Iron Age cist on northern Samson Hill, 165m NNE of Western Carn, Bryher
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1017089
Date first listed: 23-Aug-1999
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: Isles of Scilly (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference: SV 87744 14412
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
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'
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.
During the Iron Age and Romano-British periods, the dominant funerary rite known on Scilly involved burial within a cist, a small box like chamber sunk into the ground, walled by edge set and/or coursed slabs and rubble, and covered by a row of slabs laid across the walls. These cists are called `Porthcressa' type cists, named after the site where their form was first fully described, to distinguish them from generally larger, slab built cists of earlier, Bronze Age, date. Subrectangular or ovoid in plan, the Porthcressa cists contain burials usually of a contracted corpse, though skeletal remains do not always survive. The burials were sometimes accompanied by artefacts such as brooches, beads or pottery. Where their surrounding context has become fully exposed, `Porthcressa' cists have been found to occur grouped as cemeteries, at least two of which survive to some degreee, with others known from excavation and antiquarian records. Limited exposures, commonly by coastal cliff erosion or agricultural activity, sometimes reveal individual cists from other cemeteries; at least five such individual cist exposures survive on Scilly, again with others known from earlier records.
This cist on northern Samson Hill has survived extremely well, its only disturbance being the displacement of one cover slab and the removal of the sword and scabbard from the surface of the cist's otherwise intact internal deposits. The cist is of importance as the context of a rare richly furnished Iron Age burial, and it is unique on Scilly in that respect. Swords and scabbards embody some the highest achievements of craftsmanship and artistic expression of this period and are very rare: each example and its context makes an important contribution to our knowledge of Iron Age society. In its Scillonian context this cist provides one of very few structural remains of any type securely datable to the Iron Age. It is much the best preserved of the `Porthcressa' cists known to survive, the earliest with datable finds, and it provides evidence for the existence of a previously unrecorded, and consequently unexcavated, cist cemetery in its immediate vicinity. Its importance for our understanding of the development of later prehistoric funerary practices and the organisation of land use is considerably enhanced by its proximity to a range of funerary and settlement features of earlier and broadly contemporary date.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
The monument includes an Iron Age funerary cist near the foot of the northern
slope of Samson Hill, the southernmost hill on Bryher in the north west of the
Isles of Scilly. When discovered, the cist was found to have been richly
furnished with an iron sword in a bronze scabbard.
The cist, a box like slab built funerary structure, survives wholly beneath
the surface of the modern field containing it, the upper face of its covering
slabs lying about 0.4m beneath the present ground surface. The cist is defined
by a wall whose main, basal, course comprises relatively large slabs, roughly
0.25m-0.6m long and mostly edge set. Above these, up to two courses of smaller
slabs and rubble, generally laid flat, infill irregularities in the upper edge
of the basal course and raise the wall to a fairly even upper level about
0.25m-0.3m above the cist floor deposits. The cist is roofed by several
cover slabs laid flat over the wall. In some sectors the wall's upper courses
project progressively inwards towards the cover slabs, a technique called
The walling defines an ovoid internal area with a north-south long axis,
approximately 1.5m long by up to 1m wide. The plan is assymetrical: the east
side of the cist has a shallower concave curve than the west, and the southern
end is rounded while the northern end tapers to a single transverse wall slab
rising almost the full height of the cist and very distinctive for its regular
The deposits on the cist floor, undisturbed at the time of the cist's
discovery, have a surface layer of dark silts on which is an area of modern
ploughsoil which collapsed into the cist on discovery. However beyond the
northern edge of that modern debris, the surface within the north of the cist
includes a substantial spread of the yellow granitic subsoil locally called
The cist was discovered in late March 1999 when pressure from a tractor
passing above it caused one of the cover slabs to be displaced and collapse
into the cist interior. On removing the displaced slab, the farmer revealed
the cavity of the cist and observed an object in the surface deposits. On
removal the object proved to be the almost complete remains of an iron sword
in a bronze scabbard. The sword had been laid along the western side of the
cist with the hilt to the north. Lacking only the upper end of the hilt as
originally found, the sword and scabbard together measure 0.86m long.
Subsequent authoritative examination of their distinctive features indicates a
broadly 3rd century BC date for the sword and scabbard.
This cist is situated in a locality rich in surviving remains of funerary and
settlement activity from earlier and broadly contemporary periods. Beyond this
scheduling, another cist of this type occurs at present inter-tidal levels in
Green Bay, 265m to the north east on the Bryher's east coast, while on Samson
Hill itself, a cemetery of large Bronze Age funerary cairns extends across the
summit dome and an elaborate chambered cairn is sited at Work's Carn on the
southern flank. A Late Bronze Age settlement site accompanied by rich
occupation and environmental deposits is exposed in the eastern cliff of
Samson Hill below Bonfire Carn, while a similar site of Late Bronze Age to
Iron Age date occurs in West Porth, Samson, 1.5km south of this cist.
Extensive areas of prehistoric field system with further settlement sites
survive on the flanks of Samson Hill, on Heathy Hill to the west, and at
present inter-tidal levels in Great Porth and in Green Bay.
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 20 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.
Legacy System number: 15546
Legacy System: RSM
Books and journals
Ashbee, P, Ancient Scilly, (1974)
Ashbee, P, 'Cornish Archaeology' in The Porth Cressa Cist-Graves, St Mary's, Scilly: A Postscript, , Vol. 18, (1979), 61-80
Ashbee, P, 'Cornish Archaeology' in Ancient Scilly: retrospect, aspect and prospect, , Vol. 25, (1986), 186-219
Butcher, S A, Bryher: Sword Burial on Hillside Farm, 1999, Unpubl Interim Rept produced 5/4/1999
Title: 1:10000 Ordnance Survey Map; SV 81 NE 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.
End of official listing