The Carnon Valley in the Bronze Age
One doesn't have to travel far in Cornwall to see evidence of ancient civilisation and whilst the earliest monuments in the landscape date from the Neolithic, circa 5,000 years ago, those evident in and around the Carnon date from the early Bronze Age, between 3,500 to 4,500 years ago.
During this period permanent settlements emerged in Cornwall, together with the widespread adoption of farming techniques which heralded the development of more stable communities.
Bronze has been used to describe various alloys of copper, which is a relatively common metal to be found across Europe. Copper can be alloyed with other common elements, including arsenic and zinc, to produce a hard metal capable of being worked and developing an edge. The most durable Bronze, however, requires the incorporation of approximately 10% tin, a metal which was not at all common in the ancient world. This type of Bronze was widely produced in Europe only after the establishment of far ranging trade networks around 5,000 years ago at the time of the first Pharoah dynasty. Exactly when Cornish tin was first discovered and exploited is not known but is likely to have coincided with the first farming communities.
In these early times the tin was found in streams and rivers flowing away from the tin bearing areas. The tin oxide (Cassiterite) is heavy and the natural processes of river flow allows it to concentrate within hollows in the river bed. The tin is won by the process of "tin streaming" which requires diversion of the river flow and digging and sifting of the river muds, sands and gravels to reveal the grains of brownish black ore.
Cornwall has been an important source of tin throughout history and whilst more often than not it has been Europe's largest single producer it has not always been pre-eminent. For a period in early Roman times the workings of Iberia were of greater importance with Cornwall becoming more dominant later in the Roman era.
Gold in Cornwall and Cornish connections
Recent new analyses of gold artefacts from around Europe, which have been dated to the Bronze Age, have suggested that possibly the majority of ancient gold of this period did not originate from Iberia or Ireland, as traditionally supposed, but actually came from Cornwall. The gold was a by-product of winning Tin by the process of streaming. The Carnon Valley has been noted for small, but important, production of gold throughout its long mining history. A large nugget was dug out of workings within the Carnon Valley in 1808 and is now to be found in the Philip Rashleigh collection on display in the Royal Cornwall Museum. A picture of it is reproduced below.
The report in the Royal Cornwall Gazette at the time described: “ A beautiful specimen of virgin gold lately found in a tin stream work in Cornwall, is now in the possession of Mr Wills a silver-smith of Truro. It is about the length of a lady's little finger, though less regularly formed, and weighs about two ounces. Its intrinsic value is equal to nine guineas, but as a specimen it is invaluable, for though gold has been frequently found in our stream works and that in larger quantities perhaps than is generally known, this is unquestionably the largest and most beautiful specimen ever found in Cornwall or probably in any other country.”
This report was, of course, made prior to the great Californian Gold Rush of 1849, its Australian counterpart in 1851, the finds in Witwatersrand South Africa in 1886 and the Klondike rush of 1896. In all of these New World adventures, Cornish Jacks played their part.
A report from The West Briton in August 1858 describes; “ an immense nugget, weighing 2217 ozs. 10 dwts., or nearly 185 pounds, had been extracted at Ballerat [Australia] from a claim belonging to twenty two Cornishmen. Nine of the fortunate men belong to the Parish of Illogan, and with them Mr William Jeffery, the early Californian digger, and his brother Mr Richard Jeffery, who brought the monster to light. This is by far the largest nugget yet discovered, and in three day's exhibition for the benefit of the Ballerat Hospital, it realised about £100.”
Bronze age boats – The National Maritime Museum Cornwall
In 2012/13 a sixteen metre replica of a Bronze Age boat, named Morgawr, was built at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth. The design was based on the remains of an original sewn plank boat found on the Humber on the east coast, and known as Ferriby 1, which has been dated as originally being built around 3,500 years ago.
The boat requires paddling by a crew of around twenty and there is no current evidence to indicate that these boats were sailed. Bronze age people were however extremely skilled and knowledgeable boat builders and many of the techniques used have changed little in the past 4,000 years. The amount of time and resources required to build boats of this type meant that a strong community network was required.
They were capable of long distance coastal travel and a later example of overseas trading routes was provided by the recent discovery of a cache of bronze artefacts on the seabed near Moor Sand, east of Salcombe. It is believed that this must be the site of a Bronze age wreck although no remains of the vessel have been discovered to date. Of the seven bronze pieces so far discovered at least three came originally from the other side of the channel. The finest being a hook-tanged sword belonging to the Rixheim/Monza series of weapons most commonly found in eastern France, Northern Italy or southern Germany around 1000yrs BC.
