Leskernick/Stone Worlds

Thus far we have attempted to provide some elements of the intellectual background to our programme at Leskernick. We now want to explain some of the personal and pragmatic reasons for choosing to work at this place in the heart of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, south-west England ('pdf' map of location). Between 1978 and 1985 an intensive archaeological survey of Bodmin Moor took place using both air photographs and field survey. It was undertaken by the Cornwall Archaeological Unit and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME). The result (Johnson & Rose 1994) was a meticulous documentation of the archaeological landscape. The results were spectacular both in terms of the monuments and sites that were identified for the first time, and the fact that it was possible, from the maps, plans, and documents provided, to obtain a coherent impression of the prehistoric and medieval landscapes. It was possible to assess relationships between houses and field boundaries, settlements and cairns and monuments such as stone circles and stone rows in detail. In part, this was because large areas of Bodmin Moor have been relatively little disturbed by modem agriculture. Some areas, such as that around Leskernick Hill, have not been permanently settled since the end of the Bronze Age, although there was later intermittent peat-digging and tin-streaming. The combination of a uniquely valuable high-quality modern archaeological survey in an area that is as close as we are likely to find to a 'fossil' prehistoric landscape made working on Bodmin Moor an exciting prospect. And, as important, the landscape: the rocks, hills, tors, and grassy plateau areas invite, at least for us, a deep emotional and personal attraction and response.

Chris Tilley, survey in hand, and in the wake of having written A Phenomenology of Landscape (1994), was the first of us to spend time on Bodmin Moor. The results of this initial work are reported elsewhere (Tilley 1996). This work forms a direct background to the Leskernick project and the research reported here. We would like the reader to look at it first because our own present work attempts to both extend and build on this paper, and rectify clear weaknesses.

Tilley's paper is about the changing relationship of monument to topography from the Mesolithic to the end of the Bronze Age. It emphasises the importance of the high tors and the manner in which prehistoric populations, through time, developed alternative strategies of 'capturing, appropriating and controlling the power of the rocks'. It argues that access to these sacred places became more and more restricted during the Bronze Age. The emphasis is on elites and the reproduction of their power through controlling knowledges of the landscape. But settlements are almost excluded from the account. Everyday life is, if not missed out, largely unexamined in relation to an interpretation of stone circles and stone rows and cairns. The reason for this was partly practical: at a pinch it is possible for an individual to walk in and around stone circles, along stone rows, and between cairns, but trying to understand large settlement areas is to think and work on an altogether different scale of things. But it was not just that: a distinction was still been drawn between the sacred and the secular ... So, we decided to look at Leskernick, and ponder this relationship.

Leskernick hill is located in the heart of the northern part of Bodmin Moor, According to Padel, the name is a compound of lys and the adjectival carn. Lys means either 'court' or 'ruin' and carn is 'rockpile' or 'tor'. This name is likely to be old, lys as a prefix, being usually pre-Norman (Padel 1985, 38-40, 150-1). A hill with lots of rock piles and ruins: the name fits very well. From even a short distance away to the south it seems to be entirely covered in a great grey clutter of stone. The hill, rising to a maximum height of 329 m is relatively low, oval in form, and flat-topped, with a long axis running roughly north-south. Walking up and around the hill it becomes clear than the boulder and stone areas, known locally as clitter, are not uniform There is none on top of the hill, rather little on the northern and eastern sides, a fair amount on the southern slopes, and a dense mass on the western side. The land dips away, gently or more steeply, from the hill summit to an undulating moorland plain broken up by the line of the River Fowey and its tributaries to the west, and smaller streams to the north and east.

There are, on this hill, about 50 round Early Bronze Age house circles. They form two discrete settlements, separated by a long corridor leading up to the top of the hill, One is on the southern side of the hill, set among a fair amount of clitter. The other is on the western side in among a dense mass of stones. Both settlements have associated enclosures and compounds marked by low sinuous stone walls, which are somewhat different in shape, size, and form. The enclosures are also on the hillside, in among the clitter.

On the edge of the southern enclosures are four small cairns and a cist. A fifth cairn is found further up the hill, beyond the houses but still within an enclosure. On the top of the hill, out of sight of nearly, but not all, the houses (see below) is a large flat-topped stone, propped up on the top of an earthfast boulder, resembling a Neolithic quoit or dolmen. The dying rays of the sun, on the Summer solstice, shine through the hole in this 'quoit' just before they slip below the skyline. We are uncertain of its antiquity but, in view of other evidence we have recovered, believe it to be as old, if not older, than the Bronze Age settlement. Also on top of the hill, but deliberately located out of sight of both settlements, is a very large cairn probably, on the basis of analogies with other excavated examples elsewhere on Bodmin Moor and beyond, covering timber and/or stone-post settings, acting as a focal point for ceremonies and offerings.

