June 20, 2024

South West News

South West News from Gloucestershire to Cornwall

10,000 years of Cornish history uncovered during A30 improvement works

Evidence of 10,000 years of Cornish history has been unearthed by Cornwall Council’s Cornwall Archaeological Unit (CAU) during the work to upgrade the A30 between Chiverton and Carland Cross.

Among the finds were tool preparation areas from the Mesolithic period, a Bronze Age burial mound, and evidence of Roman road construction.

The unit is now approaching the final piece of fieldwork of the archaeological mitigation programme associated with the construction of National Highways’ A30 Chiverton to Carland Cross road upgrade – and are now able to share the initial results from the project, which started in the lockdown summer of 2020, three-and-a-half years ago.

Working with principal contractors Costain, archaeological investigations have been completed in 16 separate areas – each a large project in its own right – and these have included four full excavation areas, 22 strip map sample excavations, 19 watching briefs, two flint scatter recording areas, two paleo-environmental sampling areas and two historic building records.

The nature of the scheme has created an opportunity to look at a completely random (in archaeological terms) cross-section across nearly 10 miles of Cornish landscape and the investigations have revealed a large number of significant sites that would otherwise remain unknown.

The remains encountered span 10,000 years of Cornish history, from the first Mesolithic hunter-gathers re-populating the landscape following the end of the last ice age to relics of the 20th Century’s Cold War.

Perhaps the most significant finds were the earliest. At Ventonteague, just west of Carland Cross, the team found a huge scatter of flint tools and waste, marking an area where people had gathered for millennia to prepare tools from flint pebbles carried up from the north coast, which at that time would have been 10 or 20 miles further north than the current coastline.

By collecting the flint using innovative sampling methods CAU were able to recover around 100,000 pieces of flint from this one area, and in the process also recovering a sizeable collection of worked slate tools, slate beads, daub, and hazelnut shells.

Much of this would have gone unnoticed without the sampling technique used. Even more excitingly, the scatter was associated with a number of hollows and posthole features that are thought to represent structures used by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers that were knapping the flint 10,000 to 6,000 years ago.

The subsequent Neolithic period saw the introduction of pottery and agriculture. The team found isolated pits containing pottery throughout the scheme but more significantly identified a circular structure built of stakes enclosing an area containing a pit full of flint nodules.

By this time people were occasionally using flint imported from the chalk of East Devon, possibly because of large nodular pieces could produce bigger tools or because its distinctive colour was socially valued . Each nodule had at least one flake removed from it, perhaps a form of assaying or testing the flint for quality. This cache of valuable imported flint had seemingly been stashed within a building and then abandoned for nearly 6,000 years.

The Early Bronze Age saw the introduction of metalwork and the construction of round barrows, largely but not always, on highly visible higher ground. The team excavated one barrow close to Carland Cross at Higher Ennis, high on the ridge that runs west from there, but also several in lower ground close to Ennis and Ventonteague and possibly another at Trevalso, near Zelah.

The only one of these containing a burial was at Higher Ennis, where cremated remains were found in an unusual urn that appeared to have elements of a style more usual further east in Britain – perhaps a visitor to Cornwall.

One of the Ventonteague barrows also contained a whole urn, this time without human remains. Also found were whole Bronze Age urns from a number of pits, three at Nancarrow, Marazanvose and one from a roundhouse at Trevalso (Photo 7).

The Bronze Age saw the introduction of more substantial roundhouses, stone-walled and set in hollows. We excavated one of these at Trevalso, along with a more ephemeral post-ring structure nearby. Both contained substantial quantities of Trevisker ware, the pottery prevalent in Cornwall at that time, as well as a bronze socketed hammer from one building and a stone mould for a bronze object, possibly a razor, from the other.

Another roundhouse at Marazanvose was a much larger structure and contained evidence for a range of industrial processes, including possible metalworking.

Roundhouse-building continued into the Iron Age and the team found a few examples at Tolgroggan at the western end of Zelah. These seemed to be contemporary with a field system that aerial mapping shows to be associated with a nearby round, a fortified enclosure known to be prevalent in Cornwall throughout the Late Iron Age and Roman periods.

