Some account of the opening of a Barrow near Newquay, with a few remarks on Urn burial, by the Rev. Canon Rogers, read 7th Aug., 1840.
Amongst the benefits likely to arise from the establishment of a County scientific institution at Truro, may be numbered the collecting, arranging and recording, those brief notices of local history and antiquities, which, without some establishment of this kind, would soon be forgotten and lost. In this county many vestiges of the works of our British ancestors, still exist, though many have perished since the time of our most eminent Cornish historian, Borlase; and the progress of agricultural improvement, beneficial as it is to the county and the country at large, not unfrequently tends to the destruction of those ancient monuments, of which at least we should endeavour to preserve authentic records.
That the conical mounds of earth and stones called barrows were designed to cover and protect the ashes of the dead, is too well known to require any proof. Borlase adduces several instances of this mode of sepulture amongst the principal nations of antiquity.1
"The materials of which the barrows consist", says the same historian, "are either a multitude of small or great stones, or secondly earth; or stones and earth mixed together, collected, as they seem to me, by many hands from the neighbouring nearest ground, and heaped together till they make a little hill or tumulus."2 Towards the centre of the barrow sometimes an earthenware Urn, sometimes human ashes or bones are found, generally inclosed in a cavity surrounded by four stones forming a parallellogram and surmounted by a stone of larger dimensions. Spears, arrowheads and other warlike instruments, and sometimes ornaments of gold, amber and glass have been found accompanying the human remains. Some barrows are surrounded by a foss, others by a row of stones set upright. In many instances the barrow appears to have been opened for the reception of Urns subsequently to the first interment.
Dr. Borlase says that the Urns are generally found standing erect on their bottom, and covered with a flat stone or tile, but sometimes with their mouths downwards.3
The Urns found in this county have been chiefly if not always of pottery, and those which appear to be most ancient were formed by hand without the use of the turning lathe, either plain, or rudely ornamented with dots, raised lines, zigzags, &c. Those which appear to be of Roman pottery are of closer and firmer texture, and more elegant in form, and always turned on a lathe.
After these preliminary remarks I proceed to describe the opening of a barrow near Newquay, which may be worth a brief record, though no material discovery was made.
About a mile from Newquay, in an elevated situation near the cliff, is a barrow about 12 feet high, surrounded by a trench about five feet wide and nearly the same in depth, cut in part through the slate rock. Much of this barrow has been carried off for manure, and I am informed that Urns were found in breaking through the mound, though they do not appear to have been preserved. As it is the largest barrow near Newquay it appeared to invite a closer examination. Accordingly on the 21st of May, having secured the assistance of some active labourers, and having obtained permission to open the barrow, I commenced an excavation four feet wide, beginning at the base of the barrow. We had not advanced far before we perceived evident marks of fire, burnt earth being irregularly intermixed with yellowish clay. Nothing was discovered except a few broken flints which seem to have been intended for small arrow-heads, which are not unfrequently found in our Cornish barrows. Having discontinued this excavation I determined to cut a trench through the centre of the barrow, commencing at a part from which some earth had been removed. This, from the depth of the barrow was a work of some labour. As however the earth was soft, and for a certain way was free from stones, we advanced rapidly, and after some hours, having penetrated through a thin layer of quarry rubbish, we reached a heap of large stones, quartz, lime-stone and slate, the two latter apparently brought from the adjoining beach, piled irregularly on each other, so as to leave hollows between them. Most of the stones bore evident marks of fire; the top of the pile of stones was about six feet below the summit of the barrow, and near five feet deep. At the bottom were flat stones, the under part of which was very black, from the effect of fire. I expected to find, towards the centre of the barrow, the burial place, and perhaps the sepulchral Urn of the principal person interred, but our researches were vain; though the earth beneath the pile of stones exhibited the marks of fire an inch or two in depth, we could discover no inclosure or recess which might tempt us to search for an Urn. But though disappointed with regard to the principal place of sepulture, in the progress of our excavation, I observed what appeared to be the side of an Urn of rude pottery, resting diagonally with its mouth downwards on a stone, and a stone placed above it. The Urn was so much decayed, that we could only take it out in fragments. It was filled with human bones, which at first appeared as white as snow. The Urn, the fragments of which accompany this paper, is of coarse pottery, very rudely ornamented, and formed by the hand, without the use of the turning lathe. As far as can be judged from the imperfect remains of the Urn, it seems to have resembled the "Urn found in pirans san," engraved in Borlase's Antiquities, 2nd edition, pl. xiv.
We may conjecture that this barrow was amongst the earliest of the British places of sepulture. The fragment of flint arrow-heads, the simplicity and rudeness of the pottery, and the absence of all instruments or ornaments of metal, lead to this conjecture. The pile of loose stones, all bearing the mark of fire appears to have constituted the funeral pile, which was probably composed of these stones intermixed with furze bushes. The original place of sepulture remains at present unknown, but the Urn which we discovered was evidently a subsequent interment. Round the central pile of stones loose rubbish was thrown, and the barrow was completed by heaping on earth. It is a singular circumstance, as I learn from Colonel Smith, of Plymouth, to whom we are indebted for such valuable information on subjects of History, Philosophy and Antiquities, that in the island of Ceylon the custom still prevails of each friend of the deceased, carrying a stone to throw on the funeral pile. A similar custom appears to have prevailed amongst our British forefathers, and to this custom we probably owe the pile of large stones, many of them brought from the neighbouring beach, which formed the centre of the Newquay barrow.
Extracted from the Twenty Second Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, 1840, pp60-63.