenhead.

Early History

The isthmus of Auckland (Tamaki Makau Rau) is thought to have been first settled around 1350.  A combination of fertile soil for horticulture and two harbours with abundant resources resulted in a thriving population.  On the volcanic peaks (Mt Eden, One Tree Hill etc) which dominate the Auckland skyline there is ample evidence of these early settlements.

The area of Birkenhead, Beach Haven and Birkdale was densely forested and as a result not as heavily populated but it was the sea which drew people to the area.  The sea provided an abundance of resources for Maori from flounder in the Kaipataki Inlet, shellfish from Oruamo Creek and the shark fishing grounds just below Kauri Point.  Evidence for this can be seen in the form of coastal shell middens found all around the coast.

 

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Traces of a shell midden.

Occupation sites are difficult to pinpoint but there is some evidence from oral histories and archeologically of an important pa (hillfort) called Te Matarae a Mana in the area of Kauri Point/Quarryman’s Bay during the 1700s.  In addition it is believed there is at least two other headland pa in the area, although all trace of these no longer remain.

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This headland seen from the beach at Kendalls Bay is thought to be the site of an important pa (defended settlement).

 

The musket wars of the 1800s decimated the local populations of Maori and by 1844 the area of Beach Haven was sold to the new settler government and became deserted.  Eventually, European settlers began to arrive hoping to carve out a new life for themselves.  One of the first families to arrive was the Gruts from the Jersey Islands in 1857.  But life was much harder than many anticipated, the heavy clay soils and dense bush took its toll.

Although the city seems so very close to this part of the North Shore, back then before the harbour bridge the only way to market was by ferry/boat as the overland route was long and arduous.  The first ferries ran from what is now downtown Auckland to Birkenhead in 1854 and remained a vital lifeline for people up until the Harbour Bridge was completed in April 1959.

 

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The view to the city and harbour bridge from Birkenhead wharf.

Strawberries

In the 1870s several families had a breakthrough in the form of growing fruit trees, and by the 1880s some thirty orchards were recorded in the area around Zion Hill in Birkenhead (then known as Woodside) with more being established towards Beach Haven and the present day Birkdale.  During the late 1800s it was discovered that strawberries grew particularly well in the area.  Strawberries and fruit in general, quickly became a major part of the economy.

The whole community were involved in the strawberry picking – Birkdale Primary School was known to be lenient about homework during the picking season.  The strawberry fields became so well known that people would ferry over from the city at the weekend for strawberry afternoon teas and in 1898 the Thompson family began making jam in Birkenhead which eventually became New Zealands largest jam company of Thompson and Hills.

This prosperity encouraged even more people to settle the area and in 1888 Birkenhead (which then still included Beach Haven and Birkdale) became a borough and its first mayor was elected – Charles Button.

Gumdiggers

One of the most impressive features of the North Shore bush is the magnificent Kauri (agathis australis) trees.  Around the roots of these trees it is possible to find a resin called Kauri gum. This gum forms when the resin leaks out of the cracks in the bark, it hardens when exposed to air and lumps will fall from the tree eventually fossilising.  In appearance it looks very similar to amber.

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There are still some impressive groves of the mighty kauri standing in the area.

Maori had many uses for the gum, fresh it could be used like chewing gum (kapia) and as it is highly flammable it made a good firestarter.  When it was burnt and mixed with animal fat it became the dark pigment in moko tattooing.

For the European colonists the export of Kauri gum was of major importance, for Auckland as a whole it was the main export for most of the second half of the 19th century.  Between 1850 and 1950 some 450,000 tons were exported to England.  Its principle use was as a varnish.  Kauri gum when heated mixed easily with linseed oil and at lower temperatures and by the 1890s some 70% of all oil varnishes in England used Kauri gum.

The people who harvested the gum were often transient living in rough huts or tents, it was hard work and not very well paid.  Even so, in the 1890s 20,000 people were recorded as being engaged in gumdigging throughout Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel.  At one point digging for Kauri gum even became a weekend activity for the city side dwellers of Auckland with many catching the ferry to Birkenhead to dig for gum around the suburb.  It became such a problem with roads being potholed and private farms dug into, that local authorities brought in special measures to control the matter.

As it was the quality of the gum in Birkenhead was not as high as elsewhere and eventually the gum ran out, the last permit was issued to a Mr Wheeler of Verran’s Corner in 1931.

From this point on the history of the area now becomes one of entreprenurial settlers, families and a sugar factory.

A Cornish Mermaid

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

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

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

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

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The mermaid chair.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Other Point of Interest in Zennor

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

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

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A very degraded stone carving – possibly a saint?

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

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

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

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