Chun Quoit, one of Cornwall’s best preserved prehistoric monuments, is spectacularly located high on a hill in West Penwith. Leaning with your back against it’s sun-warmed stones you can see for miles, expansive views across moorland, farmland and out to sea. But what was this structure for and what did it represent to the people that built it?
“Chun Cromlech, it is not so large . . . but its lonely position on the shoulder of the hill makes it an impressive object” – A.G. Folliott-Stokes, 1928.
Cornwall’s quoits are some of our most imposing and easily recognisable monuments. There are around 20 remaining in the region, mostly clustered in Penwith. Besides Chun Quoit they include Lanyon, Mulfra, Zennor, Trethevy and Carwynnen – old Cornish names that feel suitably ancient and transportive.
At one time there were almost certainly many more of these monuments across the region. As Ian Soulsby theorises:
“The fate of the Devil’s Coyt (a dialect spelling form) near St Columb Major, enterprisingly used as a pigsty until it collapsed in the 1840s, and then used as a source of hedging stone, reminds us that they [quoits] were probably much more numerous, like countless other types of early Cornish monuments.”
The earliest name recorded for these prehistoric structures in Cornwall is Cromlegh in an early 10th century charter for St Buryan. (Crom meaning curved, legh meaning slab in Cornish.) This word is closely related to the Welsh equivalent, ‘Cromlech‘. Where the term ‘quoit’ comes from isn’t entirely clear. Some believe the name has a connection to the game ‘Quoits’, others that it comes from a Cornish dialect word.
Caitlin Green, a historian who specialises in early literature, helped me to decipher the etymology further. Although Caitlin isn’t sure when the word was first used in Cornish, it likely comes from a Welsh word meaning ‘discus’, a solid circular object thrown for sport. Quoit “derives from the Anglo-Norman ‘coite’ borrowed into English in the 14th/15th century and implies they were seen as huge discuses thrown by giants.”
The folklore in Cornwall associated with these monuments varies from quoit to quoit but Robert Hunt reported that as a whole they were considered sacred and untouchable.
“It is a common belief amongst the peasantry over every part of Cornwall, that no human power can remove any of those stones which have been rendered sacred to them by traditional romance. Many a time have I been told that certain stones had been removed by day, but that they always returned by night to their original positions, and that the parties who had dared to tamper with those sacred stones were punished in some way.”
Dolmens, cromlechs, quoits, hunebedden, dolmains, anta, trikuharri – there are many names for these stone structures which can be found in one form or another all across Europe, in Central Asia and as far away as Korea. The translation of the various names ranges from ‘stone table’ to ‘bed of giants’. Almost universally however they are considered by archaeologists to be funerary structures, places where our dead ancestors were laid to rest.
Although the design of this type of monument varies greatly from region to region but in the main they are constructed from three or more uprights supporting a large capstone. Burials or cremations were then thought to have been deposited within the void.
It was thought that these megalithic frames were once covered with an earthen mound which was subsequently eroded away by the elements, but apparently that is no longer agreed upon by archaeologists.
It seems possible that the stone structures were built to be free standing. Many dolmans, such as Chun and Mulfra, do stand on a low platform of stones however.
The chambered tombs of Cornwall are some of our oldest surviving monuments and Chun is one of the best preserved. Accurately dating quoits is difficult, however, due to the lack of finds, but they are thought to have been constructed during the middle to late Neolithic, around 3500 – 2500BC. This makes Chun Quoit 4000 – 5000 years old roughly the same age as the Pyramids at Giza.
With ancient history there is rarely one definitive answer. In all honesty all we are ever doing is making educated guesses about what some structures were and what the people who built them intended. Throw into the mix the possibility of changes in use over the centuries that followed and it is little wonder that there are often varied and conflicting interpretations of prehistoric monuments. Quoits are no different.
“These structures, which seem to have been much more than mere burial mounds, probably fulfilled a number of ceremonial and territorial roles.” – Ian Soulsby
Although most archaeologists would agree that quoits are tombs, that they were “stone structures in which the dead were laid”, some argue that this may not have been their sole function.
Peter Herring, a landscape historian and archaeologist working for Cornwall Council, suggests that quoits could have had many different functions beyond funerary. They could have been communal gathering places, they perhaps marked very early territories or may have been the focus of ritual and spiritual practices.
John Barnett also suggests that these monuments could have been territorial markers seen from a distance and that their imposing size could be in part intended to impress visitors or those taking part in ceremonies:
“. . .the frequent burials perhaps indicate the concept of an ancestral resting place that would have been central to the symbolic expression of territory. In areas where settlement was relatively dispersed with no ‘secular’ centre, this symbolic centre could become the most important place there is and would serve a number of ceremonial functions . . . “
Stuart Dow, a prolific dowser, creator of the Earth Energies, Alignments and Leys Facebook group and a dear friend, has another slightly different take on these sites.
