Visiting the Past

Visiting the Past

January 31, 2023

History and archaeology are always all around us, but discovering it amidst the stunning landscapes of Cornwall is a treat not to be missed.

Let me introduce myself: I’m Gillian Hovell, known professionally as ‘The Muddy Archaeologist’ and I shall be your friendly expert guide on Cornwall Discovered’s fantastic tour this April. I can’t wait to share with you the joys of spotting and understanding the ancient sites that populate the cliff tops and moors, the coasts and the hills.

Gillian Hovell akaThe Muddy Archaeologist in Cornwall
Historian, Gillian Hovell aka 'The Muddy Archaeologist

We shall travel back through a wealth of ages, both distant and closer to our own times. Our story begins a remarkable 6,500 years ago, in the time of the first farmers who made the earliest permanent settlements here. When we visit Carn Brea, we shall visit one of the most important Neolithic sites in Britain. Perched on a natural rocky hilltop, it was home for over 100 people who lived here and used flints as their tools, for this was the Stone Age. They built an imposing encircling wall of huge stones around the hilltop. This enhancement of a natural hill is known as a ‘Tor Enclosure’ and, usually, we’re not sure if it was to protect or impress. However, here, archaeologists have found plenty of evidence of attacks at the time; arrowheads and signs of burning …

Like all great locations, Carn Brea is a destination that has continued to attract people through the millennia. Axes from the innovative Bronze Age have been found here, as have early coins from the later Iron Age and from Roman times.

We shall retrace all those times. Trevethy Quoit on Bodmin Moor gives us archaeological insights into life and death in the Neolithic. Stone circles link the Neolithic to the Bronze Age which flourished from around 2,500 BC to 800 BC and many have weathered time and the elements on Bodmin Moor. At the Merry Maidens’ precise circle of stones we shall discover the hidden wonders of this atmospheric site and explore what such stone circles were all about in this distant time.

Bodmin Moor

One of the greatest of these circles is The Hurlers’ with its remarkable triple rings of stones stretching 160+m. The floor here once shone with quartz crystals hammered from the very same standing stones, each of which was carefully placed. We shall check out the amazing details of this site, as well as contemplate what this monument was for and what may have happened here. Prepare to imagine, and consider the humanity of the creators. For this was no desolate spot; this was a ceremonial landscape with real meaning for people’s lives. There’s nothing ‘primitive’ about this time; the atmospheric landscape on these granite uplands 4,000 years ago included a burial containing the stunning gold Rillaton Cup (1700 BC).

Bronze Age burial barrows on Castle an Dinas became surrounded by the ditches and concentric ramparts of the later Iron Age, just 2,000 years ago. Life now was harder, clashing with iron swords and weapons, and the landscape sprouted defensive and communal hillforts. Castle an Dinas is one of the largest such hillforts in Britain, and we get to visit it in all its glory. Being over 700 feet above sea level, the views are magnificent.

Our journey continues through the Roman age, with sparse but vital clues to their presence. They mined precious tin here along the Tin Coast, but it was an edge of their Empire, and the locals had a strong sense of tradition, as they always have here on this marvellous peninsula. So, at Chysauster, the rectangular stone houses of Roman towns were dismissed as a modern fad in favour of traditional roundhouses, and the stones are not ‘dressed’ (squared off) but rough. All very practical and all rural, and all very ‘not’ Roman. In fact, it’s such a local style that these once-thatched ‘courtyard’ roundhouses with enclosures and storage buildings have only been found on Land’s End peninsula and on the Isles of Scilly. Stroll through here and imagine the crops growing beyond the village that lined the ‘street’. Mysteries abound in archaeology, and the ‘fogou’ of Chysauster is no exception. This underground passage here is similar to 'earth houses’ or ‘souterrains’ in Scotland but its purpose is just as enigmatic. Defensive hideaway, secret and dry storage, or ritual centre – what do you think?

Tintagel Castle has long been a location vibrant with legends of King Arthur and the days of holding back the chaos after the Romans retreated in the AD 400s. Recent excavations have fired up imaginations as well as proven links that stretch across Europe as rich imports provided an elite (maybe royal?) lifestyle here in this beautiful and haunting headland. The ruins here also reveal castle life in the later AD 1200s.

Tintagel Castle

Restormel Castle, one of the most remarkable castles of Britain, is of the same Norman era, but so very different. Built early in the castle-building medieval era, this Norman hilltop presence dominates the landscape. A place of peace and nature now, this is a marvellous location for considering the grandeur and power of such castles. The astonishing survival of the still-standing circular wall is a sight never forgotten and its once-roaring massive fireplaces, high windows and the Great Hall that once resounded to grand gatherings and events, take us back to a time, lives and lifestyles of over 700 years ago.

Cornwall is a land full of captivating remains. Even that earliest of sites, Carn Brea that we began this story with, had a chapel built on it around AD 1379. In around 1790, the then-trendy building of follies turned this into a gothic mock turreted castle that could be used as a hunting lodge. Builders were glad of the work provided by Francis Bassett, and the Bassett Monument build in 1836 is a stony memorial of gratitude to him. The constant ebb and flow of the castle’s ruination and restoration since then seems a fitting echo of the variety of adopted uses that this remarkable site experienced for over 6,000 years.And, of course, it has its very own romantic story of smugglers using a tunnel found here, as well as tales of a Cornish giant whose stride reached St.Agnes Beacon, a full 10 miles away.

Ancient sites have fascinated people through the ages; even in AD 1610, tales were told of ungodly folk who had been turned to stone for playing ball on the Sabbath (hence ‘The Hurlers’) and similarly, stories abounded of petrified ‘Merry Maidens’ who also foolishly danced on the Sabbath …

Cofounder Zoe dancing at the Merry Maiden

In later centuries, the tin mines that drew Bronze Age folk here were transformed on an industrial scale. Poldarkesque chimneys, engine houses and mines such as Botallack Mine are quiet now. These ruins that cling to the coastal clifftops and the workings that even reach out under the blue sea are just part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site. They remind us of a hard time where folk worked not just tin but copper and arsenic here, using little but hammers, chisels and terrifying gunpowder amidst smoke and ceaseless noise.

Touring at Botallack mine

Now, blue seas, distant views and eye-catching hilltops and ruins are certainly a delight on our tour of ancient Cornwall. Through all these millennia, a beautiful range of flora and fauna and birdlife have added to the beauty of this land. To stop and admire the views in historic sites is to experience timelessness. This is a land where it’s easy to step back in time.

Join us for our Cornwall’s Historic Landscapes tour this April and let me, ‘The Muddy Archaeologist’, help you to see the sites as you’ve never seen them before as they all come vividly to life!

Gillian lectures nationally and internationally, as well as leading tours to prehistoric and ancient civilisations across Britain and around the Mediterranean. She is also the author of Visiting the Past: Finding and Understanding Britain’s Archaeology, with a new 4th edition imminent. A joyful broadcaster, you may have seen and heard her on BBC TV and Radio.

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