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Contextualising Chysauster

Investigating a multi-period landscape in West Penwith, Cornwall.

In early 2016 archaeologists from Historic England conducted a detailed analytical earthwork survey of Chysauster Ancient Village near Penzance, west Cornwall. The earthwork survey formed part of a wider programme of research commissioned by English Heritage, which manages the site, prior to the preparation of a new guidebook, display boards and other interpretative materials.

The survey set out to provide accurate and up-to-date mapping of all archaeological features within the guardianship site, to characterise and interpret earthwork features, and to enable the site to be understood in its wider landscape context.

A view across the core of the Chysauster site in Cornwall, showing remains of stone houses.
The core of the settlement, looking east across houses 5 and 3. © Historic England, James O Davies, DP181295.

Chysauster is a nucleated settlement of courtyard houses dating from the late 1st to 3rd centuries AD.

The largest of a small number of similar settlements found in West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly it consists of 10 courtyard houses, nine of which sit close together in a ‘village’, with a probable extra house standing just over 200 metres away to the south-west. Each of the courtyard houses is slightly different in configuration, but all have substantial granite walls up to 2 metres high, creating a series of small rooms around a central courtyard.

In addition to the courtyard houses there is also a fogou, a stone-lined subterranean passage of presumed Iron Age date, again a monument type unique to west Cornwall.

The site is set amongst the granite-hedged fields and moorland of the West Penwith peninsula.

A small stone and earthwork structure known as a fogou, Chysauster, Cornwall
The fogou © Historic England, Sharon Soutar

Existing knowledge

The antiquity and significance of Chysauster was first recognised in the mid-19th century by the local antiquarians Henry Crozier and John Blight (Pool 1990). Later that century two of the courtyard houses were subject to limited clearance and excavation.

A plan of Chysauster made in 1960 by the Minstry of Works.
The 1960 plan of Chysauster by the Ministry of Works. © Reproduced with permission of Historic England.

More extensive and scientific investigations took place in the late 1920s and 1930s, initially by T D Kendrick and Dr H O’Neill Hencken, and later by C K Croft Andrew (Hencken 1928, 1933). It is these excavations that form the basis of our understanding of the site. During the 1930s much of Chysauster was placed into the guardianship of the Office of Works (a forerunner of English Heritage).

Prior to the current survey a curious situation existed. The guardianship area had been surveyed with varying degrees of accuracy and detail from time to time since the mid-19th century. However, these surveys had tended to focus on stone-built features, principally the courtyard houses and the fogou, leaving many of the site’s subtler earthworks unrecorded.

Outside the guardianship area, by contrast, the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and English Heritage had conducted a series of detailed multi-period surveys in the 1980s, depicting walls and earthworks alike. These surveys revealed that Chysauster sits within a well-preserved archaeological landscape, in which patterns of survival, influence and change from the late prehistoric through to the post-medieval periods are visible (Herring et al 2016). Traces of late prehistoric field systems and round houses were recorded. These were largely overlain by an extensive system of heavily lyncheted fields. A lynchet is a bank formed at the end of a field by soil which, loosened by the plough, gradually moves down slope through a combination of gravity and erosion. Among these fields stood several isolated structures that were likely to be courtyard houses.

This field system, thought to be Romano-British in origin, has persisted as a structuring influence throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, and forms the basis of many of the fields that exist today. Cutting across this agricultural landscape are post-medieval features associated with tin extraction.

Survey plan of wider landscape setting of Chysauster
Chysauster in its landscape setting, showing the late prehistoric and Romano-British field systems, hut circles and courtyard houses surveyed by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit in the 1980s. © Historic England, Sharon Soutar, after Herring et al 2016, fig 7.7

One of the principle aims of the current survey was to redress this imbalance of knowledge, in particular in regard to subtle earthwork features inside the guardianship area. To ensure maximum visibility fieldwork took place shortly after most vegetation on the site had been heavily cut back. The extent of earthworks, walls and other features was digitally recorded using survey-grade Global Navigation Satellite System equipment. This provided the basis for a final digital drawing, completed at a scale of 1:500.

Plan from Historic England’s analytical earthwork survey of Chysauster in 2016.
Historic England’s analytical earthwork survey of 2016. © Historic England, Olaf Bayer.

Earthworks in the landscape

The fogou is probably the earliest feature on the site. Located over 100 metres to the south-east of the main courtyard houses, it consists of a small chamber dug into the hillside and capped with granite slabs. Surface indications suggest it measures approximately 2 metres by 2.5 metres in extent, which is small in comparison with other examples. It is likely that the approximately 6 metre-long open passageway approaching from the south was at least partly roofed, and formed part of the fogou.

