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Islands in a Common Sea
Phase 2

Isles of Scilly 2006

Account of fieldwork

This year's fieldwork season was extremely successful. A number of projects were undertaken and this is a (very) brief outline of our work.
Posters in PDF format outlining aspects of the project are available for viewing or download:

Project summary (604k)   Knackyboy Cairn 1 (437k)   Knackyboy Cairn 2 (619k)

You may also like to download the 2006 season Project Report (PDF 4mb)

1. Samson
The now uninhabited island of Samson has a wealth of information on recent Scillonian history. Abandoned in 1855, the islands have a fabulously well preserved post-medieval (late 17th to the mid-19th century) landscape and settlement of 19 buildings, however the ravages of time have taken their toll and something needed to be done to secure the remains for the future. A previous excavation undertaken by Cardiff University in 1977 has already revealed much about the island's life in the declining years of Samson's occupation.

This year work funded by the Isles of Scilly AONB Sustainable Development Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Scheduled Monument Management Programe (to which English Heritage, Cornwall Heritage Trust and Cornwall County Council contribute) and Cardiff University has started the long (and expensive) process of conserving these historic dwellings. This year was a pilot study, and our results should provide for more accurate future estimates of the time and resources needed for such work as well as the logistical challenges that have to be met in working on uninhabited islands.

Boat unloading on Samson
Boat unloading on Samson

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust cleared destructive vegetation growth to enable us to record the buildings using drawing and photography. Clearance of vegetation also provided routeways through the buildings, facilitating visitor access across the site and through the buildings without the need to clamber over walls, thus reducing further destruction to the settlement.

Once recorded, consolidation work on the most vulnerable parts of the buildings was undertaken by specialists. This included strengthening walls, removing the build up of windblown sand where it impacted on building stability and restoring stone work using the minimum of intervention and traditional techniques wherever possible. Decaying and fallen wooden lintels were moved back into their original positions and provided with support to ensure the integrity of the houses persists for some years to come. Potential damage to vegetation and in particular to the lichens living on the buildings was minimised by close liaison with wildlife advisers.

Decaying and fallen lintels   Lichen survey
Decaying and fallen lintels and lichen survey

Further limited archaeological investigation took place in one house, house H, thought to be one of the earliest houses. This produced a wealth of finds associated with the later occupation of adjoining houses, and proved to be a unique structure with walls consisting of huge dressed blocks of granite, unlike the other houses surveyed. Analysis of the material dumped into this house once it went out of use should allow us to establish at what date it was abandoned, however to discover when it was built would require more fieldwork. Other discoveries included a possible entrance grave lying close to the heart of the settlement and the incorporation of much earlier (prehistoric or medieval) structures into the later housing.

Archaeological investigation   Possible entrance grave
Archaeological investigation and possible entrance grave

2. Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin's
The island of St. Martin's is home to one of the most populated tombs in British prehistory, containing the remains of up to sixty people. During the Bronze Age people were buried in entrance graves: roughly circular structures made of stones and soil that overlay a rectangular-shaped chamber and were surrounded by a kerb of boulders. It was possible to enter the chamber from outside and people were placed in these tombs over a period of years. Tombs of this type are confined to the Isles of Scilly and a small area of the mainland in West Penwith, Cornwall, Tramore, Ireland and small numbers of similar monuments are known in the Channel Islands and Brittany.

Knackyboy cairn is one of the five examples excavated since 1939, but due to the untimely death of the excavator it was never fully published. The site produced over 200kg of pottery, including twenty-two complete pots, bronze metalwork, glass beads in addition to the human remains. The people had been cremated and their ashes placed in the chamber, sometimes in pots known as urns. Some of the material excavated from the cairn still exists and we hope that by using modern methods to study the pots and bones we can find out more about who was placed in the tomb and how long the tomb was used.

Dense vegetation around Knackyboy  Wide vista from Knackboy
Dense vegetation around Knackyboy and wide vista from the site

The site itself was very hard to find as it was concealed by dense vegetation -using local help we cleared up to and around the monument revealing Knackyboy for the first time in many years. The location of the entrance grave is stunning with wide vistas across the sea to the other islands. We investigated the setting of the monument by digging a number of test pits away from the monument itself, in particular we were interested in a promentary lying below and in front of the monument as a possible pyre site. A test pit here revealed a possible structure and a few fragements of pot and flint, however further work would be required to clarify what sort of activity was occurring here. Behind the monument we revealed the extent of windblown sand deposition on the islands. The old land surface lay between 0.8m and over 2m below sand (investigated by auger), thus any prehistory in this area is buried deep below ground. The date of the sand blows is not known, although there are records of the islands suffering from sand blows in the 17th century, no dating evidence was recovered from the test pits were the ground surface was visible. We are continuing to investigate the Knackyboy archive and once all material has been located and assessed we hope to complete the analysis of this material and maybe return to the monument for further fieldwork.

