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Cornwall Archaeological Society By Konstanz

West Penwith has a particularly rich archaeological heritage, spanning from the Neolithic to medieval times (and it also has a rich industrial archaeological heritage). The typical prehistoric field system is to a great extent still existing, especially along the north coast where the 'modern' fields preserve the prehistoric pattern. Other field boundaries in marginal sites are visible on air photos or, as for example at Chun Downs, after fires burnt the dense gorse cover that obscured the archaeological remains. There are also many remains of human occupation, as in the long abandoned but still visible courtyard houses.

Much more spectacular for a wider public, and better visible for the untrained eye, are the great stone monuments like the quoits, the standing stones and the stone circles that inspire our imagination. Who built them? What rituals took place there? Were the quoits burial places or were they a symbol of power or belief? Is the spot they were built at of importance because of its intervisibility with other sites? Are they mimicking natural phenomena that were considered sacred? That it is difficult to come to an answer that convinces everyone makes them even more intriguing and explains the fascination they hold for so many different people.

The discussion regarding the role of the cliff castles and hill forts, which play such a prominent role in the landscape of Penwith, is also far from over. The general idea that they were places of retreat in time of wars or raids has long been abandoned. But why were they chosen and the natural defences of the sites strengthened? Were they ritual sites that were kept separated from the general public? Were they related to the power of a chieftain who used them to store his riches? Were they assembly sites for the extended families and tribes or maybe trading posts?

Archaeology can give no clear answers, as the remains are in most cases insufficient. The antiquarians dug into many barrows in the 18th and 19th century, and the findings were not always recorded. Stones were removed from fields and stone circles because they were in the way of the plough or came in handy for gateposts. Medieval crosses suffered the same fate and are even now occasionally found built into hedges or used as gateposts. Prehistoric and Medieval settlements became quarries for new houses. Drawings by Borlase and Blight show how much has been demolished in the last 250 years. Part of archaeology today is to preserve and record what is still there to enable a future generation with maybe more advanced technology to gain more solid information and not only speculation – although it will always be difficult to reconstruct religious sites and beliefs.

The scheduling of monuments is only a part of what needs to be done. The sites need constant careful maintenance as nature has a tendency to claim back everything, and especially bracken, gorse and brambles are a scourge for prehistoric monuments. But not only nature is a threat; it is important to educate people to respect the ancient sites and do nothing to damage or alter them in any way.