More than a pile of stones: The archaeological quest at a burial chamber in Neolithic Cornwall

By Ben Miller Published: 13 January 2015

Jacky Nowakowski, the Lead Archaeologist with the Cornwall Archaeological Unit, on the amazing restoration of the Carwynnen Quoit megalith

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"When the three granite uprights and the massive capstone collapsed in the 1960s earth tremor, they created a heap of stones which protected the ground beneath.

During the ensuing 50 years of land clearance, more large stones were heaped up onto the pile. These continued to ensure that the original area of the monument chamber was protected from later damage by ploughing.

The floor of the monument, an intact stone pavement, is made up of a narrow strip of compacted small stones which formed a hard-standing surface arranged in a doughnut-like circuit.

A photo of a series of small jagged grey archaeological stones against a blue backdrop
Granite balls from Quadrant 3
This embraced the central part, made up of slightly larger stones pressed firmly into the soil beneath.

More than 2,000 finds were made in our 2012 test pits and Big Dig trench, covering a wide variety of objects dating to all ages under the direction of Sustrust, the owners, funders and restorers of the site.

The main discovery was the partial survival of a remarkable stone pavement on the footprint of the original Neolithic monument, made up of small stones mainly of granite with some quartz pieces covering an area of approximately 5.5m² under topsoil.

At the rear of the monument, between Stones 3 and 4, the remnants of a stone kerb made up of small stones set on edge was found. This contained a stone floor at the back of the open chamber.

More than 20 fragments of Early and later Neolithic pottery were found, made of gabbroic clays – some with quartz added. This clay comes from the Lizard, 30km southwest, and its discovery here at Carwynnen demonstrates exchange networks between small communities throughout this period.

More than 100 pieces of flint were found. Many were burnt and many were broken and snapped fragments of tools.

A photo of a group of people in high-visibility jackets hoisting neolithic stones around
The 5,000-year-old burial chamber is known as The Devil's Frying Pan
Highly distinctive worked stone objects spanning 3,000 years were also found: a stone hammer cobble; a small rounded greenstone hammer stone; a water-worn cobble; the fragment of a greenstone whetstone and the fragment of a saddle quern.

Of particular interest was a greenstone pestle which was found embedded in the pavement – possibly a votive offering.

The greenstone is likely to come from within five kilometres of Camborne. Some of the most distinctive finds were small, rounded granite balls – many the size of golf balls.

These were found in all contexts during the Big Dig and many were embedded into the pavement. On average these are 400mm in diameter and weigh 100g.

Geologist Colin Bristow suggested that because of their consistent size they could have been deliberately collected and brought to the quoit, possibly left behind as tokens by visitors throughout prehistory.

This may be like people today leaving personal trinkets at the resting places of departed loved ones, or even perhaps the “prayer stones” left by mourners at key places of remembrance.

A photo of a large grey stone being hoisted into the air above a greenfield country site
A prehistoric stone from the Quoit
All this evidence points to the primary commemorative role of Carwynnen Quoit 5,000-6,000 years ago, and its major purpose as a community monument: conceived, built, maintained and remembered by and for the prehistoric communities who once lived in the immediate landscape.

Two months later, the Big Dig commenced. A large excavation trench, surrounding the location of the collapsed quoit, was opened.

The three-week dig started on 17th September 2012, covering a total area of 0.03 hectares. A week earlier the stones had been moved to one side by crane, watched by a large crowd.

Within this area were many of the back-filled evaluation test pits dug earlier that summer, which had potential for the survival of buried archaeological layers.

This core area (11m long and 9m wide) was divided into four quadrants separated by 0.4m wide baulk sections which radiated out from the area where the stones once lay.

A photo of a circular stone with black and white bits in it against a grey background
© Historic Environment
The baulks provided cross-sections of the profiles through topsoil, subsoil and layers down to the undisturbed ground. It is in these standing sections that the time-depth story of the site (the stratigraphy) is captured and can be read like the pages of a book.

