Neolithic and Early Bronze Age

4    Neolithic and Early Bronze Age

Edited by Andy M Jones from contributions by Eleanor Breen, Kevin Camidge, Dan Charman, Ralph Fyfe, Duncan Garrow, Charles Johns, Trevor Kirk, Steve Mills, Jacqui Mulville, Amelia Pannett, Henrietta Quinnell, Paul Rainbird, Helen M Roberts, Gary Robinson, Katharine Sawyer, Fraser Sturt and Robert Scaife.

4.1       Introduction

The Isles of Scilly contain a large number and diverse range of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age sites and artefacts ranging from pottery through to entrance graves, which are now thought to be of Bronze Age date. The Islands also hold a wealth of environmental data in the form of buried peat deposits. The rich archaeological record and the Islands’ position at the ‘gateway’ to the Atlantic façade means that there is the potential for major research questions relating to the transition to the Neolithic, as well as questions relating to patterns of exchange and contact throughout the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. The main characteristics of Scilly’s Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c 4000 cal BC to 1500 cal BC) resource are summarised in this review.

4.2       Chronology

While it is accepted archaeological terminology it must be emphasised that it is artificial to draw a boundary between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. At a national scale the Bronze Age marks the introduction of metalwork, changes in pottery styles, the increased occurrence of single burial traditions and changes in monumental building. At a regional scale there are hints at broad changes in religious, agricultural and social practices during the latter half of the third millennium cal BC, but there is also evidence for a large measure of continuity in the archaeological record.

It has generally been thought that Scilly was not permanently settled until the Bronze Age and that the relatively few Neolithic artefacts and features found represented seasonal visits from Penwith (Thomas 1985, 101; Ratcliffe and Johns 2003, 5).  However, the evidence from the Neolithic Stepping Stones’ excavations at Old Quay, St Martin’s, seems to indicate a Neolithic presence in Scilly that was fairly permanent (Garrow and Sturt, 2017, 132). With the exception of the tor enclosures and quoits in Penwith and taking into account the small scale of the Islands, the overall evidence may not be that different from the mainland – i.e., small pits, pottery and flints – and Cornwall is not considered to have been unpopulated during the Neolithic. The first radiocarbon dates associated with Neolithic archaeological material were obtained by the Neolithic Stepping Stones project excavations at Old Quay. Whilst the six determinations obtained represent an accurate estimate for the earliest Neolithic activity at Old Quay, it remains impossible to determine the chronology of the earliest Neolithic on Scilly more broadly at this stage (Garrow et al 2017; Garrow and Sturt 2017).

The Early Bronze Age of Scilly saw major interventions within the Island landscape. The archaeological record for this period is marked by burial and ceremonial monuments such as entrance graves, cairns and standing stones, and an apparent absence of recognisable settlement. Because of the very definite increase of burial-type monuments in Cornwall during the full Early Bronze Age after 2000 BC, a Beaker phase is distinguished between 2500–2000 BC, although there is currently only one sherd of possible Beaker pottery from Scilly (from Bonfire Carn, Bryher). The first sequence of 10 radiocarbon determinations from an entrance grave indicates that the cremations date to the mid-second millennium cal BC (Sawyer 2015).

For the purposes of this chapter the periods have been broken down as follows: Early Neolithic (c 4000 cal BC to 3400 cal BC); Middle to Late Neolithic (c 3400 cal BC to 2500 cal BC); Beaker phase (c 2500–2000); Early Bronze Age (c 2000 to 1500 cal BC). Tables of radiocarbon determinations and OSL ages relating to the period are presented at the end of the chapter (Tables 4.1 and 4.2).

Fig 4.1 Inferred submergence model, c 3500 cal BC, based on data from the Lyonesse Project (Charman et al 2016); all details as in Fig 3.3.

Fig 4.2 Modelled land and intertidal areas, c 2500cal BC; all details as in Fig 3.3.

4.3       Environmental background

By the end of the Mesolithic, St Agnes and the other western islands had separated from the main northern island and a more extensive intertidal zone continued to develop throughout the Neolithic. The Mesolithic freshwater marsh in St Mary’s Road had already been succeeded by saltmarsh by c 4500 cal BC (Fig 7.6) but, during the Later Neolithic (c 3000 cal BC – 2500 cal BC), a major change to the main island group occurred, with tidal flooding taking place between the islands at high water. Tresco, Bryher and Samson remained joined at all times but some areas between St Martin’s and Tresco and a wide area of St Mary’s Road were below MHWS and consequently inundated during many high tides.

The Neolithic and Early Bronze Age environmental background of Scilly was summarised for SWARF (Wilkinson and Straker 2008, 72). There had been three published palynological studies of Neolithic and Bronze Age environments from the Islands (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 32). The longest and best known pollen sequence is from Higher Moors on St Mary’s (Scaife 1984), which begins in the Mesolithic at 5725­–5379 cal BC (HAR-3695; 6630±100) and indicates oak woodland with an understorey of hazel (Wilkinson and Straker 2008, 72).

The picture of the Neolithic environment is of localised disturbance of woodland, while the main phase of clearance, eventually leading to the present heathland environment, dates from the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age (Dimbleby et al 1981; Scaife 1984; Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 33). The prominence of birch in the Neolithic flora of Scilly is notable, especially given that it is a minor component of woodland elsewhere in the South West at this time. Nevertheless, given that most studies have been carried out on St Mary’s, it is at present uncertain how widely any of these interpretations can be applied to other islands in the archipelago. Even on St Mary’s there are many local variations in the vegetation despite its small area (Wilkinson and Straker 2008, 72).

