The Cornish Statue Menhir – a Scilly Oddity

In 1944 the Reverend Henry Ardern Lewis arrived on St Martin’s, Isles of Scilly and alongside his duties for his new congregation, like so many clergymen of that time, he began dabbling in archaeology. And he was certainly spoilt for choice, St Martin’s is peppered with prehistoric remains, from standing stones to chambered cairns.

During his work on the island Lewis uncovered hut circles and Bronze Age pottery on English Island along with bones from a dwarf species of cattle. He also excavated Knackyboy and Yellow Rocks Cairns as well as hut circles buried beneath the sands of Par Beach. But perhaps his most important, and certainly his most unusual, find was a strange discovery he made on Chapel Down.

Hidden on Chapel Down

Sometime in the late 1940s, its unclear exactly when or where, Lewis uncovered what is believed to be a statue menhir. The only known example in Cornwall.

This small menhir is around 3ft (1m) tall with what appears to be a roughly carved head and shoulders. There is what looks like a face on one side, human perhaps but more likely, because of the strange beak like nose, a bird. An owl or a puffin perhaps.

Puffins were once far more common in the past and an important source of food for our ancestors. And apparently these endearing little birds taste a bit like fish.

Weathering and a thick covering of lichen means the features are now obscured but the illustration below by Rosmary Robertson gives us an insight into what lies beneath.

It’s thought that the menhir may also have been much taller at one time, that what we see today is just the top of a large standing stone.

Billy Idol

Soon after its discovery by Lewis the statue menhir went missing again for about 40 years. Fortunately it was rediscovered in 1988, after a bracken fire on the downs, as part of a field wall.

“There is a small granite statue that seems to disappear from time to time. It is impossible to date stone out of context but the statue was fashioned in the Celtic tradition and may represent some long-forgotten deity. Known locally ss Billy Idol it was last seen cemented into a can near Perpitch.”

Glynis Cooper, St Martin’s, 2019

Billy’s wandering days are over now however. He has been firmly rooted beside a clifftop cairn near Mullet Pool, between Brandy Point and the famous St Martin’s daymark. And he makes a fascinating point of interest on a walk along this stunning coastline, gazing out to sea with his granite eyes .

As Glynis Cooper implies above dating this stone is very difficult, if not impossible but similar menhirs are considered to have been carved during the Iron Age, around 2000 years ago.

Statue menhirs are very rare but there are similar stones to the St Martin’s ‘idol’ found in Brittany and on Channel Islands. The most famous examples of this type of monument however are on the island of Corsica.

“During the years between 2300 and 1500 BC a unique type of megalithic monument developed in Corsica. This was the statue menhir, a standing stone with its top carved to represent the human face and other features. The earliest statue menhirs are primitive in their carving, but the craftsmanship became steadily more sophisticated. The latest highly stylized examples may date from after 1500 BC since these are always taken to represent warriors of the Tower people who had occupied much of Corsica by then and shortly to put an end to the earlier megalithic culture.”

Alastair Service & Jean Bradbury, The Standing Stones of Europe, 1996

Final Thoughts

This small stone has a big personality and the people of St Martin’s have taken him jokingly into their hearts, hence the nickname! And he has certainly given archaeologists something to think about.

Because of the rarity of statue menhirs some have suggested that the stone is not a statue at all, that could have been part of a stone row or even a wheelhead cross from the chapel that once stood near St Martin’s Head. We may never know for certain but at least this enigmatic stone’s wandering days are over and I have a feeling the name ‘Billy Idol’ is here to stay too!

Further Reading:

The Daymark & the Grave of an African Boy, St Martin’s

The Old Man of Gugh – The UK’s most southerly standing stone

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