The scheme crossed the ditch of one of these rounds at Trevalso – it was quite substantial at up to 3m deep and 5m wide.

Although there wasn’t the chance to see much of the interior of the round, the team did identify three or four oval Romano-British houses nearby.

These types of unenclosed settlements were largely unrecognised until the advent of developer-led archaeology in the last 30 years or so. Work will now be undertaken to see if we can learn anything from the sparse materials that they left behind – these are presumably not the houses of the rich and powerful although one did contain a Roman coin, perhaps carefully hoarded for a rainy day.

One type of feature cropped up throughout the scheme, in a variety of forms. Given the nature of the scheme it seems appropriate that it gave us the chance to discover former sections of road, long abandoned or bypassed. At Carland Cross to the east and Chybucca and Four Burrows to the west we found long lines of pits, which the team are interpreting as borrow pits, used to excavate stone for road surfacing. It takes a great deal of social organisation to co-ordinate road building on this scale and elsewhere these pits have been taken to imply Roman road building.

At Marazanvose, the team found old sections of road with ditches either side to carry water away from the carriageway. Here it could be seen that the old section of road lined up with part of the present A30 (Photo 10), which had presumably been diverted to the north of Marazanvose at some point. Historians know this happened a long time ago as the parish boundary (usually laid out in the early medieval period, pre-1066) follows the diverted A30 and field boundaries either side of it are not cut by the diverted road – therefore the original road is likely to be Roman, or even earlier.

Finds from the medieval period (AD 410-1540), other than field boundary ditches, were sparse, probably reflecting the fact that most medieval settlements survive as the farms and villages present today. The team did uncover some evidence for Marazanvose being more densely populated in the Middle Ages than it is now, with metalworking pits, small laid out garden plots, and a well being amongst the features identified.

Much the same could be said of the post-medieval period (AD 1540-1900). The only significant remains found from this period were offices, leats, and buddles associated with the short-lived Wheal Ennis, an unsuccessful attempt to mine lead, opened in 1851 and closed the following year.

Rather more significant remains were found dating to the Second World War. Right next to the Chybucca junction we uncovered the remains of 50 or so huts and a blacksmith’s forge forming the remains of a United States Army base in use from 1943 up until D-Day in June 1944. It had been thought that the site might have been the base for a group of the 29th Infantry Division that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day but subsequent investigations, including contact with the Divisional Facebook page administrator in the States, suggest that this base was a regional supply depot attached to many Divisions, providing a vehicle park and repairs, an ammunition dump, and an ordnance depot. The team found many artefacts, including personal effects like a tube of toothpaste, broken radios, enamel mugs, and a large number of beer bottles!

At Higher Ennis the remains of foxholes were discovered that formed part of a Home Guard defensive position positioned to cover Newlyn Downs in the event of a German invasion from the north coast at Perranporth or Holywell. This same area was subsequently used as an aircraft observation post and then, in the 1950s, as the location for a Royal Observer Corps observation post. This consisted of an underground bunker, housing two people, that would have reported back to a command centre in Truro in the event of a nuclear attack on St Mawgan, measuring blast intensity and radiation levels amongst other things. The team were lucky enough to be able to show former members of the crew around the site. Sadly, the bunker had been ‘decommissioned’ in the 1990s and what remained was flooded and rat-infested.

The team have also contacted a retired farmer who remembered the US troops at Chybucca as a boy and would welcome contact with anyone else who remembers either the US troops at Chybucca or the British forces at Higher Ennis.

The project has not only identified and recorded a large amount of significant archaeology, but has also enabled CAU to employ 52 people over the course of the three years, the majority local, and the post-excavation programme continues and is employing nine people full-time. 

The project also provided the opportunity for CAU to provide training and employment for young people through the UK Government’s Kick Start Scheme, creating jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit. This has been hugely successful with three young people now continuing to work with CAU as freelance archaeologists.

Cllr Martyn Alvey, Cornwall Council’s Cabinet member with responsibility for the archaeology service, said: “A major project such as the A30 improvements offers a wonderful opportunity to investigate a large area and uncover a huge period of Cornish history.

“As ever, the team has worked brilliantly to discover, identify and interpret a wealth of material which gives us a real insight into the way people lived across so many periods.”