There is a gap in the pollen record from c 4000 to c 3100 cal BC which means that the nature of the vegetation cover at this time is unknown. However, on the higher elevation location at Par Beach, St Martin’s, the pollen data obtained by Lyonesse Project show dense birch cover and some hazel and heather, most probably within the forest as ground cover. The birch disappears almost completely at 3090–2911 cal BC (OxA-23825; 4377±30 BP) and this can be clearly attributed to clearance and fire as it is coincident with a charcoal peak and the expansion of dryland disturbed ground indicators, some of which, such as ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), are associated with pastoral land use. The coastal influence is apparent in the grassland that replaces the forest, with plants such as sea thrift (Armeria) and stag’s horn plantain (P.coronopus). The sequences from St Martin’s suggest that there was very little tree cover at this time, although some birch, oak and hazel persist. The open grassland environment certainly lasted until at least 2578–2457 cal BC (SUERC-32925; 3980±30 BP) on St Martin’s (Charman et al 2016).

The Lyonesse Project’s pollen records from Porth Mellon on St Mary’s give an insight into the spatial variability of vegetation at this time. Although the landscape was certainly not completely forested from c 3000 cal BC, there was more extensive tree cover than on St Martin’s, with tree pollen above 50% and with a diverse composition, dominated by oak, birch and hazel but including alder, ash, willow, ivy, honeysuckle and mountain ash. It is possible that the woodland on St Mary’s is the source of at least some of the tree pollen on St Martin’s. The open ground pollen from Porth Mellon reflects pastoral land use with a diverse mix of meadow species and disturbed ground indicators. This mix of vegetation types persists into at least the second millennium cal BC at Porth Mellon, although the age control in the more recent record is poor (Charman et al 2016). 

At some point prior to the Middle Bronze Age, 1611–1060 cal BC (HAR-3694; 3100±100), there was small-scale woodland clearance at Higher Moors; cereal and ruderal pollen suggest this was for cultivation. Later in the Bronze Age the woodland regenerated and birch rose to dominance, although cereal and herbaceous pollen were still present, indicating continued cultivation. Organic deposits associated with a radiocarbon date of 4230–3947 cal BC (GU-5061; 5210±50) were investigated at Par Beach, St Martin’s, in the early 1990s (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 19). These contain pollen spectra indicative of hazel-oak woodland during the Earlier Neolithic. Later, but before 3486–3017 cal BC (GU-5060; 4510±60), birch had colonised and replaced much of the hazel, but unlike at Higher Moors there is no evidence of forest clearance. Palynological examination of a later coastal peat exposure at Porth Mellon, St Mary’s, dating to 3263–2704 cal BC (GU-5394; 4310±60), suggests local woodland dominated by birch, with a lesser component of hazel and oak. After 2866–2205 cal BC (GU-5396; 3980±100) lime appears and oak becomes a more prominent element of the local woodland, but once more there is no evidence of clearance (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 25; Wilkinson and Straker 2008, 72).

4.4       Landscape

4.4.1   Changes in land area

By 3000 cal BC there was a major change to the main island group, with tidal flooding between the islands at high tide. Tresco, Bryher and Samson remained joined at all times but some areas between St Martin’s and Tresco and a wide area of St Mary’s Road was below MHWS and thus flooded during many high tides. The Crow Bar was probably above MHWS at this time and would have formed a rapidly dwindling land bridge. The transition between the Late Neolithic (2500 cal BC) and Early Bronze Age (2000 cal BC) sees the most rapid loss of land and the development of the greatest extent of intertidal area at any time in the history of Scilly. While the rate of loss of total land / intertidal area does not increase (Fig 7.4), land area is reduced and the intertidal area is increased.  To put this in perspective, land area reduced from 29.8km2 to 19.6km2, compared to the modern extent of the Islands (calculated using the same method) of 15.3km2. The loss of land during the 500-year period 2500–2000 cal BC was thus equivalent to losing two-thirds of the entire modern area of the Islands. In terms of the rate of change, this equates to loss of almost three football pitches (1 pitch = 7000 m2) of land each year (20,448m2 a-1) and the growth of the intertidal area by almost two football pitches a year (12,555m2 a-1). Changes of this magnitude would clearly be perceptible over a single human lifespan and thus must have been part of the backdrop against which cultural developments took place. For comparison, rates of land loss since the sixteenth century AD to present have averaged only 181m2 a-1; an order of magnitude lower than was experienced during the Early to Middle Bronze Age (Charman et al 2016).

4.4.2   The landscape context of monuments

Entrance graves occur around the current coastline of the archipelago where they are a feature of higher ground (Fig 4.6). They usually occur in clusters, as on Porth Hellick Down, or as linear groupings of monuments, as on North and South Hill, Samson. They are not evenly distributed throughout the archipelago being absent from St Agnes, Ganilly and Annet and with restricted distributions on Bryher and Tresco. Over 40% occur in only three locations: the island of Samson; Porth Hellick Down, St Mary’s, and Kittern Hill, Gugh. While it has been argued that proximity to the sea may have been an important aspect in their landscape setting they are absent from areas on the periphery of the archipelago, such as Shipman’s Head Down, Wingletang Down and Peninnis Head, which command the most extensive views over the sea. It should be noted that this is their present day distribution and there is evidence for inland sites on St Mary’s being destroyed for agriculture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Robinson 2007).

There is an interesting absence in Scilly of earlier megalithic tombs such as portal dolmens which are found in Penwith, Ireland, and France. It is possible that ‘propped stones’ could have acted as small megalithic tombs although none of these have been dated (see below, section 4.4.4)

The overall distribution of cairns is different to entrance graves, although they are also found predominantly on high ground around the coastline (Fig 4.3). Most significantly, cairns occur in large cairnfields on exposed headlands around the periphery of the archipelago, notably on Wingletang Down, St Agnes, Shipman Head Down, Bryher, Castle Down, Tresco, and  Chapel Down, St Martin’s. The location of cairns around the periphery of the archipelago is emphasised further by the presence of cairns on small, barren rocky islets such as Menawathen and Round Island.