More links with Europe
Pan-European trading links are perhaps most vividly illustrated by evidence locked within the Nebra Sky Disc which was found by treasure hunting metal detectorists within a prehistoric enclosure in the Ziegelroda Forest 60 km west of Leipzig in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It has been dated as manufactured at around 3,600 years ago, the same period as Morgawr.
This bronze disc of around 30 cm diameter weighs about 2.2 kg and has a blue-green patina. It is inlaid with gold symbols which have been generally interpreted as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent and stars including a cluster thought to be the Pleiades constellation. The disc represents the oldest such depiction of the cosmos in the world and in June 2013 it was included in the UNESCO “Memory of the World Register” and labelled as “one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century”.
Analysis of trace elements within the constituent metals, undertaken by E Pernicka at the University of Freiberg using x-ray fluorescence spectrophotometry, determined that the copper originated from Bischofshofen in Austria, the tin content of the Bronze came from Cornwall and the gold used in the star and moon symbols specifically came from the Carnon River.
To learn more about the Nebra Sky Disc visit the National Maritime Museum Cornwall dedicated web page.
Houses in the round – Carnon Gate
A Bronze age Roundhouse was uncovered during the construction of the Carnon Gate roundabout at Devoran in 2008. The site was excavated at the time by James Gossip and Andy Jones of the County Council Archaeological Unit. The house has been dated as built between 3,300 and 3,500 years ago and at this time its position would have been close to the creek shoreline.
No evidence of contemporary fields or enclosures was found in association with the site and possibly the creek and open sea was the main influence on the lives of its occupants. The structure was that of a lowland “sunken floor” roundhouse, cut into the gentle slope, however it was unusual in having substantial stone faced free standing walls, which would have partially supported the roof. Many pottery sherds were found about the site, typically of a type known as Trevisker ware. This pottery utilised a component derived specifically from the igneous rock called Gabbro which is found within the very special geology of the Lizard area. This material was traded far and wide in Bronze age Britain because, when mixed with local clays, the resulting pottery was highly resistant to the heat of cooking fires. Trevisker pottery invariably demonstrates an independent style of decoration often including plaited cord and incised chevron patterns impressed into the clay, which was part of a distinctive south-western tradition.
To learn more about the Carnon site see “A Bronze Age roundhouse at Carnon Gate Feock, Cornish Archaeology 47,2008,101-116 and for
more about Bronze age Roundhouses visit: “The Historic Environment of Cornwall – The First Farms”
The replica boat Morgawr is now on display at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.
The Nebra Sky Disc is thought to have been made around 1600 BC.
Rounds atop the landscape, for the living or the dead? – Carnon Downs Tumuli
In a prominent position on the high ridge above the Carnon Valley lie two well preserved Round Barrows or Tumuli. These were a common feature in Bronze age Cornwall between 3,500 and 4,500 years ago and even today more than three thousand examples lie scattered throughout the county. Whilst traditionally these Barrows are synonymous with burial mounds, in Cornwall, the internment of bodies of the dead was just one of the many rites performed at these sites. Many Cornish barrows did not contain any human remains at all and may well have served as ritual centres for the living as much as the dead. The mounds served to seal and mark the sites where rituals and ceremonies took place and this may have been an important place to go when something special was happening in the community. Today one of the barrows lies in a small cul-de-sac named Parc-an-Creeg which is Cornish for "Field of the Barrow".
The Tumuli at Carnon Downs are not believed to have been excavated in recent times however they may possibly have been disturbed in past years by treasure seekers as was described in an account by William Hals written some time before 1750 and recalling just such an event at Four Burrows, northwest of Truro, around the year 1700.
“ In the Parish of Kea on the open downs by the Highway or Street, are situated the four Burrows, ie four sepulchres Tumuli or graves. One of them is called Burrow Bel-les and is one of the broadest or longest burrows in these parts, into which some Tinners in hopes of finding money, pierced a hole or adit into the centre thereof where, though they missed their expectations, they found in the same two of the broadest and flatest moor-stones, as a cover supported by three perpendicular stones of suitable strength or bigness, that they had seen in the adjacent country. In the vacant space, vault or arch under these stones they found decayed or broken pieces of an urn or Ossilegium and about a gallon of black matter and ashes.”
For further information on Bronze age Tumuli visit the Cornwall Council website “The Historic Environment of Cornwall – The Living and the Dead“.
A replica round house constructed at Chacewater under the First Farms project.
Written by Phil Allen