That autumn the socket holes for the three uprights were identified and two were fully investigated. One (for Stone 2) had been heavily disturbed, its sides ragged and the fills loose with animal burrowing.

The sides of the third socket hole, for Stone 3, at the back of the monument, had stone lining in situ. Fills at the base of this massive hole (1.5m in diameter and 0.70m deep) were “clean” and produced grain and young wood charcoal which were radio-carbon dated in early 2013.

The results gave a date in the “modern period” and the material must have entered the socket hole during the 19th century restoration. The stone pavement, alongside many prehistoric pot sherds and flints, gave us a clear insight into the design of the original monument as well as an indication of how enduring its presence was in the landscape.

Finds from the Early Neolithic to Iron Ages were recorded. At the end of the Big Dig the site was re-buried, protected by a geotextile so that it could be re-opened for archaeological excavation.

This gave the team a chance to review the discoveries and develop a plan for further fieldwork with our archaeological contractors, CAU.

A photo of a small circular grey stone
A musket ball© Historic Environment
Six months later, some of the volunteers met to measure the stones. The previous September, the pile had been dismembered by crane and set out into two groups close to the area where they once lay.

One pile included the stones which made up the monument, the other was made up of large stones which had been dumped here after the collapse in 1967.

During the day the team studied the major quoit stones, the capstone and the 3 uprights. This was the first time the stones were available for detailed study since the last recorded measured survey of the monument, which had been carried out by antiquarians WC Borlase and G Lukis when it was still upstanding in 1879.

The site was also surveyed in 1984. A measured survey of the stones was carried out in 2009, after the purchase by Sustrust, but at that time only parts of each stone were visible for measurement.

In July 2012, 20 one-metre trial holes were dug under the supervision of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and Cornwall Council, providing outline information about below ground preservation and contribute to a more detailed field investigation.

The results would guide the future reinstatement of the stones and the final restoration of the monument by establishing the key areas of archaeological potential as well as the edges of the monument.

A photo of an angular long light brown piece of archaeological stone against grey
An oblique arrowhead© Historic Environment
The detailed investigation and post-dig assessments were a condition of the permission to restore the monument by English Heritage.

The restoration of Carwynnen Quoit was purposely developed as a community archaeology project and one of the aims of the fieldwork, as well as the post-fieldwork analysis, was to provide opportunities for the volunteer team to participate fully in all aspects of a research project under the guidance and encouragement of a modest professional team.

More than 45 people took part in both excavations in 2012. Some were experienced diggers, others had minimal fieldwork experience and some were complete novices.

The volunteers were encouraged to do as much practical work as possible and given training in not only digging but also recording, illustrating, processing and cataloguing the finds.

Our motives were guided by social sustainability, a lesser-known aspect of our work. To be able to restore what was perceived as just a pile of stones, unearth its history and well documented past, and then reintroduce the restored monument to an interested and varied audience was immensely enjoyable.

We regarded the site as we found it as a waste of resources, history and heritage. It has been satisfying that throughout the restoration, with the help of Cornwall Archaeological Unit, we have been able to demystify some aspects of archaeology and give people more of an insight and sense of ownership in one important area of their landscape.

We have been pleased to open the five-acre site to pedestrians and provide a pleasant picnic spot in ‘Cromlech Parc’.

As well as maintaining open access to the site, we will be able to provide more educational experiences here in the future.

One of our team, an experienced archaeological digger, said the excavation was one of the happiest she had been involved in due to the uniqueness of the site and the camaraderie of the disparate diggers involved.

There were lots of laughs and there was a really strong sense of doing something important and fascinating together."

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An overhead photo of a team of archaeologists digging at a brownfield squared off site
The team revisited the site with English Heritage backing at the end of 2013
A photo of a group of large grey stones clumped together on a farming field
The heap of stones as they looked in 1999
A photo of a large relatively smooth piece of grey archaeological stone against blue
A greenstone pestle
A photo of a series of sharply jagged grey-white stones against a blue background
Burnt flint tools found at the site
A photo of people working on a series of archaeological mounds at a greenfield site
The look of the site before the dig began
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