The majority of standing stones or menhirs are found in the northern part of St Mary’s, with one on Gugh and three on St Martin’s. Most are on hilltops, ridges or slopes. The site of a destroyed example on St Mary’s is at the highest point of the Islands. Two other stones are in very prominent positions and can be seen from some distance. The distribution pattern emphasises the north and east coast of the archipelago, which Robinson (2007, 126) considers may relate to the importance of the easterly approach by seafarers to the Islands.

A possible stone row has been recorded on Par Beach, St Martin’s, located midway along the beach between the high and low tide (Fulford et al 1997; Ratcliffe 1990, 22, figs 8 and 9) (below, Section 4.7.3). Two more stone alignments were identified on Castle Down/Tregarthen Hill, Tresco, by Dave Hooley during the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP), the status of which is supported by Tom Greeves (pers comm to Charles Johns).

No stone circles have so far been confirmed on Scilly, although Borlase (1756) described a stone circle or ‘Druid Temple’ on Salakee Down, St Mary’s, the site of which has recently been identified and recorded (Seaney 2010a). The stones appear to be natural, most of them being earth-fast boulders defining a platform of bare rock. Despite being natural, they may be significant as they are set in the wider Bronze Age ceremonial landscape of Salakee and Porth Hellick Downs. Two possible submerged stone circles have been reported to the west and south of Samson.

Thomas (1985) suggested there was a considerable period of agricultural land use before the construction of entrance graves and it has been suggested that six entrance graves post-date cultivation lynchets; i.e., terraces formed on sloping ground by the downhill movement of cultivated soil (Coate 1994). Bant’s Carn and Upper Innisidgen Cairn on St Mary’s appear to sit on earlier lynchets; a lynchet runs up to the east side of Lower Innisidgen entrance grave; the entrance grave on John Batty’s Hill, St Martin’s, appears to sit on top of a low lynchet; one of the entrance graves on the island of Arthur in the Eastern Isles stands on the lip of a lynchet; and Obadiah’s Barrow on Gugh seems to be set into a lynchet, apparently post-dating its establishment (Coate 1994, 35–5, 64–5). An entrance grave at the foot of Halangy Down merges into a lynchet that partly overlies it. The discovery of a Neolithic flint adze or axe below Knackyboy Cairn on St Martin’s may also indicate prior cultivation on the site (O’Neil 1952). Most of the Penwith entrance graves are sited within shallow valleys suitable for settlement or close to prehistoric field systems (Jones and Thomas 2010, 289).

The pits at East Porth, Samson, which contained an assemblage of Neolithic pottery were in a low-lying location that is now a beach but would have been about 1km inland in the Early Neolithic (Neal and Johns forthcoming).

Fig 4.3 Buzza Hill, St Mary’s, showing the entrance grave with Hugh Town beyond (photo: Cornwall Council).

4.4.3   The appropriation of natural topographic features

In Devon and Cornwall, tors and distinctive hilltops may have been referenced and embedded within the routines of everyday life, and in cosmological and mythical structures (Bender et al 1997; Tilley 1995; Pollard et al 2008). Enclosures were built around some tors as such as Carn Brea, Helman Tor and probably Stowe’s Pound during the earlier Neolithic while other outcrops were the focus for pit groups or artefact deposition in crevices (cf Pollard and Healey (eds) 2008, 78).

The topography of Scilly contains landscapes and seascapes which may have been perceived to have held liminal or supernatural properties, in particular, granite tors and fantastical rock formations such as on Penninnis Head, St Mary’s, and Wingletang Down, St Agnes; on a wild day the latter feels like the edge of the world, literally. It is difficult to believe that such tors and rocks did not have a comparable significance for the early inhabitants of Scilly as those on the south west mainland did for people there. Robinson (2007, 16–18, 115, 128) has touched briefly on this theme but there is considerable potential for further research and exploration of the phenomenology of natural features on the Islands.

Scourse (1986, 81, fig 31; 1987) defines four tor forms on the Islands: horizontal, vertical, fill slope and erode, each type relating to variations in their geological formation, exposure and erosion. Robinson (2007, 115) has observed that entrance graves are consistently located in close proximity to granite tors and that through this their builders were emphasising the importance of such features in their everyday world. In particular Robinson (ibid, 129), considers that the incorporation of earth fast boulders within monuments emphasised the significance of particular elements of the natural world. He also (ibid, 115) catalogues instances of artefact deposition in tors:  a ceramic vessel at Yellow Rock Carn (Lewis 1948, 7); a Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age dolerite adze and pottery at English Island Carn, St Martin’s (Ransom 1984, 194); a bronze dagger and comb-impressed urn at Cruther’s Neck, St Martin’s; and a stone macehead found below a rock prominence at Block House, Tresco (Ashbee 1974; Hencken 1932; Lewis 1948; Ratcliffe 1989).

A type of site recently recognised in Cornwall is the ‘pseudo quoit’ or ‘propped stone’, found on Bodmin Moor at sites such as Leskernick and Tregarrick by Peter Herring, and in Penwith, for example, on Carn Galva (Blackman 2011). None of the Cornish examples are currently dated, although Early Bronze Age pits have recently been recorded beside a stone-setting near Sennen (Jones et al, forthcoming). Further examples have been recognised on Dartmoor and in the Channel Islands. Similar constructions (‘earth-fast’ monuments), of probable Early Neolithic date, are known from south-west Wales (Cummings and Whittle 2009, 165). There are a number of these sites on Scilly, although no systematic record has been made and they are not recorded in the HER (Fig 4.4).

Fig 4.4 Possible propped stone on Gugh (photo: Richard O’Neill).

