Monday, 3 June 2013

Place: Neolithic Safari

There is a big yellow round thing in the sky. It has been there every day for the past five days. It seems to be radiating heat- when you lie out in it your skin appears to change colour? Has anyone else seen this shining orb? After a long, cold, wet, dank, nasty winter, and a late, grumpy, changeable spring, it feels like summer is finally starting to get going. I can't remember the last time early June was quite so glorious. It's funny, but when the weather is like this- still mornings with the sun rising so early you never quite catch it, a soft mist at the bottom of the valley, all the birds enticing you outside- England feels like the most magical place on earth. The world is full of growing things, even if some of them are nettles.

So, to celebrate the glorious weather, the Cornishman and I went back to the land of his birth. We went to a beautiful wedding on Thursday, which involved some amazing Cornish kilts- and, no, Cornishmen don't wear anything under their kilts any more than Scotsmen do, although my own version was sulking in suit trousers. The weekend was rounded off by the christening of a gorgeous little girlie, and the sun was still very much shining down on all the lovely people at both events. It was funny, as between those two events and the sudden change in the seasons I felt like I was seeing new beginnings all over the place- lots of new babies are coming in the summer and autumn, weddings coming up, people starting new lives together, little ones starting new lives from scratch.

So, naturally, we ran away (literally, as above) to some archaeology, to get back to old lives, people long gone, people who met one another, had babies, grew old and died thousands of years ago. People who are probably entirely unrelated to their descendents doing the same things now, but who still seem to have this powerful hold over us. I'm not an expert on the Neolithic, and I'm definitely not an expert on Cornwall, but as we were already half way there it seemed appropriate to head down to the Land's End peninsula and wander around a stunning landscape. 

I'd never been before. Never been further south than Newquay. So I was surprised by the way the peninsula worked- I knew that the north coast of Cornwall further up is rugged and scraggy, with more moorland than fields. The south coast, on the other hand, is all lazy luxurious bays, rich pasture and chubby cows. Down in the depths, this difference was still there- in the four miles between Penzance and Zennor, two miles in the landscape just switched- from north to south. I have never seen a microclimate quite like it- I can't imagine how strange that must have been for people in the past- to be able to walk between two seas, between two worlds. To go from land that was fertile and easy to farm to barren moors fit only for grazing sheep.

Our first Neolithic site was a stone circle, Merry Maidens. It was completely deserted when we arrived, and we skipped over the stone steps and walked right up to it. Apparently, the site's name in Cornish is "Dans maen," or "Stone dance," which is thought to refer to the legend that the stones were originally a group of dancers who got a bit carried away one Saturday night and didn't stop for the Sabbath. There are two standing stones just off the circle which are supposedly the remains of the musicians who kept on playing ffor them. The two standing stones, "The Pipers" are a bit trickier to get to- one is relatively easy, but the other was hidden behind a gate covered in nettles and brambles, so we just looked at it from the road. I looked them up when I got home, and apparently they are the two largest standing stones in Cornwall- and, more strangely, one of the earliest professional reports on the stone circle was written by Hugh O'Neill Hencken- the same archaeologist who later worked at the Etruscan city of Tarquinia! Even when I hide from the Etruscans in darkest Cornwall they seem to hunt me down!

Just down the road from Merry Maidens is Tregiffian Burial Chamber. Like Merry Maidens, it's a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age monument. Apparently, when excavated in 1871, pits with bone remains were discovered and taken to be evidence for cremations, and later excavations confirmed cremation urns- suggesting the deposition of human remains at the site over a long period of time. The original cross-piece of the monument, covered in cup and ring markings, has been removed and is now in Truro, so the one you can see is a replica. It's a pretty atmospheric little tomb, looking sad and empty beside the lane that runs between Lamorna and Mousehole. Someone had left flowers on the stones, crumpled and dying in the growing heat.

As we were in a bit of a rush, we then went on a Neolithic road trip, following the coastal road from Sennen up to St Ives, with periodical dashes inland to hunt for sites up on the moors. We weren't very successful, as we didn't have an OS Map- only a road atlas with very rough directions. We did manage to find Boskednan stone circle, which has been heavily restored. We then went looking for and failed to find Men-an-Tol, which I had been dying to see, but hadn't properly prepared. By this point, after an afternoon of surfing, we were both pretty tired. I think we will have to come back to Cornwall for a proper prehistory safari- there are some great Iron Age sites there too. In spite of skipping gaily around enjoying the spring, looking back on the weekend it seems to have been a bit of an archaeological flop- and perhaps a bit of a physical flop too! Yep, that's me falling off the surfboard like a spreadeagled whale. Always elegant.

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