Early medieval cemetery 40m north of St Nicholas's Priory, Tresco


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
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Date first listed:


Ordnance survey map of Early medieval cemetery 40m north of St Nicholas's Priory, Tresco
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SV 89462 14289

Reasons for Designation

The Isles of Scilly, the westernmost of the granite masses of south west England, contain a remarkable abundance and variety of archaeological remains from over 4000 years of human activity. The remote physical setting of the islands, over 40km beyond the mainland in the approaches to the English Channel, has lent a distinctive character to those remains, producing many unusual features important for our broader understanding of the social development of early communities. Throughout the human occupation there has been a gradual submergence of the islands' land area, providing a stimulus to change in the environment and its exploitation. This process has produced evidence for responses to such change against an independent time-scale, promoting integrated studies of archaeological, environmental and linguistic aspects of the islands' settlement. The islands' archaeological remains demonstrate clearly the gradually expanding size and range of contacts of their communities. By the post- medieval period (from AD 1540), the islands occupied a nationally strategic location, resulting in an important concentration of defensive works reflecting the development of fortification methods and technology from the mid 16th to the 20th centuries. An important and unusual range of post- medieval monuments also reflects the islands' position as a formidable hazard for the nation's shipping in the western approaches. The exceptional preservation of the archaeological remains on the islands has long been recognised, producing an unusually full and detailed body of documentation, including several recent surveys.

Long cist graves are one of the main forms of burial during the early medieval period (approximately AD 400 - 1066), developing cist burial traditions already present in the later prehistoric and Roman periods, and with some examples known from later in the medieval and even into the post medieval period. They occur principally in coastal regions of western and northern Britain, sometimes alongside other burial methods such as simple dug graves, and are associated with Christian burial, consistently approximating to an east-west orientation. Long cist graves are subrectangular grave-cuts containing the cist itself, an elongated stone-built box-like structure, generally around 2m long by 0.5m wide internally, using edge-set slabs for its sides and ends, covered by flat slabs and sometimes floored by flat slabs too. The side and end slabs may directly line the grave cut or may be erected to a pre-determined plan within it and packed in place against the sides of the cut. Long cists show much variety in detail of their overall subrectangular plan, often tapered towards the eastern, foot, end and sometimes with a short taper at the west, head, end; some even tend to an ovoid plan. Considerable diversity is also apparent in the size and regularity of slabs employed and hence the resulting plan, due in part to the nature of the local stone available. Long cists occasionally occur singly but often in cemeteries which may contain well over 20, and in rare cases several hundred, graves. The cemeteries, usually unenclosed, often show deliberate patterning with graves ordered neatly into north-south rows and may also be associated with broadly contemporary chapels and settlement sites. Long cist cemeteries are often situated near cemeteries of earlier burials and many themselves formed the foci for later burial grounds. Their bias to the south west peninsula within England includes over 25 long cist cemeteries recorded from Cornwall. Of a further nine recorded from the Isles of Scilly, at least four retain extant remains, contributing substantially to our knowledge of the nature, development and organisation of Christianity in such a small and remote area during the early medieval period. The early medieval cemetery near the site of the later medieval priory on Tresco survives reasonably well; despite the truncation of two of its three known long cist graves, their form and manner of construction are clear and the eastern grave is almost fully intact and showing little evidence for disturbance. The cemetery forms an important part of the wider network of surviving early Christian monuments on Scilly and gave rise to the focus for the islands' medieval religious administration. It is also one of the few such cemeteries to be associated with a broadly contemporary early Christian memorial stone, in this case the earliest datable evidence for Christianity on the islands. The continuity of religious sanctity originating at such cemetery sites is demonstrated well by the adjacent siting of the later medieval Benedictine priory, and its persistence and evolution is unusually illustrated by the reuse of the priory for post medieval burial.


The scheduling includes an early medieval Christian cemetery located near the tip of the eastern spur of Abbey Hill on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. The cemetery includes at least three slab-lined graves, of a form called long cist graves, which were discovered in the mid-19th century when a track was levelled approximately 1m into the hillside as it passed westward along the side of the spur from Tresco Abbey house. The three known graves occur along 5.5m of the track's northern earth scarp which crosses their WNW-ESE long axes at an acute angle, obliquely truncating the ESE ends of the western two graves but only slightly impinging on the south east corner of the eastern grave. The graves are arranged in line, the alignment of each grave stepped approximately 1m to the north east of its neighbour to the west. Each grave is evident as a subrectangular cut into the granitic subsoil, lined around the sides and ends with edge-set slabs approximately 0.2m high, covered by thin flat slabs and sealed by a backfill of earth and rubble. The grave cuts extend to a depth of approximately 0.5m into the subsoil, above which they are covered by approximately 0.3m of present topsoil deposits. The earth- floored interiors of the truncated western two graves run into the side of the track as open cavities approximately 0.4m wide and up to 0.16m high, surviving to 1.3m long at the least-truncated western grave; at the eastern grave the interior is undisturbed and largely hidden, with only one side slab and covering slab of the south east corner exposed beneath the backfill of its grave cut. The original full length of the graves cannot be determined because the western two are partly truncated by the track and the eastern is still mostly buried. These graves form the known surviving part of a more extensive early medieval Christian cemetery that extended over the side of the spur now occupied by the Tresco Abbey Gardens; during landscaping of the gardens in 1852 the discovery of two of these cist graves was witnessed and recorded by the Revd H J Whitfield, who also noted human bones and a small cross-marked stone from simple dug graves nearby. Also considered to have originated from this cemetery is an early Christian memorial stone bearing an incised inscription and datable to the later sixth century AD; the stone is now located 50m south of this scheduling where it was reused as a doorway sill slab at the 12th century priory church of St Nicholas. The religious focus evident from this cemetery and the nearby memorial stone provides the earliest evidence for Christian activity on Scilly, giving its location a sanctity which later led to the establishment, at the foot of the slope, of the Benedictine priory which formed the centre of religious administration on the islands in the later medieval period. Ongoing respect for this religious sanctity persisted and developed after the abandonment and dissolution of the priory with the use of its church as a burial ground in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The modern surface of the track is excluded from the scheduling but the ground beneath it is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Ashbee, P, Ancient Scilly, (1974)
O'Neil, BH St J, Ancient Monuments of the Isles of Scilly, (1949)
Ratcliffe, J, Sharpe, A CAU, Fieldwork in Scilly Autumn 1990, (1991)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape, (1986)
Whitfield, H J, Scilly and its Legends, (1852)
Parkes, C/CAU, AM 107 for Scilly SMR entry PRN 7324.03, (1988)
Title: 1:2500 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 8914 Source Date: 1980 Author: Publisher: Surveyor:


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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