4.4.4   Settlement

Excavations by the Neolithic Stepping Stones project at Old Quay, St Martin’s, in September 2013 and September 2014 revealed Neolithic settlements features represented by a dense cluster of postholes, pits and a hearth along with high artefact concentrations in the buried soils nearby, interpreted as a possible midden. The available dating evidence suggests that this activity occurred primarily within the period c 3350–2290 cal BC, during the British ‘Middle Neolithic’. The postholes did not form a clearly coherent pattern and were interpreted as a palimpsest created during multiple phases of occupation which collectively formed part of a small number of temporary structures perhaps used as shelters during visits to the sites (Garrow and Sturt 2017, 75, 82).

This is the only Neolithic settlement identified in Scilly to date. Submergence will have destroyed any low-lying or coastal sites; as most surviving prehistoric houses are unexcavated it is possible that some may overlie earlier structures. On current artefactual evidence the earliest indications of occupation appear to be at Old Quay, St Martin’s, followed by East Porth, Samson, Porth Killier, St Agnes and Bonfire Carn, Bryher (below, section The identification of early settlement has only come to light through the careful excavation of later settlements demonstrating the potential importance of certain locales within the island landscape throughout considerable periods of prehistory. The absence of identified permanent houses on the Islands during this period may suggest a degree of residential mobility. It is possible that, as on the mainland, flint scatters and pits are more typical signatures of Neolithic settlement activity than structures.

Little is known about Early Bronze Age settlement sites on Scilly and sites which have demonstrated evidence for Early Bronze Age occupation also show evidence for later activity. A number of early features located beneath later settlements may be related to the Early Bronze Age. At Little Bay, St Martin’s, a stone-lined pit was located below the floor of a Middle Bronze Age house. The walls of this house partially overlay this pit and a hearth had been constructed directly above it (Neal 1983, 52). A radiocarbon date from the hearth provided a date of 2127–1535 cal BC (HAR-4324; 3490 ±100 BP) suggesting that the pit was an early feature of this site. A similar stone-lined pit was found beneath a prehistoric house at Perpitch, St Martin’s (O’Neil nd g), although in this instance there is no independent evidence for its date.

Rectangular stone-lined box hearths are the earliest features of settlements such as English Island Carn, St Martin’s, and Nornour. At English Island Carn a sanded area and hearth was found beneath the floor of a later house where it was sealed by a thick layer of ash and soil containing substantial quantities of comb-impressed and cord-impressed pottery (O’Neil nd h; nd k). At Nornour the earliest features of the settlement comprised three stone-lined hearths and an arc of postholes (Butcher 1978). The dating of many of these early features remains unclear, but they might relate to the late third or early second millennium cal BC.

4.5       The material world

4.5.1   Material culture

Neolithic and Early Bronze Age culture is represented in Scilly by assemblages and individual finds of bronze, ceramics, and lithics; organic components of the material culture such as wood or leather have not survived.

The impressions of cord in various forms and of ‘matting’ on the bases of Early Bronze Age pottery have great potential to inform us about various aspects of cordage, mats, basketry and sewn items; preliminary work suggests that impressions on Scillonian ceramics differ in subtle ways from those on the mainland, thus confirming the impression of a developing sense of identity among Island communities (Owoc et al 2003; Manske et al nd; M Owoc, pers comm to H Quinnell).

Imported objects or artefacts include a group of nine glass beads and a star-shaped faience bead from Knackyboy Cairn (O’Neil 1952) and occasional non-local stones, such as the pumice found in an entrance grave at Porth Hellick (Hencken 1932, 20), in a pit containing Neolithic pottery at East Porth, Samson (Neal and Johns forthcoming) and at Old Quay, St Martin’s (Sawyer 2017). Some of these may have been casual beach finds retained for their exotic quality.

4.5.2   Material extraction and artefact production


A few items of Early Bronze Age metalwork have been found on Scilly: a dagger from a burial at the Carrion Rocks, St Martin’s (Ashbee 1974, 325), a copper alloy awl from Obadiah’s Barrow (Hencken 1932, 28, fig 12) and the possible terminal of a bronze armlet and clip from a bronze earring from Knackyboy Carn (O’Neil 1952, 30; Ashbee 1974, 241).

Faience and glass

Nine glass beads and a star-shaped faience bead were recovered from Knackyboy Cairn (O’Neil 1952; Ashbee 1974, 115; Sawyer 2015, 50–1).



Early Neolithic ceramics probably belong to the South Western or Hembury style, represented by a few small assemblages and some single finds. However, the range of forms present is limited at present to plain bowls, with a possible carinated example from Porth Killier, St Agnes (Quinnell, in prep a); the few lugs known are imperforate. The more distinctive features of the south western style, such as trumpet lugs and broad shallow bowls, have not yet been found. Fabrics appear to be distinctive amongst the granite derived material on Scilly, the matrix well mixed without large inclusions but with distinctive chunks of granite minerals added. The fabric of the assemblage from East Porth, Samson, is slightly different. Its matrix, although granitic, is smoother and finer and its added inclusions are predominantly vein quartz (Quinnell, in prep b). It is presumed that these granite fabrics were made on Scilly but probably used clay deposited by larger streams than survive today. A sherd of Lizard gabbroic clay, similar to that of fine wares from Carn Brea on the mainland, comes from the cliff face site at Old Quay, St Martin’s (Quinnell 1994), and, if confirmed petrographically, represents the only currently known ceramic import to the Islands in the Neolithic. Robinson’s (2007, 140) suggestion that most Scillonian Neolithic pottery used mixed gabbroic and granitic material is not supported by Henrietta Quinnell’s observations (Quinnell 2017).

