Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Britain's Scattered Heritage": The Chysauster Excavation Archive

The remains of the ancient village of Chysauster lie in a wild rugged landscape a few kilometres to the north-west of Penzance. The village consists of eight stone-walled homesteads known as courtyard houses, which are only found on the Land's End peninsula and the Isles of Scilly. Each house had an open central courtyard surrounded by a number of rooms roofed with turf or thatch. The houses are surrounded by an ancient field system and in the vicinity is a hillfort, to which it may have had a subservient relationship, or was used by the villagers who went there for markets, sanctuary or festivities. The site is well-preserved and visitors can easily get a picture of what life was like 2000 years ago.

The site was excavated by an expedition from the Cabodaroca University in Portugal in the 1930s, the team of archaeologists under the direction of Dr Hernando Hernandez-Villas worked here for six seasons, ending with the outbreak of War in 1939. The site was chosen for investigation as part of a project attempting to study Neolithic and Early Bronze Age links along the Atlantic coast with the spread of the "Megalith Culture". In fact, the site seems to date to the 2nd and third centuries AD. In common with many expeditions of foreign missions at this time, there was a system of partition of the finds, many boxes of material and all the excavation documentation (and all the metal finds) going to the Cabodaroca academy for further study, while some material remained behind in Penzance Museum. Hernandez-Villas died in 1952 and no final report of the excavation has ever appeared. British scholars have experienced problems accessing the material, and many promises to copy the field documentation and supply a translation from Portuguese have so far not been realised, and in 2008 the University placed a condition of restitution for 70 years' storage and conservation costs for the return of the material.

A landscape survey and small scale excavations in 1983-84 had two main elements: the study of the rectilinear field system, and the excavation of an earlier Bronze Age funerary cairn incorporated into one of the field boundaries. The field system probably originated in the second millennium BC and was heavily modified by more intensive Iron Age and Romano-British agriculture. Soil and pollen analysis produced evidence of deforestation and cereal cultivation predating the Bronze Age cairn, and of soil erosion caused by later cultivation techniques. The results of these excavations cannot be fully understood without the evidence from the 1933-9 excavations being made available.

Photo: Aerial photograph of Chysaster Courtyard houses excavated in 1933-9. Below, the field system and 1983-4 excavations.

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