Still standing? Cornwall's threatened ancient sites
The story of a "menhir" for sale on eBay, confused arsonists and the people saving Cornwall's prehistoric monuments
Image: Alice Colvin-Cousley
The ancient Cornish standing stone was listed on eBay for £3000.
“Unique 3.0 metre Cornish granite menhir, standing stone” the advert said.
“The earliest prehistoric settlers of Cornwall used standing megaliths of this type to mark significant and important sites. They are the earliest architectural statements along the Atlantic fringe of Britain and Europe.”
The menhir had somehow found its way to Fareham, a market town at the North West tip of Portsmouth Harbour in Hampshire. The seller said it could be shipped anywhere in the UK.
A photo showed a stone that looked like the real thing - tall and curved up to a point, with moorland and a blue sky in the background.
The listing, which appeared in September this year from a seller called “bronz4u”, resulted in a flurry of reports to the authorities.
On social media people expressed outrage that something untouched for thousands of years could have been wrenched from the earth and sold.
The Cornish Echo contacted the seller for comment but did not receive a response.
“These sites, some of them are Mesolithic, some of them are Bronze Age, some of them are Iron Age, some of them are Mediaeval, and some of them are more recent historical sites,” Nev Meek, president of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies told The Cornish Echo.
“They tell us a little bit about who we are and, particularly for Cornish people, they are important to us because they are part of our identity.”
There are currently 1,586 Scheduled Monuments recorded within the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Historic Environment Record, with just under 68,000 undesignated sites recorded, according to Cornwall Council.
Of these, there are 15,429 undesignated heritage assets which have been recorded as prehistoric (prior to 409AD).
“These things have been here for thousands of years and luckily, for a long time, they were protected by superstitions,” said John Moss, chair of the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN).
“If you knocked down or took away a stone from a stone circle, your crops would fail, your cows would go barren and everything would fall apart etc. So people were generally wary of taking anything down.”
“In Penwith particularly, we were lucky, because there's a huge amount of the ground that is not very good for agriculture. So that's why we've got a lot of ancient sites left.”
Superstitions haven’t always been paid attention to, and in some cases, sites have been damaged or even destroyed.
Zennor Quoit. Photo: Jill Moss
In the 19th century, Zennor Quoit was damaged and nearly broken up and rebuilt as a cattle shed until William Borlase, the local vicar, intervened.
And Tregeseal Stone Circle, near St Just, was once part of a double stone circle according to Moss.
“I understand that as recently as the 1960s, an unnamed local farmer (allegedly) decided that it was very inconvenient having a stone circle in his field. So he took it down. Which is a horrific thing to do,” he said.
“Especially when you go there today and you see the other side of the wall. The stones are in the hedge and it's just a grass field.”
In 1999 arsonists attacked Mên an Tol and Lanyon Quoit, both in West Penwith, and threatened to “reduce them to rubble” in protest over their mistreatment, as reported by The Guardian at the time.
A fire was set near the stones in “an attempt to make them better, or at least more aesthetically pleasing,” according to a letter sent by the arsonists.
And vandalism still occasionally occurs.
“Most of the time it's idiocy. I mean we had one a few years ago at Mulfra Quoit. Somebody up there spotted drawings on the side of the quoit,” said Moss.
“Because they were sort of faintly humanoid shapes, the press got hold of it and said it was aliens… We went up there and it looked to me far more like an icon - like in Russian churches.
“You had a humanoid shape with a halo around the top. It looked like a rather crude drawing of that. Luckily it was a chalk based thing and not paint.”
As they were investigating, CASPN members found some cremated ashes.
“So it seemed to us that actually somebody wanted their ashes scattered up there, which does happen. And they'd held some sort of ceremony and in a misguided way, decided to draw on the stones,” Moss added.
Len Sheppard, executive officer of the Association for Cornish Heritage, told The Cornish Echo that ancient barrows have been used by mountain bike cyclists and motorcyclists to ride down.
And the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies’ Nev Meek, spoke of people robbing stones from traditional Cornish hedges to use in gardens, or engaging in irresponsible metal detecting on the sites of Scheduled Monuments.
The Cornish Echo contacted Historic England, the non-departmental public body of the UK government which protects the historic environment, to ask about the case of the standing stone on eBay.
