Boscawen-ûn Stone Circle
Boscawen-ûn stone circle
NGR: SW 4149 2762
The stone circle at Boscawen-ûn is considered to be one of Cornwall’s most popular prehistoric ceremonial centres as well as one of extreme aesthetic beauty. It lies beneath the southern slopes of Creeg Tol, enclosed by a later raised circular bank which, built in the 19th century to replace an earlier boundary that went straight through the circle, is an early example of archaeological conservation. The circle appears to have been carefully positioned within the landscape in such a way as to relate with key prehistoric landmarks, both natural and contemporary. To the north-west the rounded hill of Chapel Carn Brea fits neatly between the slopes of Leah and Creeg Tol. An unusual Neolithic long cairn lying on its southern slopes and an entrance grave on the summit are highlighted from the centre of the circle whilst to the south-south-east the dual menhirs of The Pipers and the Merry Maidens stone circle can be seen just below the skyline. The only glimpse of the sea is also in this direction at Boscawen Cliff. A positional change of the circle by just a few metres would render these sites invisible. Most of the landscape to the north is closed off by the nearby slopes but the circle is possibly located in such a way as be part of a progressional route through the landscape which allows views between monuments to open up as different landmarks are reached.
The circle is slightly oval in shape and consists of nineteen large upright stones, all of granite except for one of quartz. Just off-centre within the circle lies a tall stone said to resemble an axe cutting into the earth with two axe carvings of low relief on its north-east face. These carvings are the only known examples of stone axe carvings in Britain and the closest parallel for them lies in the Neolithic ritual sites of Brittany which suggests that the central stone at Boscawen-ûn predated the circle and was erected as a monument for axe-related ritual; possibly in conjunction with woodland clearance. The stone leans towards the north-east sector of the circle where an arrangement of stones may represent an earlier, possibly contemporary cairn or cist. That this feature also pre-dates the circle is apparent in the spacing of the circle uprights at this point. When the circle itself was erected, the quartz stone was placed on the south-west side of the circle in alignment with the central stone and the cairn-like structure to the north-east. It is thought by some that the central stone with its axe carvings represents the phallic masculine whilst the quartz stone represents the feminine powers of the ring. The south-west position of the quartz stone also marks the direction of the full moon during mid-summer.
Boscawen-ûn is a Cornish name derived from the elements bod, “dwelling or farmstead” and scawen, “elder tree”. The suffix –un comes from goon, “downland or unenclosed pasture”. There are remains of later Bronze Age field systems in the area although no associated settlement in the immediate vicinity, whilst the remains of a group of four Bronze Age barrows and a Neolithic/Bronze Age menhir to the north-east are almost certainly associated with the ceremonial landscape in which Boscawen-ûn circle lies. It would appear therefore, that the landscape around Boscawen-ûn has been one of important ritual and focus on an evolving scale from the Neolithic onwards. Boscawen-ûn itself was possibly one of the pre-eminent ceremonial monuments for the communities of West Penwith providing not only a ritual arena but also a focus for other gatherings and social occasions. Folklore has it that Boscawen-ûn is a circle created by maidens dancing on the Sabbath being turned to stone. Whilst this story is attractive, perhaps more credible is the possibility of Boscawen-ûn being one of the three Gorsedds, or Druid Meeting Places, of Britain. The Welsh Triads which date back to around the 6th Century AD record “Boskawen of Dumnonia” as being one of the “Gorsedds of Poetry of the Island of Britain”. Certainly the circle is still an important spiritual meeting place for local Pagan groups and ritual offerings are still placed here.
Barnatt, J, 1982. Prehistoric Cornwall: The Ceremonial Monuments. Turnstone Press Limited. ISBN 0 85500 129 1
Herring, P, 2000. Boscawen-ûn, St Buryan, Cornwall. An Archaeological Assessment. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.