Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Archaeologists shed new light on Gunwalloe's Dark secrets

This summer volunteers from the Cornwall Archaeological Society and Meneage Archaeological Group undertook a week of recording and excavation on the early medieval site on Trust land at Gunwalloe. The site was first identified in 1909 and has since captured the interest and imagination of local residents and archaeologists who have seen archaeological features naturally eroding out of the cliff face from the beach below.

The archaeological remains belong to a possible early medieval settlement in the sand dunes dating to between the 7th and 9th centuries AD. The archaeological site at Gunwalloe is of great importance as only one other settlement of this date has been excavated in Cornwall which makes it of national significance in understanding this period. This period of Britain’s past is aptly named ‘The Dark Ages’  because of the lack of material evidence and understanding of society between the Roman and medieval periods. Little is known of how people lived and what society was like after the Romans left Britain.
 Earlier rescue investigations have found middens, which are ‘rubbish pits’, full of limpet and mussel sea shells, locally hand-made pottery along with animal and fish bones. This limited evidence suggests that the people that lived here might have been both farmers and fishermen, possibly living in small turf walled houses sheltered from the sea behind the dunes. However, the site had never been properly investigated making it difficult to prove this and leaving many questions unanswered.

In addition, the remains continue to slowly disappear off the cliff as the winter storms erode the cliff face resulting in the loss of important archaeological evidence. Local residents and the National Trust therefore teamed up together to investigate the site before it is lost forever.

The fieldwork was carried out by a steadfast and skilled team composed of Christean Wilson, Chris Verran, Priscilla Oakes, Megan Reed, Barbara Powell, Stephen Brooks and others, under the direction of Dr. Imogen Wood of Exeter University and Dr. Bryn Morris.

The week itself was a great success and the results exceeded all expectations !

The investigations revealed a midden, a possible hearth, a clay floor surface, pits filled with charcoal and occupation layers. However, whilst taking environmental samples Dr Ben Pears and Dr Tom Walker by complete chance discovered a line of stones which, when revealed, remarkably turned out to be the exterior of a clay bonded revetted stone wall from a Dark Age house ! 

As you can see from the photographs, the wall was straight and created much like a Cornish hedge with neat stone face suggesting a rectangular house which from the outside would have looked like an earth bank with a roof on top, which one could imagine would be ideal to shelter its occupants from winter storms.

The midden material supporting the walls produced another astonishing find, a sherd of pottery of a previously unknown form for this period. In addition finds included numerous well preserved delicate fish, shellfish, crab and bird remains.

The results of the week have contributed greatly to our understanding of the site. It is now possible to estimate that the settlement stretched over 370 metres from the existing church along the current coastline and possibly a 10 metres inland, with over 70 metres of this already lost to natural erosion by the sea. Such a significant settlement - the largest 7th - 9th century rural settlement in Devon and Cornwall suggests the location was of great importance in that period.

So why was Gunwalloe such an important place ?

The answer may be in the name, the origin of which is the Winwaloe which is the name of the most commonly dedicated saint in Cornwall. Historic documents suggest that St. Winwaloe was born in Cornwall but studied in Brittany and came back to convert the Cornish people to Christianity. It is possible that St. Winwaloe may have visited the site in the 6th century AD and perhaps lived in a rock cut hermitage in the cliffs at the current location of the church tower. This would have made the area a place of worship perhaps associated with the Bretton monastery of Landévennec. The Domesday Book in 1086 tells us there was a Royal Manor at Winnianton, which owned more land than any other Manor in Cornwall or Devon. This suggests that area must have been well populated and wealth, where local people would come to pay their taxes to the king.

A huge thank you from the National Trust to everyone who undertook the project, and we hope more research will be undertaken in future years at this site. Many thanks also to John Curtis of Winnianton Farm for allowing this important work to take place.

See video on YouTube (Winnianton Archaeological Project 2010) to watch an interview about the work with Dr. Imogen Wood


(with thanks to Imogen Wood for historical / project text ) 

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