Below the hill, to the south, is an undulating plateau area. In among the springy turf and the remains of the old peat drying stacks and disturbances created by medieval and later tin-panning, at a short distance from the hill, are the remains of a modest Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age stone row. The stones are less than 0.5 m high except at the western end where there are three large recumbent stones. Associated with the western end of the stone row are two stone circles and a much disturbed large cairn.

Leskernick is surrounded by a series of ridges and hills in all directions, all at a distance of just over 2 km. Standing on the top of Leskernick Hill, next to the large cairn on its summit and looking out, one has the feeling of being in an enclosed world, with only hints of a wider landscape beyond. Leskernick is the omphalos of the saucer, the Beacon, Tolborough Tor, Catshole Tor, Brown Willy, High Moor, Buttern Hill, Bray Down, and Carne Down form the rim. Rough Tor (4 km to the north-west) and Brown Gelly (7 km away to the south, down the line of the Fowey valley) and the blue haze over the horizon to the north-east, are glimpses of a more distant world ('pdf' prehistoric landscape around Leskernick Hill).

The hills to the north-east, east, and south-east are smooth contoured. Occasionally they are broken by a large outcrop such as Black Rock and Elephant Rock. The hills on the western side are more dramatic. Codda, Tolborough, and Catshole are punctuated by rocky tors, while Brown Willy forms a long, gaunt spinal ridge.

Nearly every one of the encircling hills has a large cairn or cairns on their summit. In some cases the cairns encircle, build upon, or incorporate rock stacks and tors (Tolborough; Catshole; Brown Willy). In other cases, the piles of stones forming the cairns break the smooth contours of the hills to create, in effect, artificial tors. There are, in total, 21 such large cairns and all are visible from Leskernick. They seem to mark out and delimit a universe that centres on the hill, its settlement, and nearby ceremonial complex. On the eastern side of the circle the hills, with their cairns, also delimit the edge of this part of Bodmin Moor. Beyond them, to the east, the land falls away.

Within this encircled territory there are only two other large cairns and they are both associated with Leskernick. One is on the top of the hill, the other close to the stone row terminal. Within the territory there is also a scatter of small cairns. Apart from five and a cist intimately associated with the Leskernick settlement, there are another ten or more possible cairns on the lower slopes of Codda Tor, and another three a kilometre north-west of Leskernick on a flat, lowlying area near a stream confluence. From these small cairns many of the large hilltop ones are visible, but they themselves are only apparent from a short distance. This distinction between large prominent cairns on the hilltops and small cairns in lowlying and more hidden locations fits the general pattern known elsewhere on Bodmin Moor. It seems likely that the large prominent cairns acted both as boundary markers and as ceremonial foci whereas the small constructions probably covered simple cremation burials.

Within the circle formed by the hilltop cairns not only is there an absence of large cairns but also of traces of prehistoric settlements and field enclosures. The only traces of prehistoric settlement within the cairn circle are some small concentrations of hut circles lacking fields and enclosure walls at Codda, Catshole, and on the western slopes of Brown Willy. It seems quite possible that these hut circles were seasonally used by the inhabitants of Leskernick. More extensive settlement and enclosure areas are usually found just beyond the large cairns on other hillslopes out of sight of Leskernick. It would seem that these neighbouring settlements hold their distance from Leskernick and at the same time their inhabitants built their ceremonial cairns in places that link them one with another, and with the central focus of Leskernick. From the vantage point of Leskernick, the hilltop cairns create a bounded universe, but they are equally points of contact with people in these distant out-of-view settlements.

From the southern settlement at Leskernick an observer looks down on a stoneless, almost level, plateau area, in which two stone circles, a large cairn, and a stone row are just discernible. The close association between the stone row, stone circles, cairn, and settlement complex is exceptional on Bodmin Moor. Elsewhere stone rows and stone circles are spatially separated, often by considerable distances. What was the 'role' of these monuments, and their associated rituals, in the routine experiences of everyday life?