One assemblage, East Porth, Samson (Quinnell, in prep b), comes from a pit, while that from Old Quay, St Martin’s (Quinnell 1994), came from unspecified contexts in the vicinity of a pit; the context of a third, at Bonfire Carn, Bryher, is uncertain (Quinnell 1994). The relationship of the possible carinated bowl sherds from Porth Killier to a cist needs further consideration (Quinnell, in prep a). Sherds or small scattered groups were recorded at five locations during the 1985 Electrification Project (Quinnell 1994). Robinson (2007, 65) reports Early Neolithic sherds from a midden on Annet but Henrietta Quinnell is dubious about this ascription. No Neolithic ceramics can now be attributed to entrance graves. The material suggested as Neolithic by Hencken from Bant’s Carn (1932, 24) and North Hill on Samson (1933, 27), an identification frequently quoted, is not of this date.  Hencken (1933, 14) never saw the sherd from Bant’s Carn and that from North Hill should, in the light of modern knowledge, belong to the Bronze Age. Recently Katharine Sawyer has traced George Bonsor’s drawing of a possible Early Neolithic bowl from Bant’s Carn (Hencken 1932, fig 10 B) and this is clearly marked ‘Halangy Porth’ (Bonsor 1899-1900): there are first millennium cal BC finds from Halangy Porth and this vessel may be of this date (see below).

No Middle Neolithic Peterborough pottery or Late Neolithic Grooved Ware is yet known from the Islands. Peterborough ceramics are virtually unknown in Cornwall although Grooved Ware groups are now being found, with some eight sites known (Jones and Quinnell 2011).

The suggestion by Robinson (2007, 54) that the lowest deposit of vessels at Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s, with horizontal rows of comb or cord impressions above the girth, represents a local Late Neolithic Scillonian style lacks supporting evidence.

The total assemblage recovered by the Neolithic stepping Stones project at Old Quay, St Martin’s, comprised 4638 sherds of Middle Neolithic pottery (Quinnell 2017a). The assemblage belongs in the South Western or Hembury Bowl tradition of Early Neolithic in south-west Britain but with some distinctive features. One is its Middle Neolithic date; the second is the total absence of carinated bowls, found regularly in Early Neolithic assemblages in Devon and Cornwall. The third is the poor quality of the potting and the irregularity of vessels produced. Decoration is normally rare in South Western Bowl assemblages but at Old Quay there were only two decorated pieces. Currently there is no data indicating that South Western/Hembury Bowl pottery continued beyond the 34th century cal BC, so the site at Old Quay therefore represents a potentially interesting exception. Quinnell considers that the most likely scenario on present data is the use of South Western/Hembury Bowl pottery continued in Scilly after its use declined on the mainland. This would imply a settled population on Scilly from a date within the Early Neolithic. It may seem unlikely that this pottery continued to be made on Scilly given the evidence from artefacts such as stone axes and the intervisibility with the mainland but it should be remembered that later, in the Bronze Age, a distinctive Scillonian ceramic style developed in the Islands. Any definite conclusions about the ceramic styles of Middle Neolithic Scilly and the mainland will however have to await further radiocarbon dates from sites yet to be discovered in both areas.

Beaker Phase

No Beaker pottery has definitely been identified although a possible sherd, with comb stamping and cord impressions, comes from Bonfire Carn, Bryher (Quinnell 1994). The sherd from Halangy Porth interpreted by Ashbee (1983, fig 9, No 3, 25) as Beaker-related is better regarded, in the light of subsequent work, as Later Iron Age (Quinnell 1994).

Early Bronze Age

For the Earlier Bronze Age there are only four or five possible examples of mainland vessel types recorded. A Collared Urn, possibly from Normandy Down, was petrographically examined by Parker Pearson (1990, 14, no 180) and contained greenstone, which suggested that this vessel had been imported from the mainland: Henrietta Quinnell’s discussions with Katharine Sawyer and Gary Robinson suggest that the provenance is uncertain. Sherds from Porth Hellick Down ‘Great Tomb’ with impressed cord chevron decoration are illustrated by Hencken (1932, fig 9) and photographs provided by Katharine Sawyer have been examined by Henrietta Quinnell: the fabric appears to be granitic, so of either Cornish or Scillonian manufacture. These appear to belong to the Cornish Trevisker sequence and to be the only examples of this ceramic type so far noted on the Islands. Trevisker cord impressed ceramics were produced through much of the second millennium cal BC (Jones and Quinnell 2011). A single sherd, apparently in granitic fabric, with plaited cord chevron impressions, was found on the beach adjacent to Building 1 at Nornour (Butcher 1968, 71, fig 34 no 134); this also appears to be Trevisker. P8 from Porth Killier, found away from the main Bronze Age settlement, had a zone of fingernail and twisted cord impressions very much in the Trevisker fashion (Quinnell, in prep a). The illustration of a vessel from Halangy Porth described as ‘reconstructed’ (Ashbee 1972, fig 14, no 14a) has twisted cord impressed decoration and simple lugs and could also have Trevisker affinities.

The most common prehistoric ceramic in Scilly is a style unique to the Islands, best described as ‘Scillonian Bronze Age’. This is found both in burial-related contexts such as entrance graves and cairns and in domestic contexts such as hut circles and middens. The vessels are generally biconical, sometimes bucket-shaped, sometimes plain, but often decorated with comb or cord impressions or incisions above their girth; lugs of various shapes are frequent. These features are all found in the mainland Trevisker ware of the Early and Middle Bronze Ages. However, Scillonian Bronze ceramics differ from Trevisker in four principal ways: decoration is almost always arranged in horizontal lines; more complex geometric patterns are absent; biconical vessels tend to be more curved; and lugs are more frequent, as are undecorated vessels. A further feature is the presence on some vessel bases of impressions apparently formed by mats. All data currently available indicate that the ceramics are of granitic fabrics likely to have been made on the Islands. Ashbee (1976, 17) provides a clear description of various granitic fabrics from Bant’s Carn in which mineral components derived from the granite appeared to have been added, in differing quantities, to water-sorted granitic derived clay. There has been no comprehensive study of types and the relationship of these to varying decorative traits or lack of them.