It turns out that it was not a Scheduled Monument.
“This was investigated by Historic England and Devon and Cornwall Police and was identified as a lawful transaction,” a spokesperson for the organisation told The Cornish Echo.
Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register
Thankfully, cases of heritage crime and vandalism are relatively rare.
But there other threats to ancient sites that are just as problematic, such as scrub/tree growth, animal burrowing and erosion.
Every year, Historic England compiles a register that contains sites which have been identified as being most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development.
When assessing the risks to archaeological scheduled monuments, the organisation considers a list of vulnerabilities.
A trend is also recorded, which says whether a site is ‘improving’, ‘stable’, ‘declining’ or ‘unknown’.
Screenshot from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk map
Data from the 2021 heritage at risk register* showed there were 252 heritage sites in Cornwall that were at risk.
Out of these, 182 were listed as archaeological sites - 124 of which were declining (68%).
Types of sites at risk included 51 settlements, 28 barrows, 21 hill forts and 17 cairns.
These represent a small proportion of the 1,586 Scheduled Monuments recorded within Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
But it’s still a significant number.
And out on the moors of Bodmin or West Penwith, there could be many more sites that people don’t know about.
Work by Cornwall Council’s Strategic Historic Environment Service, has shown that there are 15,429 undesignated prehistoric heritage assets - far more than the number of Scheduled Monuments.
These assets are afforded far less protection and if they are not recorded, nothing can be done to protect them.
The Council along with groups like the Penwith Landscape Partnership are now trying to identify and record potential ancient sites - to keep them safe - using mapping tools which can be used to inform planners.
They are also cutting paths through vegetation and unearthing long-lost places of archaeological interest.
“We’ve been breaking open sites from deep, deep undergrowth,” Laura Ratcliffe-Warren, the Ancient Penwith Officer for the Penwith Landscape Project, told The Cornish Echo.
“We’re trying to set a pattern of repeated maintenance, so that every year becomes less onerous.”
Who is responsible for the upkeep of ancient sites?
Cornwall Council told The Cornish Echo that the oversight for the care and management of designated assets is the responsibility of Historic England.
“Where appropriate Cornwall Council may administer this responsibility on their behalf as dictated by national standards and guidelines,” a spokesperson said.
Historic England “works continuously with partners as well as owners and managers of sites on the Heritage at Risk Register to encourage and facilitate projects to improve their condition,” it said.
The organisation has grant schemes to help fund projects and works and can advise on alternative sources of funding, including from The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
A spokesperson told The Cornish Echo that Historic England has also developed a “robust network” of trained Heritage Crime Officers to assist in the prevention and detection of crime and anti-social behaviour, and are currently working with Devon and Cornwall Police to develop a community-led Heritage Watch scheme.
“We also work closely with volunteers from many local charities and trusts in site management and monitoring,” the spokesperson added.
These volunteers and charity groups make a crucial contribution to the preservation of Cornwall’s heritage.
Groups like the Penwith Landscape Partnership, CASPN, Cornwall Archaeological Society, the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, and Newquay Old Cornwall Archaeology Group, organise volunteers to look after monuments, with some maintaining access and reporting any crimes or vandalism that might have taken place.
“Fortunately, there are lots of people around who do care about the environment and ancient sites,” said CASPN’s John Moss.
“We have site monitors who typically look after about 15 of the ancient sites in West Penwith.
“Those are people that often live quite close to the chosen site and they visit it they're happy to send us a report every month if all is well and earlier if there's a problem. So that works really well.”
But there is always a huge amount of work to do.
Even a small amount of money could go a long way, according to the Association for Cornish Heritage’s Len Sheppard.
“Many small local groups with a relatively small amount of funding could achieve a lot to cover equipment, such as strimmers and other hand operated tools,” he said.
“Also funding a Cornwall-wide mentor who would be available to encourage new groups and set them up would be a great resource… Once established, groups of voluntary labour can achieve a great deal with little expense,” he added.
Funding has all ready be used to great effect.
Historic England has provided money for an initiative from Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, called the Monumental Improvement project, which is trying to save 40 Scheduled Monuments in the AONB, which will soon be “lost forever” if they do not receive urgent care.