“They are devices to focus and harness the earth’s energies . . . every dowser has found them to be, if you like, a ‘hot spot’. The burials came later when they became forgotten as devices but remembered as something very special erected by their ancestors. Chun quoit is a great example, the radials of energy coming from [it] are phenomenal.”
Another local fountain of knowledge Cheryl Stratton points out in her book Pagan Cornwall that there have been reports of a strange light phenomena seen dancing along the edge of Chun quoit itself. I will leave the rest to your own personal interpretation.
“Chun cromlech . . . rises with great effect from the rock strewn moor. It stands on a little tumulus and is as prefect as when erected.” – Murray’s Handbook for Devon & Cornwall, 1859.
The name Chun is believed to be a contraction of the Cornish Chy Woon meaning ‘the house on the down’. This quoit may be one of Cornwall’s smallest but it is in a remarkable state of preservation. Writing in 1897 John Lloyd Warden Page thought it “the most perfect of the cromlechs” and it seems to have altered little since.
Chun quoit is known as a portal dolmen. It is constructed of four mighty uprights and a capstone which is roughly 3.7m (12ft) square and 0.8m (2.5ft) thick. There are two upright stones on the east and west sides, one on the north and a forth non-supporting stone on the south side completing the boxed chamber.
“The Capstone is nearly round, and as it’s top is convex and it projects considerably over the four supporting stones, which are set close together forming a square chamber, the whole structure looks at a distance like a giant mushroom” – John Lloyd Warden Page, 1897
Chun quoit is around 4000 years old and interestingly stands close to an ancient trackway. The route is known as the Tinner’s Way and has been in use since at least the early Bronze Age but is almost certainly older. It ran between the area near St Ives to the known Neolithic axe factories on the western cliffs near Kenidjack Castle.
In 1871 when Borlase excavated Chun quoit, he describes surrounding mound and stone platform as being 9.7m in diameter and surrounded by a kerb of small upright stones. He found nothing inside the chamber of the quoit itself. Other features of interest included a possible cist identified within the mound and a line of cup marks on the surface of the capstone, possibly from the Bronze Age. Both may indicate the importance the site held for local people for generation after generation.
No monument exists in isolation, and Chun Quoit is no different. Close by you can find Boswens Menhir, Men-an Tol, Tregeseal Stone Circles, Lanyon Quoit, Boskednan Stone Circle and many others. But the most obvious neighbour is Chun Castle built during the Iron Age.
This impressive and complex site was built long after the quoit and deserves a post all of its own which is why I won’t cover it in detail here.
Chun Downs on which the quoit and castle stand is an atmospheric place like so much of the Penwith, a place where it is easy to imagine strange events and mystical beings at large.
“On the plain beneath Chun castle are scores of small barrows, heaps of stone, piled about the height of three feet. Some have been opened no urns or bones were found, but the earth was discoloured as if it had been subjected to fire. They lie scattered about in all directions, as if there had been some fierce battle here, and the dead had been burnt and their ashes buried on the spot where they had fallen.” John Thomas Blight, 1861.
Blight’s description suggests that Chun quoit is part of a far larger ceremonial or funerary landscape. The hill around the quoit is often deeply covered in deep undergrowth so I have personally never noticed any small cairns. But thirty years after Blight, Warden-Page also noted these features:
“The cromlech was evidently the chief tomb among many smaller ones, for the hillside is covered with the remains of tumuli.”
A Sorry Tale
In April 1939 The Cornishman newspaper reported, as a part of an article sharing ‘old timers’ memories, a strange and tragic event that had occurred eighty years before.
According to the paper in around 1859 there were two elderly sisters living in a thatched hut near Chun Quoit. The Riddigan sisters also owned some land and another cottage on the downs rented by a man named Lavers.
Lavers fell behind on his rent and in an attempt to avoid paying he perpetrated an act of cruel desperation. One night he set fire to the sister’s hut and his own cottage and fled. The two women died in the fire. According to the article a field close to the quoit was from then on known as ‘Burnt House’.
I have been visiting Chun Quoit for more than twenty years and have always assumed that it was the site of an ancient burial but what I have learnt while preparing this post has opened my eyes to so many other possibilities. Chun has taken on a different much more complex personality for me now. It just goes to show that there is always more waiting to be discovered about these wonderful prehistoric sites!
There are pages still waiting to be turned.