Forty-seven sherds of Bronze Age pottery were recovered during the Neolithic Stepping Stones’ excavations at Old Quay, St Martin’s; 20 sherds of fabric 2 with high amounts of beach sand, probably dating to the Early to Middle Bronze Age and 27 sherds of fabric 3, with abundant granite inclusions. Internal residue from one of these sherds with Trevisker affinities produced a radiocarbon date of 1870–1626 cal BC (OxA-32024; 3413±32), placing it firmly within the Early Bronze Age (Quinnell 2017).

The majority of excavations of burial-related sites yielding Scillonian Bronze Age ceramics have never been published, notably those carried out by George Bonsor around a century ago, and some records survive imperfectly. Bonsor’s finds, reported to have been deposited in the British Museum, could not be found until recently (Robinson 2007, Appendix U; Katharine Sawyer, pers comm to Henrietta Quinnell) and so have not been available to inform subsequent work. The most important publication of a ceramic assemblage from an entrance grave is that by Ashbee (1976) from Bant’s Carn, which covers both his own excavations and Bonsor’s earlier work. The Appendix to Ashbee’s report provides a useful list of finds from investigated entrance graves with details of publications where these have taken place. Ashbee makes it clear that ceramics in entrance graves, while sometimes found in quantity, were frequently deposited as sherds. The illustrations of the Bant’s Carn assemblage show a range of rather similar biconical vessels with curved walls and lugs, some plain, some with a variety of decoration, reconstructed from very small pieces. The overall shape of the vessels appears to have been influenced by the illustrations in O’Neil’s (1952) interim report on Knackyboy Cairn. The only other report to reasonably modern standards is that by Grimes (1960, 170-180) on the entrance grave at Salakee Down, St Mary’s. This yielded two vessels found in fragments, both plain with lugs.

The only cairn with useful ceramic data is that at Porth Killier (Quinnell in prep a), with a small group of undecorated but lugged biconical vessels from a cist. Dates from the Porth Killier cairn await publication (Johns et al in prep). There are problems with the data from this site (Jeanette Ratcliffe, pers comm to Henrietta Quinnell), although this is probably due to disturbance of the stratigraphy by burrowing rats (Andrew Young, pers comm to Charles Johns).

Datable associated objects are restricted to the group of Early Bronze Age faience and glass beads from Knackyboy Cairn. Consequently an initial date for these ceramics cannot be established. O’Neil’s interim report (1952) of Knackyboy provides a strong indication of a stratigraphic sequence: curved walled vessels with cord or comb impressions were first deposited and then overlain by cremated deposits which included the faience beads. The deposits above appear to have contained vessels with incised decoration, with plain vessels more towards the top. Robinson (2007, 56), has published an interpretation of this sequence in which he places the lowest level, and the cord impressed vessels, at a date preceding the Early Bronze Age beads, in the Late Neolithic. From this he moves to situate most initial entrance grave deposits in the third millennium cal BC (ibid, 60).

The first radiocarbon determinations from an entrance grave were obtained during research for Katharine Sawyer’s PhD thesis ‘Islands of the Dead? The setting and function of the Bronze Age chambered cairns and cists of the Isles of Scilly’ (Sawyer 2015): the sequence of ten dates from cremated bone from Knackyboy Cairn on St Martin’s all fall within the period 1747 to 1260 cal BC (2σ), while a date of 1893-1702 cal BC (OxA-2673; 3493±28) has been obtained from cremated bone in a cist from Old Town, St Mary’s (ibid) and Robinson’s interpretation must be regarded as speculation until Knackyboy Cairn is published.

An Early to Middle Bronze Age date for the principal use of entrance graves is supported by comparison with data from the Cornish mainland. If the analogy between Scillonian Bronze Age ceramics and Trevisker ware is valid, then the former belongs broadly within the second millennium cal BC. Trevisker cord decorated ceramics appear to have been selected – as opposed to those with incised decoration – for Early Bronze Age burial deposition (Quinnell, in prep c). This fits well with the apparent primacy of cord impressed vessels at Knackyboy Cairn and their frequency at Bant’s Carn. The recent publication of Bosiliack entrance grave in West Penwith has produced radiocarbon dates centred on the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries cal BC for that site (Jones and Thomas 2010, 275). Jones and Thomas also re-emphasise the close relationship between Trevisker ceramics and entrance graves at Ballowal and Tregaseal (ibid, 282), and redraw attention to an Early Bronze Age radiocarbon determination at Tregiffian (ibid, 284). In Cornwall large and complex structures associated with burial appear to belong to the Early Bronze Age, with small monuments in unobtrusive positions continuing the position into the Middle Bronze Age (Jones and Quinnell 2011). This background would be compatible with some continued use, or building, of smaller monuments in Scilly in the Middle Bronze Age.

Two settlement sites with stone houses dating to the Middle Bronze Age have produced radiocarbon dates suggesting some form of domestic activity in the preceding Early Bronze Age. That at Little Bay, St Martin’s (Neal 1983, 52), was associated with comb stamped sherds. The Nornour data (Butcher 1978) shows a range of plain vessels with occasional comb or cord impressed and incised sherds, most clearly accessible in Robinson’s representation (2007, 192-5). The Nornour data may include early phases of stone buildings. East Porth, Samson, has also produced an Early Bronze Age date from a hearth with a small ceramic assemblage; it was adjacent to a structure in the cliff not fully investigated (Quinnell 1994). It is possible (below) that much of the material from Halangy Porth belongs to the Early Bronze Age.