The survey identified a series of lynchets, which chiefly ran north-west to south-east across the site. Between 0.6 metres and 1.5 metres in height, in several places they clearly ran under courtyard houses, and therefore predated their construction. This stratigraphic relationship was apparent in a number of locations. The majority of these lynchets can be followed into the landscape beyond the guardianship area, and several join up with the earthworks previously recorded by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit. It is now apparent that the configuration of the core group of courtyard houses was influenced by an earlier agricultural landscape of heavily lyncheted fields.

The lynchet underlying the entrance into the courtyard of house 5 is visible here as a pronounced slope between the two survey poles.
The lynchet underlying the entrance into the courtyard of house 5 is visible here as a pronounced slope between the two survey poles. © Historic England, Olaf Bayer

Many of the courtyard houses are also associated with small enclosures or ‘garden plots’; and several of these also extend into the moorland beyond the guardianship area. The relationship between the core group of courtyard houses and the more dispersed examples is less clear, however. Two such houses were investigated as part of the current survey. Although partially disturbed and obscured by thick vegetation, house 10 (mentioned above), is a strong contender for a courtyard house, with traces of both the courtyard itself and its appended rooms. An area of earthworks immediately to the east of the fogou has also been suggested as the remains of a courtyard house. It is difficult to reconcile the size and morphology of these earthworks with those recorded in the core of the village, but this is at least in part due to post-medieval stone robbing and quarrying in the area.

In addition to prehistoric and Romano-British activity a number of more recent features were recorded. A series of small pits on the eastern fringe of the site, for example, are suggested as probable tin-prospection pits. Each consists of a sub-circular depression between 2 metres and 4 metres in diameter and up to 1 metre in depth, several with associated spoilheaps. The remains of several post-medieval stone hedgebanks, shown on historic mapping but removed during the 1930s, were also identified, as well as spoilheaps from the 1930s excavations. Much of the southern part of the site was cleared during the mid-19th century, slighting many archaeological features.

View of Mount’s Bay to Greenburrow engine house
Mount’s Bay to Greenburrow engine house, looking west from Chysauster. © Historic England, James O Davies DP181397

In many ways Chysauster is a difficult site to record. The substantial walls of the courtyard houses fragment the site into a series of ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ spaces, obscuring earlier  earthwork features.  Analytical earthwork survey has proved to be an invaluable technique in this environment. Survey results have made explicit the links between the archaeology within the guardianship area and that previously recorded in the surrounding landscape. As a result our understanding of the site’s history is becoming increasingly complex and interesting. The results of the survey have already been incorporated into new display boards, and will form part of a new English Heritage guidebook and a Historic England research report.

Acknowledgements

Fieldwork at Chysauster was conducted by Olaf Bayer, Nicky Smith and Sharon Soutar. Susan Greaney (English Heritage), Peter Herring (Historic England), Fiona Flemming, Jacky Nowakowski and Adam Sharpe (all of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit) have all contributed useful information to the project.

 

Olaf Bayer

Author

Dr Olaf Bayer MA  is an Investigator for the Historic Places Investigation Team (West), based in Swindon. He joined Historic England in October 2015, having previously worked in academic, commercial and community archaeology. Olaf has a PhD in prehistoric landscape archaeology, and has a particular research interest in the prehistoric landscapes of south-west Britain.

Further reading

Bayer, O 2016 Chysauster, Gulval, Cornwall: Analytical Earthwork Survey. Swindon: Historic England Research Report Series 60/2016

Christie, P M L 2011 Chysauster and Carn Euny. London: English Heritage

Cooke, I 1983 Mother and Sun: the Cornish Fogou. Penzance: Men-an-Tol Studio

Hencken, H O’N 1928 ‘An excavation at Chysauster, 1928’. Journal of the British Archaeological Association new series 34, 145‒64

 Hencken, H O’N 1933 ‘An excavation by H M Office of Works at Chysauster, Cornwall, 1931’. Archaeologia 83, 237‒84

Herring, P C Johnson, N Jones, A M, Nowakowski, J A Sharpe, A and Young, A 2016 Archaeology and Landscape at the Land’s End, Cornwall: The West Penwith Surveys 1980‒2010. Truro and Swindon: Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Historic England, The National Trust and Cornwall Heritage Trust

Pool, P 1990 ‘Henry Crozier and his discovery of Chysauster’. Cornish Archaeology 29, 99‒105

Smith, G Macpail, R I Mays, S A Nowakowski, J Rose, P Scaife, R G Sharpe, A Tomalin, D J and Williams, D F 1996 ‘Archaeology and environment of a Bronze Age cairn and prehistoric and Romano-British field system at Chysauster, Gulval, near Penzance, Cornwall’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 62, 167‒219

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