When I was about eight years old, our parents took me and my
younger sister on a family holiday down to Cornwall. I remember, among other
things, visiting St. Michael’s Mount, exploring Land’s End and beachcombing on the
white sands at Sennen Cove. But the stand-out memory was the trip we made to
the ancient ruins of the village of Chysauster (pronounced Chy-zoist-er).
Set a couple of miles inland from the town of Penzance on a remote hillside nestled amid the bracken and wild grasses, the low stone walls are all that remain of a small Romano-British community which archaeological evidence suggests was probably occupied from the first to the third centuries AD when the Roman Empire was at its height.
I still have the little folded card leaflet and black and white postcards I bought on that trip – treasured possessions for a keen young historian who, inspired by the recent blockbuster exhibition of the Tutankhamun treasures at the British Museum, harboured an overwhelming, though ultimately unfulfilled passion to be an Egyptologist.
I remember running from one ruined house to another trying to imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived there and who, all those many centuries ago, had called it home.
Back then, it seemed to me that the place was at the end of the world. On a return trip this summer retracing the footsteps of my younger self, though there’s now a small ticket office and shop, English Heritage, who care for it, have thankfully ensured the site still retains the same sense of remoteness and beauty it had all those years ago.
A walk back in time through the ruins of Chysauster Romano-British village
For the Romanised population based in the far distant capital of Londinium (London) and the south of England, it certainly would have seemed a very long way from home. As was the case in what is now Scotland, the Romans never brought the region under formal control, or made an attempt to settle there either. There are no known Roman roads in Cornwall and only three military forts and one villa have been identified to date. And the nearest Roman administrative centre, Isca Dumnoniorum – or Exeter as it is known today – was over 100 miles away.
The lifestyle of the close-knit community of around fifty to seventy people who lived at Chysauster had far more in common with that of their Iron Age ancestors who had widely settled and farmed the area for hundreds of years before the Roman invasion of AD 43. Indeed, the village itself may well stand on the site of an earlier Iron Age settlement.
Artist’s impression of how Chysauster may have looked in the Second Century AD
The ruins the visitor can explore today are the remains of ten ‘courtyard’ houses, a design unique to this part of Cornwall where over 30 known settlements of the type have been identified. Nearly all the houses are detached with a large, unroofed central courtyard where livestock was probably kept and domestic work carried out. The families would have lived and slept in the covered rooms leading off from the courtyard. Each house also had a garden plot where they would have grown vegetables and may have kept pigs.
Ruins of one of the courtyard houses
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to tell us about the personal stories of the individuals who lived here. However they did leave behind clues to suggest how they lived. This includes a large number of spindle whorls – small stone and clay discs fitted to wooden spindles for making thread from wool – which provide evidence they kept sheep and wove cloth to wear and perhaps for trading purposes too. Meanwhile the numbers of grinding basins and quern stones used to grind grain into flour together with ancient pollen samples taken from the surrounding fields show that they grew cereal crops.
Ancient spindle whorls. These are not from Chysauster but give a good idea of what they look like
While excavating the site, archaeologists also found a lump of tin and evidence of metalworking waste in one of the houses. This suggests the villagers possibly carried out prospecting for locally occurring tin-ore and might have smelted it down into ingots to trade for other items with surrounding communities and other people from further afield.
It’s not known why Chysauster was eventually deserted in the third century. There’s no sign of any conflict which might have caused the families living there to flee.
But perhaps the greatest mystery of all is the structure on the edge of the village known as a fogou.
The entrance to the fogou at Chysauster
The word comes from the Cornish for ‘cave’ and describes an underground, stone-built tunnel which usually dates from the late Iron Age period. The fogou at Chysauster hasn’t been excavated, but in the one at the nearby ruined village of Carn Euny, it’s possible to walk through the tunnel and into a large, circular chamber.
The inside of the fogou chamber at the ruined village of Carn Euny
In the past it was thought that such structures might have been used for storing food or valuables, or as hiding places during times of conflict. The more popular theory today is that they were probably used for some sort of ritual or ceremonial purpose. This is just the sort of uncertainty that a story-teller can have fun with. All you need is a pinch of curiosity and the willingness to let your imagination take you where it will – a bit like my eight year old self.
Finally, to let you in to a little secret. This might just be the approximate time, though not the exact place, in which my upcoming novel is set. All to be revealed in early 2023!
Imagine you live in a small settlement like the one at Chysauster. One night, something happens. Something that threatens you and your family and which means you need to hide. You’ve never been into the fogou before. Perhaps it’s normally forbidden. But now it might be your only chance of survival. What does it feel like running through the darkness to get to it? Then stooping and crawling inside? Who are you with? What are you feeling? Did you have to leave anyone or anything precious behind? And most important of all, will you manage to get out alive?
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Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017, The Buried Crown and Tudor-Set adventure, The Queen’s Fool. She is published by Chicken House Books and her books are widely available in bookshops and online. You can find out more about her and her books at www.allysherrick.com and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick