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Excavations at Carn Brea (near Redruth) carried out by Roger Mercer in the early 1970s revealed a previously unknown archaeological site type. Mercer’s work showed that the low stony banks looping from outcrop to outcrop and encircling the twin tors of the hill were constructed 6000 years ago in the early Neolithic period. The site was, in effect, a version in stone of the causewayed camps of lowland England typified by the famous site of Windmill Hill in Wessex. As this was an unprecedented discovery a new name had to be coined, and the site became known as a ‘Tor Enclosure’.
This revelation spurred archaeologists to identify similar sites in the Cornish countryside and one early candidate to emerge was Helman Tor, located midway between Bodmin and Lostwithiel. The tor is at the northern extremity of a north-south trending granite ridge, and overlooks the marshy ground of Redmoor and Breney Common and the fertile farmlands on the higher ground between. Though not well preserved, archaeological surveys had identified a series of low walls and levelled terraces on the tor, similar in nature to those on Carn Brea, and a small-scale excavation of a terrace just behind one of the better preserved lengths of walling, again undertaken by Roger Mercer, confirmed the Neolithic origins of the site.
Within the enclosure are several level platforms which have been interpreted as house sites, though no traces of the stone walls of ‘hut circles’ can be seen. One of the excavated platforms was found to contain a complex pattern of postholes which were interpreted as evidence for the construction of a series of wooden walled structures, although there is insufficient evidence to determine the length or duration of the occupation. Associated with these are traces of field systems indicated by a series of slight terraces and a number of piles of small boulders and stones which are the result of the clearance of stone from the fields prior to cultivation.
No certain entrance to the enclosure has been identified whilst a stony bank built on the western slopes below the summit and main tor enclosure may mark the remains of an outer annexe, possibly used as an enclosure for keeping animals.
With so few excavated examples, there is still much to be learned about tor enclosures. Like hillforts, they may have provided a focus for their local community and a place for social and ceremonial interaction, including the exchange of goods and ideas. Numerous finds from the hilltop over the years, including greenstone axes, flint tools, stone querns and gabbroic pottery confirm the Neolithic date for the construction and occupation of the tor, and the numerous similarities with other potential new tor enclosures at Trencrom in the west, and at De Lank, Stowe’s Pound and Roughtor on Bodmin Moor has really established the credential of these sites as a definite new class of monument.
Dudley, P, 2005. Helman Tor, CWT Properties, Cornwall. Archaeological Assessments. Historic Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Mercer, R, 1997. The Excavation of a Neolithic Enclosure Complex at Helman Tor, Lostwithiel, Cornwall in Cornish Archaeology 36, pp 5-63.
Rose, P. and Johnson, N, 1983. Helman Tor, Lanlivery in Cornish Archaeology 23; p186.