Worked flint, chert and quartz

Fig 4.5 Neolithic axe or adze found on the west shoreline of Bryher c 2010 (photo: Carl Thorpe).

Flint artefacts in Scilly have usually been isolated finds, but at a number of locations worked flint has been found in sufficient quantities to constitute a flint scatter; the majority date to the Neolithic or Bronze Age and represent prehistoric flint working sites. Flint scatters have yielded a variety of implements such as scrapers, awls, knives, and arrowheads. The Cornwall and Scilly HER records ten flint scatters on St Mary’s, Tresco, and St Martin’s. Notable Neolithic items include the axe or adze from below the main cairn material at Knackyboy Cairn (O’Neil 1952) and a recent find of an axe or adze from the west shoreline of Bryher (Fig 4.5). 

Amelia Pannett’s assessment of the lithics collection held by the Isles of Scilly Museum is discussed above in Section 3.3.7. A number of plano-convex knives were identified, all manufactured on large flakes, with invasive pressure flaking along one edge of the dorsal surface and rounding at the distal end. These are characteristic of the Early Bronze Age. Several arrowheads were examined, including barbed and tanged, oblique, chisel and triangular forms. All date to the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Two possible leaf-shaped arrowheads were also recognised, but both were very rough and could actually be poorly manufactured triangular forms (Pannett 2007).

A large number of flakes and blades had abrupt retouch along one or both lateral edges, and several showed tentative evidence for use in the form of edge damage. A number of notched flakes and blades were also recognised. Abrupt retouch had been utilised in the manufacture of awls and borers, a range of which was represented in the collections. In a small number of examples, a double tool form was recognised, with a scraper edge on one end, and the opposite end retouched to form a borer. These tool forms are, again, not particularly diagnostic of a period, and could date from the late Mesolithic to the Early Bronze Age (Pannett 2007).

Despite the unprovenanced character of the examined material in the lithic archive, it provides important details about the nature and potential of the resource on Scilly. Evidence for the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age is abundant, as expected, but there is little or no evidence for the early Neolithic. It is possible that such evidence is present, but currently invisible within the collections due to a lack of clearly diagnostic pieces (such as leaf-shaped arrowheads) and full working assemblages (Pannett 2007). It has been noted that artefacts reflecting ‘early post-Mesolithic flintworking traditions’ have been recovered from the area towards Kallimay Point, St Agnes (Quinnell 1994, 9).

The flint, chert and quartz assemblage from the Neolithic Stepping Stones excavations at Old Quay, St Martin’s, totalled an astonishing 10,901 pieces and included microliths, micro-burins, burins, flakes, blades, cores, scrapers, awls and  piercers (Tingle and Anderson Whymark 2017). The microliths from the assemblage are discussed above in section 2.3.3. Almost all the worked stone was locally sourced, but that which appears to be imported from the mainland, although small in number, appears to be significant.

Two pieces of worked flint were recovered during archaeological recording on land at Seaways, Porthloo, St Mary’s, in 2017 (Quinnell 2017c). One is a fragment of Portland chert, broken from either a core or core trimming flake. The material is from Dorset with occasional use across South Wes Britain from the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age (Stewart 2013, 127–8). It is an unusual, if not unique, find from the Islands. The other piece was a core trimming flake from nodular flint originating in East Devon and suggesting a date before the Bronze Age.

Worked stone

The 2013/14 Neolithic Stepping Stones’ excavations produced a gabbroic greenstone shafthole adze (nor obviously from west Cornwall), the blade end of a greenstone axe (probably from Mount’s Bay, Cornwall), a siltstone pebble with an oblique hourglass and several mullers, rubbing stones and tools used for hammering and abrasion (Quinnell 2017b). She notes that, in general, that the records on finds of axes and related artefacts from Scilly are somewhat confused. 

A list of axes and perforated stone tools from Scilly has been complied for an undergraduate thesis (Warren 2017). A copy has been deposited at the Isles of Scilly Museum.


A total of 23 pieces of pumice was found by the Neolithic Stepping Stones project at Old Quay, St Martin’s. With the exception of a single unstratified piece, all the pumice came from contexts which yielded other finds, usually Middle Neolithic pottery and/or flints, but also quartz and worked stone (Sawyer 2017).

Only six other pieces of pumice have been identified in Scilly (Sawyer 2017). A fragment of pumice was found in one of the pits containing Neolithic pottery at East Porth, Samson (Neal and Johns forthcoming), by Bonsor at Porth Hellick entrance grave (Hencken 1932), two pieces from the western section at Nornour (Butcher 1978), Little Bay settlement (Neal 1983) and a surface find made by Alec Gray near Bant’s Carn (Gray 1972).

4.5.3   Art

There is a large stone incorporated within a house at Halangy Down, St Mary’s, the surface of which is decorated with a pecked-out geometric design that Ashbee suggests represents a stylised face (Ashbee 1966, fig 2; 1974, 153).

A possible cup marked stone has been reported at Halangy Porth, St Mary’s. The stone is recumbent and measures 1.82m in length by 0.91m wide and lies just above the high water mark at the western end of the bay. The three cup marks are located towards the narrower western end of the rock and align on a north/south axis (MCO40409). Another  cup-marked stone has been incorporated in the drystone hedge on the north side of Pungie’s Lane.  The stone measures 0.92m wide and 0.44m high The circular depression in it is 0.18m in diameter and 0.07m deep (MCO 57000051).

