NGR: SW 4265 3494
This iconic and highly photogenic site is one of the best known megalithic structures in Britain, and it’s insanely popular by tourists. The name Men-an-Tol means simply ‘holed stone’ and despite having been considered a significant and popular monument from a very early date, its true purpose remains a mystery.
The monument today consists of four stones; two upright stones with the holed stone between them, and a fallen stone at the foot of the western upright. Antiquarian representations of the site differ in significant details and it is possible that the elements of the site have been rearranged on several occasions. William Borlase described the monument in the 18th Century as having a triangular layout, and it has been suggested that the holed stone was moved from its earlier position to stand in a direct alignment between the two standing stones. In the mid 19th Century, a local antiquarian JT Blight proposed that the site was in fact the remains of a stone circle. This idea was given additional support when a recent site survey identified a number of recumbent stones lying just beneath the modern turf which were arranged along the circumference of a circle 18 metres in diameter. The recumbent stones are somewhat irregularly spaced but the three extant upright stones have smooth inward facing surfaces and are of a similar height to other stone circles in Penwith.
If this is indeed the origin of the site, the holed stone would probably have been aligned along the circumference of the circle and would have had a special ritual significance possibly by providing a lens through which to view other sites or features in the landscape, or as a window onto other worlds. There have also been suggestions that it may have been a component of a burial chamber or cist. There are instances of burial chambers close to stone circles, as at nearby Boskednan, and a barrow mound with stone cist has been identified to the north-east of the Men-an-Tol, so it seems likely that the site was part of a more extensive ritual or ceremonial complex.
Holed stones are very rare in prehistoric Cornwall; there is only one other comparable site, the Tolvan Stone near Gweek. All other ‘holed stones’ are much smaller with holes less than 15 cm in diameter; certainly too small to pass an infant through. These stones may have originated as horizontally bedded stones on granite tors, the hole produced by natural weathering processes. They may have been brought to the site to fulfil a specific ritual purpose and perhaps to provide a physical link with the sacred hill.
The Men-an-Tol has generated a wealth of folklore and tradition. It is renowned for curing many ailments, particularly rickets in children, by passing the sufferer through the hole. It was also said to provide an alternative cure “scrofulous taint”, also known as the “Kings Evil” which was otherwise only curable by the touch of the reigning monarch. The site’s reputation for curing back problems earned it the name of “Crick Stone”. The stones were also seen as a charm against witchcraft or ill-wishing, and could also be used as a tool for augury or telling the future; two brass pins laid crosswise on top of each other on the top of the stone would move independently of external intervention in accordance with the question asked. Age old myths of spirits associated with sacred places are echoes from prehistory.
Although the Men-an-Tol is considered to be Bronze Age in date no extensive excavations have taken place. The discovery of a single flaked flint by WC Borlase in 1885 is hardly compelling evidence for an early date whilst the recent works to reset the holed stone revealed only evidence for modern activity.
The Men-an-Tol lies to the east of the track running north-east from Bosullow, and is also accessible from Boskednan via the Nine Maidens stone circle, or the path which passes Ding Dong Mine. A little further along the track from Bosullow lies the Men Scryfa, an early mediæval inscribed stone.
The Men-an-Tol is sited in open moorland, within an area designated as being historically and ecologically valuable as well as being an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Barnatt, J, 1982. Prehistoric Cornwall: The Ceremonial Monuments. Turnstone Press Limited. ISBN 0 85500 129 1
Payne, R, 1999. The Romance of the Stones: Cornwall’s Pagan Past. Alexander Associates. ISBN 899526 66 8
Preston-Jones, A, 1993. The Men-an-Tol. Management and Survey. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Preston-Jones, A, 1993. The Men-an-Tol reconsidered in Cornish Archaeology 32, pp 5-16.