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News Archive > Sport > Revealing Mawgan Porth's ancient settlement

Revealing Mawgan Porth's ancient settlement

1st August 2003

WHEN A Mawgan Porth landowner decided to build in the village almost 70 years ago little did he know what his work on the site would uncover.

After making an initial discovery of a skeleton archaeologists turned their attention to the site and set about attempting to excavate it.

What they found was remarkable. The remains of a settlement uniquely complete and holding a prominent position in the archaeology of the highland zone and Celtic regions of Britain in this era.

The area around St Mawgan was densely settled in the Iron Age, as is shown by the cliff-castles and other sites, all within a six-mile radius.

The presence of an archaeological site at Mawgan Porth first became apparent after the discovery of the skeleton in 1934.

P A Wailes, the landowner, had wanted to build on the land and soundings to test the subsoil revealed the skeleton, stone walls, pottery and bone fragments.

In 1948 the site was further excavated after a team of 20 volunteers from the Young Soldiers Battalion dug several trial trenches which showed the presence of well-preserved structures and yielded both bar-lug pottery, a recognised late Saxon ceramic type, and also, well stratified in one of the structures, a silver penny of the Saxon King Aethelred II (the Unready) which had been struck at Lydford in Devon between AD 990 and 995.

However, it was not until 1950 that the threat of building development led to full-scale excavations with seasons in 1950, 1951, 1952 and 1954 being used to complete the dig.

The scale of the site was larger than initially expected, requiring the opening of large areas by trenching with the assistance of a mechanical excavator, hired workmen, a large number of volunteers, and a light railway for spoil removal.

The excavations uncovered three distinct, but similar, groups of buildings – courtyard houses – all having the same basic characteristics.

The walls of the buildings were built up of a stone facing with a core of soft slate and earth. Each group of buildings had a long main room, one end of which was partitioned off to accommodate livestock.

The remaining larger area was the living space with hearth, vertical slab features, and wall cupboards. The long room opened into a courtyard, the remaining sides of which were closed by other, smaller rooms, or by a wall in the case of Courtyard House 2, with a narrow entrance through a passage on to the hillside.

To the north and adjacent to the settlement lay a fairly extensive cemetery with both adult and child burials enclosed in slab graves.

There is little to show a direct link between settlement and cemetery, although the evidence suggests that they are likely to be of the same date.

Large quantities of pottery were recovered from the excavations with inspiration for them coming from Continental pottery with a date range of AD 850-1050.

Stones were used for simple tools, while pieces of slate were perforated and used as net sinkers or thatch weights; fragments of quernstones (handmills) were also recovered.

There were a few bone objects, probably used as a scoop to get mussels out of their shells, a coin, and some traces of iron. Animal bones indicated a domestic economy, supplemented by shellfish.

Thanks to the excavations a clear picture of the life and habits of these people emerged. They were excellent builders with a good deal of the skill of the modern Cornish hedger. They chose a south-facing slope, and their low houses, partially dug into the slopes of the hill, and with turfed roofs had their backs to the prevailing winds.

They knew how to carry off the water in well-built surface drains covered over with slabs.

The animal bones for the site showed that the inhabitants’ livestock was mainly the small Celtic ox and sheep or goats. They also had horses, dogs and cats, and for relaxation kept fighting cocks.

There was no actual evidence of fishing but fishing must have been a source of food. They cooked a great number of mussels.

Traces of living arrangements – box beds, hearths, wall cupboards, stone-lined pits or containers – are preserved as the settlement had been rapidly sealed by the blown sand, with no obvious subsequent robbery of the structures, and there was little later interference.

These factors provided ideal conditions for the definition and study of the distinctive bar-lug pottery culture and economy, known from a good many Cornish sites, of which this is the leading example.

None of the other bar-lug pottery sites in Cornwall, or elsewhere, has been extensively excavated or yielded such well-preserved and coherent structures or so complete a picture of the life of the inhabitants.

The life of the settlement was apparently ended by blown sand making life in such a position close to the seashore untenable.

Perhaps it was the same era of great storms that covered the chapel of St Piran, buried villages and, and piled up the Perran sands, that put an end to the hamlet at Mawgan Porth.

The inhabitants seemingly departed in their own time, probably taking most of the useful objects with them, and left the structures to decay naturally.

Similar finds of pottery inland near the village of St Mawgan suggest a new location for settlement and the beginnings of the history of the modern village.

For the future, the settlement at Mawgan Porth is ripe for further excavation. The remains are everywhere with parts of the site not yet excavated lying under the greens of the miniature golf course, and more perhaps to the east and north of the excavated area.

Historical information provided by English Heritage from Mawgan Porth: A settlement of the late Saxon period on the north Cornish coast.

1st August 2003

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