NGR: SW 6860 4080
Few people realise that the perhaps the most important archaeological site in the county (or perhaps further afield) can be explored on the slopes and summits of Carn Brea hill. Approximately six thousand years ago a series of massive stone walls were constructed to encircle the central and eastern tors of the hill and a double set of ramparts was erected across the slopes, linking the two and enclosing the area between them.
Excavations in 1970-1973 clearly demonstrated that these ramparts, reminiscent of the causewayed camps of lowland England, were Early Neolithic in date (between 4,000 and 3,500 BC) and led the excavator, Roger Mercer, to coin an entirely new name, “Tor Enclosure”, to describe this previously unknown and unlooked for site type; subsequently four other similar sites have been identified in Cornwall with several more possible sites awaiting further investigation.
The massive ramparts, which were estimated to have stood over 2m high and 2m thick, were constructed with granite facings and granite rubble infill; the facings were built with a series of large regularly spaced uprights linked by sections of horizontal dry-stone walling. The walls were not continuous but utilised natural granite outcrops and large earth-fast boulders to provide a seamless barrier. Traces of the ramparts are still visible as low spread stony banks, especially in areas where the vegetation has been kept low, for instance, along some of the footpaths.
Trenches dug to investigate the interior of the eastern enclosure revealed traces of rectangular lean-to houses against the internal face of the ramparts, with evidence for occupation in the form of flint, stone tools and pottery. Over 700 leaf-shaped flint arrowheads found clustered around the main entrance to the enclosure were interpreted as evidence that the site had been attacked by warriors armed with bows and there were indications that the houses had been burned down. This was one of the first indications of warfare in a period previously characterised as one of peaceful transition from hunting and gathering to a settled lifestyle and clearance of woodland for the cultivation of newly available cereals, and the grazing of the equally newly introduced domesticated sheep, goats and cattle.
The hilltop bears evidence for occupation from just about every period from the stone tools of hunter gatherers up to the present day. Though there is no evidence for houses, the Bronze Age is represented by several finds of bronze tools and weapons, in addition to some flint barbed-and-tanged arrowheads; settlement at this time would more likely have been on the lower slopes or in the valleys. During the Iron Age the ramparts, by then already over 3,000 years old, were repaired and re-used, and settlement of this period is represented by up to twelve round houses, clearly visible on the saddle between the two summits, and by finds including pottery, a quernstone and spindle whorls.
A small number of Roman period finds have been made on the hill, but there is little evidence for further activity until after the Norman Conquest. Carn Brea was part of the Tehidy Estate owned by the Basset family who built the castle on the eastern summit and established a deer park in the fourteenth century for which the castle probably became the hunting lodge, complete with chapel. The building was partially rebuilt and modified during the 18th and 19th centuries and is currently in use as a restaurant. The deer park was moved to Tehidy as mining activity around the hill intensified.
A well on the northern slopes beneath the castle is known as the Giants’ Well and folk tales also refer to the Giant of Carn Brea who lost in a fight with another giant called Bolster, resident on St Agnes Beacon, and whose petrified bones can still be seen in the rock formations that scatter the hilltop.
Carn Brea is owned and managed by Kerrier District Council; there is a small car park on the saddle area reached by a narrow lane from the village of Carnkie. Numerous footpaths converge on the hill from the four directions.
Mercer, R, 1981. Excavations at Carn Brea, Illogan, Cornwall – a Neolithic Fortified Complex of the Third Millennium BC in Cornish Archaeology 20, pp 1-204