Digging test pits beyond Knackyboy
Digging test pits beyond Knackyboy

3. Coastal monitoring
Further assessment of the coast of St. Martin's revealed the presence of worked flint in the areas downslope from the monument, material has been recovered from here over many, many, years but as for the area behind the cairn it is possible that deep deposits of windblown sand lie over any archaeology.

A visit to Halangy Porth noted the continual erosion of this site, exacerbated by the use of part of the site as an access point to the beach (a wall had been dismantled and used to form a step down to the beach). To facilitate the preservation of the site this step was removed. Future work to establish the limit of the site and to further record the site would be appropriate.

Halangy Porth
Halangy Porth

4. Flint Scatters
On St. Martin's a further flint scatter, lying along the slope towards the north from Knackyboy, was investigated. An assemblage of flint has been recovered over the past few years by a local resident and an initial assessment of the material suggests later Neolithic activity in this area. We plan to return to this area for further investigations. The museum collections held by the Isles of Scilly were also visited and the flint collection assessed, this revealed the presence of both Mesolithic and later Neolithic/Bronze Age flintwork, with more of the former present that had been previously appreciated. This suggests a significant Mesolithic presence on the islands, to date very few early sites have been identified. We re-visited one of these sites, eroding on the coastline of St. Martins and recovered further small quantities of Mesolithic material.

5. St Mary's - Burial Cists and Houses
Last year we exposed and recorded three cist burials, part of a newly discovered cist cemetery, on St. Mary's. Cist burials are subterranean stone boxes that contain a single person and are capped over with large slabs of stone. These cists, often found in groups and sometimes associated with settlements, date to the Iron Age and Romano-British periods - 700 BC to AD 410. In the area around the cists many finds have been exposed by ploughing, and the geophysical survey that we undertook last year indicated a possible settlement close by. Fieldwork this year targeted geophysical anomalies and trial trenches were positioned to enable the ground truthing of archaeological features.

Three trenches were dug, with the help of a local contractor to clear the soil overburden. These revealed significant archaeological activity in all three, with the large quantities of pottery and charcoal, with some flint, hammerstones, fire-cracked and worked stone also recovered. This material lay within possible ditches (or pits?), and the presence of at least three largely complete vessel bases in one trench alone is of significance. Environmental samples were taken to examine the potential for the recovery of macro-fossils. Augering through the archaeological deposits revealed that some of the archaeology is at least 80cm in depth, and the presence of waterlogged contexts was noted.

Trial trench on St Mary's
Trial trench on St Mary's

6. Pendrathen
In 2005 we cleaned and recorded the eroding section of the cairn at Pendrathen on St Mary's. In May 2006 during the QRA fieldtrip Dr R. Scaife took a small pollen sample from the eroding face and preliminary analysis revealed pollen preservation was good. Further sequential pollen samples were taken from the same area and plotted onto the section drawing from last year. These now await full analysis.

Contact us
Dr Jacqui Mulville - Director of Islands in a Common Sea

tel: +44 (0)29 2087 4247

Acknowledgements and Thanks
Organisations: Cardiff University, The British Academy, Isles of Scilly AONB, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, English Heritage, Duchy of Cornwall, Historic Environment Service Cornwall, Isles of Scilly Museum.

The team: Charlie Johns, Ian Dennis, Steve Mills, Amelia Pannett, Rory Barclay ,Sally Brown, Jessie Collins, Aidan Farnan, Dave Fung, Julia Geall, Amy Hunt, Matt Jones, Jo Lewis, Maura von Oshen, 'Champ' Pitfield, Cat Richards, Rob Smith.

Individuals: Andrew May, Eric Berry, Sarnia Butcher, Dave Mawer, Julie Love, Amanda Martin Kathryn Sawyer, Vanessa Staker, Ian Morrison, Gill Arbery, Nick Johnson, Ted Moulson, Chris & Chris Savill, Terry & Jackie Perkins, The Rogers Family, Todd Stevens.

The staff of the many shops, cafes and public houses that made us welcome.
The children of the Five Islands School.
The people of St. Mary's and St. Martin's.
Support staff at Cardiff University.

Transport: Bryher, St. Martin's and St. Mary's boatmen, Rhiannon (Island Taxis), Buccabu Bike hire.

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cardiff university archaeology and conservation cardiff school of history and archaeology
cardiff university, humanities building,
colum drive, cardiff, CF10 3EU,
wales, united kingdom
  tel: +44 (0)29 2087 4470
fax: +44 (0)29 2087 4929
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