All the monuments are very ruined today and would have been fairly modest constructions even when first built. The distance, a few hundred metres, and the walking time between the settlement area and the stone monuments is small. The obvious source of the stones used to construct the monuments was the clitter accumulations on the southern slopes of Leskernick Hill. In the absence of excavation the architectural morphology of the settlement and its topographic location indicate an Early Bronze Age date (Johnson & Rose 1994, 55; 76; Mercer 1970). This, and the substantive evidence for a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age dating and use of stone settings, stone circles and stone rows (Miles 1975, 10-12; Burl 1976; 1993; Barnatt 1980; 1982; 1989) in south-west England, indicate possible concurrent use of the settlement and the ceremonial monuments.

Our initial interpretation is that the stone row and circles out on the plain began to be constructed towards the end of the Neolithic, ie. the early 3rd millennium BC and were used by populations who visited and used the area on a seasonal basis, probably during the summer months. The houses, enclosures, and small cairns on the southern slopes of Leskernick were then built at a somewhat later date. This represents the first permanent settling of this area of Bodmin Moor. The houses were set at a reserved distance above the earlier stone monuments which remained in use. The first inhabitants of the settlement on Leskernick Hill thus created and maintained links with the past. We think that the settlement on the western side of the hill, situated away from the Late Neolithic monuments, may be later in date.

The stone row is just over 300 m in length, oriented ENE-WSW and terminates at a 'U'-shaped formation of three substantial, part turf-covered, recumbent stones just short of the cairn. The rest of the row consists of 47 small, low, and square-topped stones, mostly less than knee-height. The eastern part of the stone row is irregular with gaps, and clusters of stones lying out of axis of the alignment. Approximately two-thirds along the length of the stone row, walking towards the terminal, the row crosses a boggy area which has been modified by tin-streaming. The land surface then gently rises up to the terminal at the south-west end and the stones have a more regular alignment. Two questions which arise are whether this disalignment was original or something which the row had subsequently suffered? Was the topographic point at which the disalignment took place significant? It is only immediately after crossing the boggy area, moving west towards the terminal setting, that the tip of Rough Tor first comes into view in the far distance, becoming more and more visually dominant as one approaches the terminal. It seems, therefore, that both the disalignment of the row at this point, and the place at which it crosses water, are of great significance in relation to what is undoubtedly one of the most important tors and prehistoric settlement areas on Bodmin Moor (see Tilley 1996; in press).

The row is not directly aligned on either of the two stone circles or the cairn, but all are intervisible, The two circles and the cairn are more or less directly in alignment with each other and the (invisible) large cairn, on the top of Leskernick Hill. Since the stone circles are probably earlier than the cairn on the top of the hill the position of this cairn must have been fixed in relation to that of the circles. This might, in turn, suggest that the hilltop cairn and that built down below near to stone row terminal were both contemporary with each other and at some stage the stone row, stone circles, and cairns all formed components of an interconnected group of monuments.

The two stone circles are c. 350 m apart. The shapes of the stones appear similar to those used to construct the stone row. The southern circle, slightly better preserved, has a diameter of 30 m and consists of 20-22 stones, with possibly originally as many as 30. One is a low stump, the rest have fallen (Barnatt 1980, 17). The northern circle is marginally smaller. There are 14-15 visible fallen stones and low stumps around its circumference. Other stones, in the middle, may have been dislodged from their original positions. In the middle of this circle is a massive recumbent stone. If it ever stood, it would have been over 2 m in height and would make a quite dramatic impression on the prehistoric landscape. However, on close inspection it appears to be an earthfast boulder. The incorporation of this stone within the centre of the northern circle complements the evidence, discussed below, that 'natural' stones, their position, and shape, constituted an extremely important part of the ideology of the inhabitants of Leskernick.

The location of the stone circles beneath a hill and settlement area to the north is typical for Bodmin Moor as a whole. From the circles there are wide ranging views encompassing the surrounding hills and tors. In relation to the sudden visibility of Rough Tor as one walks west down the stone row it is of interest to note that the tip of Rough Tor is clearly visible from the southern stone circle, and as you walk between it to the cairn and stone row. It disappears from view at precisely the point at which an observer enters the northern stone circle. This tor, with its spiky, fugitive silhouette, its encumbrance of tor cairns and ritual enclosures, must, we think, have been of special importance to the people of Leskernick. It is notable that the one house with an entrance that is oriented towards this tor (house 3) lies above and isolated from the western community and is associated with a number of special features (see below). But the connection with Rough Tor is only one among many forged by the people of Leskernick between the stones of their own hillside and elements of their wider landscape.