Was quoit a place of worship?
Carwynnen Quoit is standing proud again for the first time in half a century thanks to the efforts of a community group. Eminent Cornish archaeologist Professor Charles Thomas explains the ancient monument’s significance.
Today in Cornwall and Scilly the remnants of what are seen as Neolithic burial monuments, mostly excavated or ruined, involving large granite uprights and capstones and usually seen as having been enclosed in large kerbed mounds or cairns, are known by various names.
These include quoit, referring to capstones, and an English word for the small stone discs or horseshoes used in an old-style throwing game. They also include and cromlech, which is sometimes seen as “grambla”, an obscure dialect word shared with Welsh.
Its original sense was “curved-slab”, referring – like quoit – to a capstone.
In the last few years, thanks to Pip Richards of the Sustainable Trust and her archaeological colleagues, excavations and public involvement by schools and community groups have reached a most exciting stage at Carwynnen, the high ground in the southern part of Camborne parish. Readers will already know this as it has been well-reported in the WMN.
I write as a Camborne man, born in 1928, who well recalls the Carwynnen monument before its last collapse – possibly as a result of an earth tremor – in 1948. The monument, when complete, had three large local granite uprights and a vast granite capstone slab. It stands in what has long been called Frying Pan Field and was still nicknamed when I was a boy as The Devil’s Frying Pan. The implication, possibly overlooked until now, is that Carwynnen Quoit, as we may call it, was – unlike similar and contemporary Neolithic monuments in West Penwith such as Lanyon Quoit, Chun Quoit, Zennor Quoit and others – never contained in a large mound or cairn with stone-kerbed circumference and a low entrance passage.
Carwynnen was not necessarily unique in all of Cornwall, but radically different.
I don’t want to anticipate the findings of a report to be published by senior archaeologists Jacky Nowakowski and James Gossip, who are in charge of the exploration. What I stress is that this upland sector of Cornwall’s central east-west ridge has a general name of Carwynnen (Cornish: the light-coloured, or granitic, rocky hill) and that, despite centuries of mining and farming, it’s still riddled with standing stones, the odd stone circle, clusters of stone huts and early field-systems. Trial sections now dug in Frying Pan Field imply scattered Neolithic activity all around.
My guess is that those “frying pan” names date from the 16th or 17th centuries when English overcame spoken Cornish and that, before then, the monument itself was most probably cromlech. If so, the name would arise from the large, always visible, capstone. The conclusion is that Carwynnen Quoit was never contained in a vast mound of stones and earth and never so concealed. It was, if you like, open-air. From the Neolithic beginning, people could walk between the uprights, walk below the capstone, on a kind of neat circular paving, upon which they might place small offerings.
In other words, it was never built as a Neolithic burial mound. Effectively it was some kind of religious monument or a temple. Why, where and when it was made are questions still left with the archaeologists.
Now that the capstone has been replaced, the field tidied and sign-boarded, it is a temple once again.
Again as a Camborne man, whose family – from West Penwith – settled up there on the Carwynnen ridge in the 1680s, I find all this exciting beyond words. And I hope, readers of the WMN, will follow what happens next with equal attention.
Posted by moss
16th July 2014ce