The standing stones of Cornwall

Cornwall is known for its stones, which can conveniently be divided into three main types dating from three different periods.

One of the pair of stones known as the Pipers in West Penwith, the tallest stone still standing

The first, and most active, period of erecting stones in the landscape was the early bronze age, from around 2,500 to 1,500 BCE. Menhirs (from the Cornish for long stone) were put up, either singly or in pairs. Their purpose is not always clear but some marked burial sites. Others were boundary markers while many would have had some sort of religious significance, now lost. Some stones had been moved a considerable distance before being erected, not as far as at Stonehenge perhaps, but several miles. This was also the period of stone circles and stone rows.

Stone erecting became fashionable again a couple of thousand years later when inscribed stones appeared. These were single stones with writing on them, a memorial to someone, usually the head of a family or an eldest son. That said, the oldest stone is possibly a memorial to a woman, Cunaide, who died aged 33 some time in the mid to late 400s at Hayle.

Inscribed stone at Lewannick in memory of Ingenuus

Cunaide may have been Irish. The main wave of stone erectors, arriving slightly later in mid-Cornwall, were definitely so. The late Charles Thomas provided the classic account of this migration in his brilliant And Shall These Mute Stones Speak? Between 100 and 200 high status families, originally Irish but living in south Wales for a couple of generations, arrived via the Camel estuary around 500 AD and then fanned out across east Cornwall and into south Devon. They were Christian and literate (in Latin). Their inscribed stones either marked Christian sites or were boundary markers or were placed near the homes of those memorialized.

This practice was then adopted by local elites in the 500s and spread across the rest of Cornwall. There are 39 such stones in Cornwall, one in Scilly and another 15 in Devon. This sort of memorial ended around 700 when the last stone was erected in memory of Taetura, a priest, near St Just in Penwith. It’s been suggested that placing such inscribed stones in the countryside ceased when the material presence of the church became more important than the memory of ancestral kin.

The final re-emergence of Cornwall’s stone obsession began in the late ninth century when stone crosses were placed at the margins of church land or on routes to churches. This was confined mainly to Cornwall, where there are 50 such crosses that can be dated to the pre-1066 period. Although there are 10 examples in Devon, the style has been seen as expressing a ‘distinctively Cornish identity’. Perhaps this was a defensive reaction against the imposition of foreign rule at this time, as also happened at different times in Ireland, Wales and the north of England.

Cornish cross at Towednack church

For the context for the second and third phases of stone erecting see my Cornwall’s First Golden Age.

4.25 pm postcript: Just heard the sad news that Cornish archaeologist and patriot Craig Weatherhill has passed away. Craig was an expert on the pre-historic stones mentioned above and his Cornovia: Ancient Sites of Cornwall & Scilly remains the most readable guide to Cornwall’s archaeological sites.

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