Just beside the road, not far from the much-visited Merry Maidens stone circle, is a fascinating ancient site. It is often over-looked as people whiz by it on their way to have their picture taken at Lands End.
Tregiffian Barrow, which unfortunately is half covered by the road, is a prehistoric burial chamber. This site is between 4500 and 3000 years old. It is just one of hundreds of barrows dotting the landscape of Cornwall but this one has something a little bit different from the rest. It is pretty unique in Cornwall.
Barrows like this one have a number of flat uprights with larger roof stones creating the cave-like chamber and a kind of underground passageway as an entrance. You have to try an imagine them as they were intended, a grave site that would have been completely covered in an earth mound. What makes Tregiffian special is that one of the upright stones was highly decorated. When I say highly decorated I mean of course for the time, we are not talking a Da Vinci fresco here!
A Rare Treasure
The stone has 25 cup-mark hollows both circular and elongated cut into it. It may not be an oil painting but the time and effort taken makes it a masterpiece in my eyes. This kind of decoration is found elsewhere in the UK but is very unusual in Cornwall. It has been speculated that the marks represent the cycles of the moon. In any given year there are 13 full and 12 new moons. This pock-marked stone is considered so important that the original was removed. It can now be seen in Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.
An investigation of the site by Cornish antiquarian William Borlase in 1840 uncovered evidence of human cremation and burial. Borlase recorded finding a large amount of ash and bone fragments lying underneath the stones. There was also some shell sand he thought had come from Porthcurno, a beach several miles away from the site.
There are other examples of carved stones in Cornwall but none are quite like this so of course it makes me wonder. . . who was buried here? Why were they so important that their people marked their passing in this unique way? Were they perhaps from a different area of the country where cup-marking is more common? Answers on a postcard . . .