The Iron Age Cornish (if we can affectionately call them that) were far more outward looking then we would perhaps assume. Their world, around 2000 years ago, was not confined to the granite peninsula that they called home. The profitable tin trade ensured that they made contact with civilisations from across the Irish Sea, into mainland Europe and beyond. Long-lasting, mutually beneficial trading relationships were formed which inevitably led to an exchange of not only goods but also ideas, culture and perhaps even the migration of people. But were there, as some suggest, Veneti refugees actually living in cliff castles like the Rumps on the Cornish coast during the Iron Age?
“A natural fortress, [the Rumps] must have been impregnable in the Old Britain days, for even now three large embankments and ditches are clearly defined.”The Cornish Coast & Moors, A. G. Folliott-stokes, 1931
If you visit one cliff castle in Cornwall make it the Rumps. Not only is it part of a staggeringly beautiful stretch of coast but from whichever direction you approach it its former life as a fortified refuge and its strategic importance is still very obvious. For me the past just comes alive.
“A walk round Pentire to Rumps Point should be made by all who would know Cornwall’s beauty. The cliffs are high and the waters deep blue, the rock pillars and spires and the short turf and the blue and white waves create a wonderful harmony of colour and movement, stillness, fragility and massive strength.”The Coasts of Cornwall, S.h. Burton, 1955
Also known as Pentire Fort, it was first recording by John Nordon, the surveyor, topographer and mapmaker for Elizabeth I, in 1584.
Situated on a rocky headland even two thousand years after its construction the deep undulations of its defences are clearly visible as you approach the double-headed promontory of Rump Point. The headland, which reaches out into the sea between the Padstow and Port Quin Bays, is protected on one side by a sheer, natural precipice but excavations in 1963 and 1967 also revealed the extent of the man-made defences too.
There are three main lines of protection built over three separate phases, and at least two different periods of occupation.
The inner rampart was constructed in conjunction with the first occupation of the site around 2nd century BC. It is thought that this bank, which still stands roughly 2.8m high, would have had a wooden gateway allowing access into the secure, sea-surrounded compound. There is also a V-shaped ditch beside it that is potentially older still. This original defensive structure was then followed by the middle and outer ramparts, with a middle ditch some 4.6m deep.
Cornish Cliff Castles
The habit of building cliff castles or promontory forts as they are also known, may well have given the Cornish their first recorded name. The ‘Cornovii’, meaning promontory people, are thought to have been the tribe that first occupied our south west peninsula.
At least 33 cliff castles still guard Cornwall’s coastline. This smattering of strongholds are found mostly along the north coast, though there are a few examples on the south, and at one time in all likelihood there were many more of these forts along the clifftops before the sea claimed them. Today many teeter on the edge on destruction.
Cliff castles were constructed during the Iron Age and were in use up until around the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. The builders would select a suitable headland and then separate it from the mainland by constructing earthen ramparts and ditches, this created strong defensive enclosures that were also protected by the sea and high cliffs at the rear. Inside these forts the community could build their homes and store houses in relative safety.
We know they were also used as secure locations from which to conduct maritime trade with outsiders. From these promontories it was easier to control contact with visitors. For example, at Trevelgue Head cliff castle, where no less than seven ramparts protect the headland, archaeological digs uncovered furnaces and large quantities of waste from smelting, evidence of early metal working. In the distant past there would have been much to attract traders from far and wide to Cornwall’s coastal strongholds.
Who were the Veneti?
The Veneti were a Gallic tribe living in Armorica, now northern Brittany, during the Iron Age. They are known to have been sea-faring traders with close links to Cornwall, as I previously explored in an early article – Armorica – Migration from Cornwall to Brittany. But they were also renowned for the highly defensive cliff top strongholds that they constructed.
In around 58BC the Veneti were defeated in battle by Junius Brutus Albinus and the ever-advancing Roman empire.
“Julius Caesar’s own account of the Gallic Wars tells how the Veneti would occupy one of their cliff castles, close the gates against the Roman forces and prepare for the inevitable siege.”Cornovia, Craig Weatherhill, 1985
After their defeat it is thought that many of the Veneti took to their ships and went in search of safety and a new life elsewhere. There is a theory that many came to Cornwall, a place they probably already knew well through regular and long-standing trading relationships.
Discoveries at the Rumps
“Not the least interesting find this season  has been the outlines of the many huts with their hearths and blackened earth still plainly visible where fires were lit 2000 years ago . . . Many rounded stones have been found indicating that they were brought up from the beach. These may have been heated in the fire and dropped into cooking pots to heat the food.”COrnish guardian, 24 august 1967
During the excavations of 1963 and 1967 trenches were dug through the ramparts to reveal their chronology and construction methods and several hut platforms were also uncovered. These produced an array of domestic debris including spinal whorls, quern stones, whetstones, the possible remains of a wooden loom, clay ovens and a large amount of animal bone, mostly sheep, as well as limpet and mussel shells.
More personal items included a small translucent blue glass bead and a bronze ring. The finds indicated an active, thriving, industrious community.
These excavations at the Rumps also revealed evidence of trade links with the Mediterranean, sherds of amphora were found, long before the recent discoveries at Tintagel, and this perhaps helps us to understand something else too.
There was an idea that the pottery found at Rump Point indicated that “this was an important defended village of settlers who brought with them pottery traditions, if not actual pottery from North West France.” In other words it is possible that the people occupying the castle were foreigners, incomers who had brought their traditional skills and possessions with them.
An unusually large amount of pottery was found at the Rumps and this collection was then examined by an expert, Mrs M. Aylwin Cotton, in 1967. She determined that the pottery had been almost universally produced by one group of people, one culture, and the discovery of the numerous fragments across the site indicated a strong relationship between those who built the original main defences and those who made the pots.
Professor Christopher Hawke also examined the finds and drew a similar conclusion. In the Cornwall Archaeological Report of 1963 he is quoted as suggesting that the Rumps was “a real colony of 100% Armorican refugees from Caesar who settled in Cornwall”. Hawke conjectures that knowing their coins were valueless to the simple, rural traders in Cornwall they “packed some pots for the voyage and took a couple of potters along” so that they would have something of value to barter with.
The historian Craig Weatherhill also believed in this idea of Venetic refugees making a home for themselves in Cornwall but went further proposing that the Rumps was not the only location they settled.
“The magnificent cliff castle at the Rumps, near Polzeath, was found to have housed a thriving community which perhaps had trading links with the Mediterranean through the Breton tribe, the Veneti. It may be that the Veneti themselves built the Rumps and other cliff castles notably Gurnards Head which bears similarities to Breton cliff castles on the coast formerly inhabited by the Veneti.”Craig Weatherhill, Cornovia, 1985
So was there a village of refugees living on the Cornish coast 2000+ years ago? How were they excepted by those already living in the area? And did these people influence how the local population built their own cliff castles? What other cultural exchanges were there – what did they learn from us and us from them?
What we do know is that those links between Cornwall and Armorica remained as important and as vital as ever when during the Dark Ages a few hundred years later there was a migration of Cornish people in the opposite direction! And this makes it clear that in times of instability and war, as well as in times of peace and prosperity, people have taken the bold and sometimes necessary decision to pack up their lives and move their families to somewhere that would be safer, or where the opportunities would be better, for millennia.
FUN FACT: Although the excavations in the 60s mostly uncovered sheep, cow, deer and bird bones they did also identify the bones of another species – beaver! The right exoccipital bone and four pelvic fragments indicated the presence of beaver, an animal long extinct in the wild in Cornwall.