It’s recently been claimed by a TV chef that Cornwall’s chambered tombs, known locally as quoits, were our equivalent to the pyramids. Actually, they were probably built a bit earlier, usually dated to around 3,500 to 2,500BC. (The great age of Egyptian fourth dynasty pyramid building was 2,613-2,494BC.)
Chambered tombs are the oldest built element in the Cornish landscape, apart from the Neolithic enclosure on the top of Carn Brea. There are around a dozen quoits in Cornwall, but what we see now is only the skeleton or framework of the original structure. Large uprights enclosed a chamber and supported a massive capstone. Originally this chamber was surrounded by a circular mound of earth built up to the capstone level and with a retaining wall of stones. There would be an entrance passage through this mound or cairn giving access to the chamber.
Later, in West Penwith smaller chambered cairns continued the tradition of chambered tombs into the Bronze Age. This tradition was then taken by migrants to Scilly around 2,200BC and on the islands are found in large numbers.
Although called tombs (also sometimes portal dolmens) and assumed for centuries to be burial sites, there is a little uncertainty about their function. In fact, no human remains of the Neolithic period have been found inside quoits. Some cremated remains have been discovered just inside the entrance or near to it, but these have been dated to the early Bronze Age and much later than the date usually assumed for the building of the quoits. Some archaeologists have therefore suggested that quoits instead served a more symbolic purpose, constructed on higher land overlooking Neolithic field systems and may have been a focus for ritual or worship.
Sadly, these enigmatic constructions haven’t always retained the same level of respect. In 1861 the Reverend William Borlase, Vicar of Zennor and great-grandson of the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Borlase, got wind of a farmer who was intending to erect a shed for his cattle next to Zennor Quoit. He’d already removed one of the uprights and had drilled a hole in another. Hurrying to the scene, Borlase persuaded the farmer to put his cattle shed somewhere else and managed to prevent any further destruction on the payment of five shillings, or £30 in today’s money.
With a similar disregard and ignorance of its former use, the Devil’s Quoit near St Columb was used as a pigsty in the early 1800s until it collapsed. It was then pillaged for hedging. Other quoits have served as useful sources of recycled stone for mine buildings.