There are many objects that have been found in Cornwall lurking in vaults and display cases inside the British Museum. Treasures that I would just love to see with my own eyes . . . or better still, hold in my hands. The intricate Anglo-Saxon silver from the Trewhiddle hoard for example, or the huge Bronze Age gold lunula found at Gwithian, the magical Rillaton Cup dug up on Bodmin Moor or perhaps the marvellous object that I have just been reading about recently – the Trelan Bahow Mirror. This wonderful unusual Iron Age object is one of only a handful in the world and is unique in Cornwall.
In 1833 a farmer named Samuel James began work on widening a lane at Trelan Bahow on the southern edge of Goonhilly Downs.
According to William Borlase ‘Bahow’ means the hinges of a door or gate and Trelan in Cornish is “a furzy place”. According to J. Jope Rogers ‘bahow’ was the name given to the field where the discovery was made . . .
At that time Samuel had been married less than a year and was already planning to make a new life for himself and his young wife Anna in America. During the course of the work however he uncovered something rather odd. Initially however, for reasons we can only guess at, Samuel decided to keep the find to himself and emigrated to the States soon after.
It wasn’t until many years later when he directed an agent called Mr T. H. Edwards to sell his farm in Cornwall that the news of the discovery emerged.
While digging out the lane Samuel had uncovered several cist graves on his land. They were situated “in a sheltered place on the northern slope of the land, near the southern margin of Goonhilly Downs”. Each grave was lined with large, flat stones set on edge and alighed east-west. Most of the graves appear to have been empty but one contained a group of precious burial goods – beads, implements made of ironstone, some gilded brass rings, “other bronze articles” including brooches and pins and . . . a hand mirror.
In a report written for the Archaeological Journal Vol 30, in 1873, J. Jope Rogers gives us a slightly more detailed description of these objects. The beads were glass, one deep blue, another striped in black and grey. The stone tools “were of the form of the wedge and hammer; the former of the may have been mutilated stone axes, such as frequently occur in west Cornwall.”
By the time the agent Mr Edwards approached the British Museum with the finds from Trelan in around 1873, some forty years after their discovery, many of the items had been lost or presumably sold or given away by Samuel James, but fortunately for us the mirror was still part of the collection.
Rogers described the mirror as “an object of great rarity” and with good reason. There are only 30 known Iron Age mirrors in the world and the Trelan Bahow Mirror is one of only two that have been found in Cornwall (as far as I can establish). It is by far the best preserved.
“Decorated mirrors of this type are uniquely British, very few are found on the continent. The majority are from graves dating between 100BC and 100AD.”Curator notes, British Museum.
The Trelan Bahow mirror is made of a copper alloy has been delicately engraved in what is known as the La Tène style on its reverse side. This style is characterised by abstract repeated patterns and is common in the so called Celtic world.
The back of the mirror features two circles filled with an irregular discs and curves within a zigzag boarder. The front of the mirror was once intensely smoothed, highly polished metal to reflect the image of the person holding it. According to Mr Edwards’ account, told to him by Samuel James, when it was found the mirror was still brightly polished.
But who did it belong to? It seems safe to assume that the mirror was a valuable, high status possession. It may even have been believed to have magical properties. And in the past it has been assumed that these objects must indicate that the burial was for a woman, however in recent years this thinking has begun to change. Mirrors have also been found in graves with traditionally masculine items, such as the one found on Bryher on the Isles of Scilly in 1999 which lay alongside a sword.
“The iron sword has its guard and grip of horn and is still in its bronze scabbard which has two bronze rings on each side of a suspension loop. There was also a sheepskin cape, shield fittings, a brooch and a spiral ring. The presence of the mirror in what seems to be a warrior’s grave is the startling feature. Made of copper alloy, it was found close to the skull indentation with its handle uppermost. There are faint traces of decoration including what appears to be the Sun Disc motif. This suggests that the mirror had ritual significance. The combination of sword and mirror suggests a high status individual who was not an ordinary warrior. It has been suggested that he (or possibly she) had the mirror as a weapon to be used in the Otherworld.”Iron Age sword & Mirror Burial, Bryher – Megalithic Portal
The stone tools found with the Trelan Bahow mirror could perhaps also indicate a male burial, it is impossible to be sure. It therefore seems likely that we have been imposing those gender stereotypes with our modern eye. Why couldn’t a man be buried with a mirror or a woman with a sword for that matter?
The Trelanvean Cross
Unfortunately the story of this cross became linked to the discovery at Trelan Bahow in the 19th century due to some over-enthusiastic treasure hunters. This forgotten monument stands in fields not far from St Keverne and marks an ancient pathway leading to the church. Dating from roughly the 12th century the Cornish cross expert, Andrew Langdon describes it in his book on west Cornwall:
“This tall cross of unusual character displays a Latin cross in relief on both faces with its lower limb extending the full length of the shaft . . . The sides of the shaft are concave. The whole monument suggests a very late style of wheel-headed cross.”
There was a local legend that a ‘crock of gold’ had been buried beneath the cross, and sadly around the time that the graves and mirror were found at Trelan close by unknown persons decided to see whether the legend was true. Someone dug beneath the stone during the night. It seems that even though Samuel James hadn’t officially notified anyone of his precious finds news had filtered into the local community, and the treasure hunters were keen to make their own fortune.
As far as anyone knows no gold was found. But according to the historian Charles Henderson the activities undermined the cross making it unstable, it eventually fell and spent about 40 years lying in the field until it was re-erected in 1880. It isn’t clear whether it is standing in its original position.
Samuel James died in America in 1865 and any further information that he might have shared about his discoveries died with him. The only account we have is second hand through his land agent, Mr Thomas but there is little doubt that this was a wonderful discovery. And one day I hope to see the Trelan Bahow mirror with my own eyes. I believe it is currently on display in the British Museum in London.
When seen individually behind glass or tucked away in a drawer wrapped in acid free tissue paper each of the precious treasures from Cornwall’s prehistory can seem pretty small and insignificant. Isolated and disconnected from the people and the places that they once belonged to. Afterall, Cornwall has no great Sutton Hoo. But when you image all these different objects together, when you picture them in context, they point to communities that were far more complex, artistic and diverse than many at first imagine; by no means isolated and unsophisticated but vibrant and dynamic civilisations.
Unfortunately that picture has been lost to us, partly because of the dispersal of so many of Cornwall’s greatest finds to museums a long way beyond our border. Perhaps one day some will return to us . . .