St Minver Highlands
NGR: SW 9340 8108
The Rumps Cliff Castle is sited on a promontory formed from a band of hard basaltic rock which was emplaced by undersea volcanic activity when this whole area lay on the bed of an ancient ocean. The rock exposures in the cliffs are of great interest to geologists, but the headland is also rewarding to those interested in the relatively recent events of the last two or three thousand years!
The cliff castle exploits the narrow isthmus which links the twin headlands to the mainland massif. During the Late Iron Age three lines of ramparts were constructed, the innermost of which exploits a natural fault line in the rocks. The ramparts represent at least two phases of construction, with the inner rampart being the earliest. The outer rampart is slighter and is separated by a gap from the other two and may represent a later strengthening of the defences. It has been proposed that this rampart may have been topped with a wooden palisade. The ramparts are stone-faced with a rubble fill. A single entrance is located more or less centrally, and would have been approached by timber bridges across the ditches. A complex gatehouse was constructed in wood, later rebuilt in stone, and would have been furnished with solid timber gates.
Traces of round houses have been found both between the middle and inner ramparts and in the interior and artefacts found during excavations in the 1970s indicate two main phases of occupation, beginning in the 2nd century BC and continuing into the 1st century AD. The pottery assemblage included a large proportion of local late-Iron Age ‘native wares’ made from the gabbroic clays of the Lizard Peninsula. A range of vessel types was represented including plain burnished ware and cordoned ware, and some decorated with combed or rouletted designs (applied with a comb or a small patterned roller). The stone artefacts included spindle whorls, quern stones and thatch weights. In one of the hut circles, faint traces on the floor were interpreted as the imprint of an upright loom. A blue glass bead was found in the fill of the innermost ditch and a large number of animal and bird bones were discovered, which indicated the nature of the local diet, though in such a location we might expect fish and seafood to be an important component.
Though cliff castles and ’rounds’ are broadly contemporary, both being exclusively late Iron Age in date, and though both appear to be sited and designed with an eye for defence, it is likely that they each had distinct functions and social emphases. The ramparts of both may have been predominantly symbolic of the power and prestige of the community, and whilst there is evidence for occupation within types of site, the limited excavations so far carried out do not allow for a detailed interpretation of the nature of the occupation – was it permanent, seasonal or sporadic; was it associated with ceremonial or symbolic activities or with more mundane things such as agriculture or trade? Placed as they are, cliff castles would have been ideal foci for trade and cross-channel relations and their impressive natural setting may be another perhaps crucial factor in understanding their significance. It seems that cliff castles were often sited in places with a cultural significance inherited from earlier periods and Bronze Age burial mounds are a common enough feature of their interiors.
The Rumps cliff castle can be accessed via the coastal path or public footpath inland from Pentire Farm.
Brooks, RT, 1974. The Excavation of the Rumps Cliff Castle, St Minver, Cornwall in Cornish Archaeology 13, pp 5-50.