The two-year project will seek to make sure the monuments are better identified, supported and enjoyed by a “wide range of people”.
Landowners and heritage sites
Despite the enthusiasm and hard work of volunteers - some sites are more difficult to protect.
Scheduled and non-designated sites are often found on private land, which can limit options for intervention.
If a landowner wants to carry out works to a monument, they need to apply for prior written permission from the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
However, there is no legal obligation for them to undertake any additional management of a Scheduled Monument.
Groups like the Penwith Landscape Partnership are now working with the local farming community to help care for Cornwall’s landscape and heritage.
And Historic England hopes that Defra's Future Farming initiative and new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme will provide a “huge opportunity” to create a more sustainable future that mitigates the impacts of agriculture upon the environment.
But the constant maintenance of sites is not an easy task - and even large and sometimes well-funded landowners can struggle to keep on top of everything.
An analysis of Historic England's 2021 Heritage at Risk Register by The Cornish Echo found that The Duchy of Cornwall owns four Cornish sites that are at risk.
All four of these sites were declining - with principal vulnerabilities being listed as vandalism, plant growth and flooding.
A Duchy of Cornwall spokesperson said they are responsible for 270 scheduled sites in England and as a “responsible land owner” are committed to their protection and preservation.
“The sites include a wide range of historic assets from castles to old field systems and across them all we work closely with Historic England and relevant authorities to identify, manage and eliminate potential risks.”
The National Trust owned 13 sites on Historic England’s 2021 register. Just three of these sites were declining - two due to coastal erosion and one due to scrub/tree growth. Four sites were stable and six were improving.
James Parry, the National Trust’s archaeologist for Devon and Cornwall, said that the majority of the National Trust sites on the register are located on the coast and are at risk as a consequence of either coastal erosion or of bracken and scrub intrusion.
“Due to the growing impact of climate change we are seeing many of our nationally important coastal sites being increasingly at risk from accelerated erosion.”
He said that, alongside the Trust’s partners and with staff and volunteers, they are “constantly working” to improve the condition and understanding of these “amazing sites”.
And Cornwall Council owns eight sites on the register - four of which are declining.
“Cornwall Council’s response to the maintenance requirements of heritage assets, regardless of their designation status, is based on three key priorities; public health and safety, asset significance and public benefit,” a spokesperson for the Council said.
“Part of our personal stories”
The public concern shown after the listing of the standing stone on eBay demonstrates just how much heritage sites matter to people.
“You know, our ancestors would have been living in these places, so they're part of our personal stories as well,” Nev Meek, of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies told The Cornish Echo.
Horses at Mên an Tol. Photo: Jill Moss
“When you see something on the television about the Bronze Age or the Iron Age or whatever then, that's all interesting, but it feels slightly further away.
“But when you're actually standing on a Bronze Age or Iron Age site in your own parish. It all suddenly becomes much more tangible and much more real and therefore much more of value to you locally to ensure that it's preserved.”
Anna Chorlton is a writer who lives on Bodmin Moor. Cornwall’s ancient sites feature heavily in her work - she writes about the mythology that surrounds the sites and composes poetry while out walking amongst them.
“People like ourselves are transient. But the ancient sites are more permanent and more like the land- resilient for thousands of years,” she said.
“So that's why standing at these sites is a very powerful experience for me because there's so much history there as well as art and creativity from people who came before us.”
For Anna her family history has also been formed in these places.
“We used to go walking with my mum up a little old Roman track to Trethevy Quoit. As locals we used to call it the “giants house”. I remember walking up there to have a picnic. We loved to go there as children.
“There are six stones - five are standing and one has fallen down. I remember hiding under the stones and sliding down them. My daughter now actually does the same thing.”
It’s this human connection that drives volunteers to spend their mornings and afternoons doing the hard work of clearing ferns and brambles away from monuments.
They understand that, despite their sense of timelessness, ancient Cornish sites are vulnerable and could be lost.
“Once this ancient heritage is gone it’s gone forever and is irreplaceable and another part of Cornwall’s, historic past dies,” said the Association for Cornish Heritage's Len Sheppard.
The volunteers and charities are fighting to make sure this never happens.
*Historic England is going to be bringing new data out later this year - we will provide an update for this article once it is published.