There are over nine hundred stone circles across the British Isles. Roughly twenty or so of those can be found in Cornwall. However, it is almost impossible for us to know exactly how many such monuments were actually built by our ancestors. An unknown number of circles have been lost or destroyed in the thousands of years since their construction. Emblance Circles, a pair of Bronze Age stone circles, on the wilds of Bodmin Moor is one such site which has almost been forgotten by us today. A site little understood, little visited and in the past at risk of disappearing beneath the turf.
Most of the stones at the Emblance circles have either fallen or been broken. The damp location means many of the stones are partially underwater or disappear into the boggy ground during the winter.
This may not be the most impressive of Cornwall’s ancient monuments, indeed the author Philip Marsden rather unflatteringly (and fairly!) describes the stones as ‘cattle-shunted stumps’ in his book – Rising Ground, but there is no doubt that each circle is precious. Each has something to teach us.
Unfortunately however it seems it is usually the most famous and showy of our ancient sites that gets the funding for excavation and restoration.
When considering Emblance, and so many other damaged circles, there are plenty of questions we should raise. Not only what did they once look like but how did they come to be in their present state? And ultimately what can be done to preserve them?
Uncovering the Emblance Circles
The Emblance Circles, also known sometimes as the King Arthur’s Downs Circles, have mostly been forgotten. There has been very little study of this site. Hardly any comment by other writers or in guides to the moor.
But back in August 2017 I was lucky enough to be involved in clearing undergrowth at the site and surveying these circles. Permission for the survey was obtained from Historic England, Natural England, the Pencarrow Estate and the Commoners. The work was completed by a voluntary clearance team, known as the Timeseekers, who I have had the pleasure of working with for a few years now.
This survey added greatly to our knowledge of the Emblance Circles and enabled us to examine the site thoroughly and thoughtfully. Each of the remaining stones for each of the damaged circles was uncovered, photographed and measured. Most of the information, and the diagrams, I have compiled here are from the detailed report which was subsequently compiled by Roy Goutte, the team’s organiser and draftsman.
Associated circles are not uncommon in the south west. The most famous in Cornwall are the triple circles known as the Hurlers but there were also pairs of circles at Tregeseal and at Wendron. According to the team’s measurements Emblance appears to have had perfectly matching circles both 23m (76ft) across and standing 3.3m (10ft) apart.
“Having twin circles with identical diameters side by side is intriguing.” says Roy Goutte, “Why two you have to ask and did they serve different purposes or used together as one?”
One theory concerning associated circles such as these is that an original site may have been aligned to a particular star which, over centuries, may have shifted in the night sky. This would then have required a new monument to be built to orientate with the altered alignment. Another idea is that the two circles simply correspond to two different celestial bodies.
Destruction of the circles
As I mentioned before the circles on Emblance Downs are badly damaged. Most of the stones are recumbent and as such at risk of disappearing into the landscape. While walking from King Arthur’s Hall across the downs towards Garrow Tor for example it is easy to simply pass them by without a second glance.
The survey showed that the west circle has 6 earthfast stones (presumed to be in their original position) and 4 recumbent. There are also the buried, or partly buried, remains of 4 broken stones. The whole site is damp and often water logged as there is almost certainly a rising spring.
The east circle is in a particularly boggy area. It has 4 earthfast stones and 4 recumbent, and here there are also 3 broken stones. But having measured the distance between the stones and the circumference of the circles it is possible to estimate that each circles would have had 18 or 19 stones when they were constructed.
How so many ancient sites such as this one had their stones broken, laid down or pushed over is a question that has had many scratching their heads. And again there are a number of theories from early Christian zealotry and ancient warring tribes to subsidence.
Aubrey Burl suggests:
“The extension of agriculture into marginal lands in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave an incentive to farmers to bury, to blast or to haul away the stones of an obstructive circle, though fortunately superstition sometimes cause them to leave a few stones standing.”
Others theorise that the stones were destroyed by rival tribes in antiquity, a kind of my circle is better than your circle one-upmanship, or even that that they were actually laid down on purpose when they fell out of use. We may never know the answer.
A Complex Ancient Landscape
The name Emblance was first recorded as ‘Emlands’ back in 1580, old English meaning ‘flat-topped land’. The position of the Emblance circles within this undulating landscape should of course be taken into account when studying the site. The circles stand in the shadow of Garrow Tor and King Arthur’s Hall, Leaze and Louden Circles are just a short distance away. Fernarce and Stannon Circles just a little further off. From the Emblance Circles you can also see the rugged top of Rough Tor in the distance rising above the grasses.
All these landmarks, natural and man-made would have had significance to the builders of these circles in the Bronze Age, around 4000 years ago. Garrow Tor itself is covered in ancient field systems, cairns and enclosures from a similar time and it is exciting to think of the whole area as a deeply complex ancient domestic and ceremonial landscape.
Just a short walk from the circles, back across Emblance Downs, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon a beautiful little cist. This burial monument is of course another element in the wider story of this place. Another piece of the puzzle.
This small but endearing site was examined by Charles Thomas back in 1953 and, from his sketches, it appears to look much the same now as it did then. A small cairn ringed with stones set on their ends encloses a stone box which would once have held the remains of someone that called this place home. Someone would knew these downs far better than we ever will and who perhaps saw the circles when every stone was intact and still standing.
The future may be brighter
Fortunately there are plans in the pipeline to ensure the long-term future of the Emblance Circles. Plans that could see the oft-ignored site returned to a certain extent to it’s former glory – all I can say for now is watch this space!
*A special thank you to Roy Goutte for allowing me to use his report when putting this post together and also to the wonderful team of people that make up the Timeseekers. I am so proud to be a part of this group who do such amazing work purely for the love of the moor and her secrets. And who also make my time with them so fun and fulfilling if a little muddy and damp at times.*