In 2009, during fieldwork for Lyonesse Project a previously unreported example rock art was recorded – an image pecked into a native granite boulder lying on the East Porth foreshore, Samson. The ‘cigar’ or ‘boat-shaped’ image, approximately 300mm by 100mm and aligned north-south, lies on the flat surface of a very large beach boulder and incorporates a natural fissure as a central division. Photographs of the image have been shown to various rock art specialists but as yet no parallels have been identified.  Invoking the image as an early representation of one of the boats used to access the Islands is very tempting, but in the absence of dating evidence this cannot be confirmed and the ‘boat’ could just as easily be referencing the post-medieval tradition of pilotage or is not a boat at all.

4.5.4   Subsistence


A domesticated, neo-natal calf’s tooth from Par Beach, St Martin’s, apparently associated with late Mesolithic peat deposits, has been radiocarbon dated to the Early Bronze Age, 2275–2035 cal BC (OxA-X-2465-6; 3740±30), which makes it the earliest recorded osteological faunal remain from Scilly and also the earliest indicator of animal husbandry on the Islands (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 29; Marshall and Bronk Ramsey 2012; Charman et al 2016). Otherwise the earliest recorded faunal remains date to the Middle Bronze Age.

Ceramic and stone vessels were probably used for the storage of cereals and other foodstuffs and there is the potential that residue analysis of the Early Neolithic ceramic assemblages will reveal information about vessels contents (for example, ruminant, porcine, dairy and marine fats) and provide indirect evidence for early foods, and it is planned to carry out such analysis of the  Neolithic pottery from East Porth, as part of the ‘Changing Patterns of Marine Product Exploitation in Human Prehistory via Biomarker Proxies in Archaeological Pottery’ project led by Richard Evershed of Bristol University and Jacqui Mulville of Cardiff University.


Plant macrofossils recovered from the Porth Mellon peat on St Mary’s during the 1989–93 CEP included species such as chickweed, fat hen, parsley, piert and knot grass. These species indicate disturbed open ground which might suggest arable land nearby during the Late Neolithic, although there was no direct evidence for crops either from the macrofossils or pollen (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 20).

The earliest unequivocal evidence of land clearance for agricultural use occurs in 3090–2911 cal BC (OxA-23825; 4377±30 BP) at Par Beach, St Martin’s, where the pollen data from the Lyonesse Project shows that birch-dominated woodland was replaced by grassland unconnected to sea-level change during the Middle Neolithic. The presence of disturbance indicators such as plantain and other herbaceous grassland taxa also supports this suggestion (Charman et al 2016). Such agricultural activity may be connected with the nearby Middle Neolithic settlement at Old Quay, where a sequence of radiocarbon measurements obtained by the Neolithic Stepping Stones project indicates occupation between c 3350 and 2290 cal BC (Garrow and Sturt 2017).

Dominance of herb-rich grassland suitable for pasture and hay production is evident at Par Beach until the end of the Neolithic. Open ground was also certainly present on St Mary’s from the early third millennium cal BC, as shown by the series of short profiles from Porth Mellon. However, more extensive woodland cover seems to have persisted here, with oak, birch and hazel. All of the profiles from Porth Mellon suggest a very diverse grassland flora, probably reflecting the range of habitats present with coastal, wetland and woodland influences overprinted by the use of these semi-natural habitats by Late Neolithic communities.

The earliest Bronze Age assemblage, recovered during the 1989–93 CEP, was a cache of barley from East Porth, Samson, dating to 2198–1772 cal BC (OxA-3649; 3620 ±70). This almost entirely comprised a cleaned crop of naked, probably six-row barley, providing good evidence that it had become crop in its own right by the Early Bronze Age. Hulled barley grain constituted less than 1% of the total assemblage. There was no chaff and only a single charred spike rush, emphasising that this was cleaned harvest which may have been burnt accidentally prior to consumption (Ratcliffe and Straker 1996, 10).

4.5.5   Transport

The Isles of Scilly stand as an important reminder as to the seafaring abilities of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people within this region’

(Ransley et al 2011)

Exactly when Scilly was first permanently settled is a matter yet to be precisely determined, but what is certain is that the first visitors and settlers came by boat. No Neolithic seagoing boats have been found in Scilly, or anywhere else in Britain, but it is important to keep sight of the effects sea level rise have had on Neolithic and Bronze Age coastlines; most prehistoric boats have been found in estuarine and inland contexts.

Island communities are important when considering maritime transport as seafaring is implicit in trading and migration. Any artefacts originating outside the Islands, such as the sherd of gabbroic pottery from Old Quay, St Martin’s, attest to the use of boats to carry goods and people across the sea. 

Clark (2004b, 7) suggests that the archaeology of south-east England and nearest France indicate that there may have been a tribal connection which straddled the English Channel during the Bronze Age. He notes that the journey from Dover to the nearest contemporary site in France is 55km, although the coastal voyages attested by the shale in the Dover Boat and a nearby find of a Trevisker-type urn from Cornwall indicate distances travelled of 220 and 450km respectively in the Middle Bronze Age.  By the end of the Bronze Age a maritime community may have been established utilising the connecting waters of the English Channel / La Manche and possibly stretching along the south coast of Britain as far as the south-west peninsula and Scilly. Materials and artefacts in bronze, amber and gold formed elements of contemporary material culture and indicate that these connections stretched north to Scandinavia and south to the Alps. In this connection it is interesting to note Stuart Needham’s concept of a ‘maritory’ in the Early Bronze Age, linking south-west England with mainland Europe, as indicated by the Rillaton cup and similar contemporary items (Needham 2009), although there is very little evidence for the circulation of south west tin or copper before the middle of the Bronze Age (the tin slag recovered from an Early Bronze Age ring cairn at Caerloggas on the St Austell granite being one of the notable exceptions (Miles 1975).

Gabriel Cooney (2004) envisages hide-covered keeled currachs, a type known historically in Ireland, plying the western seaways from the Neolithic onwards. Plank-built craft have been considered less likely in the western seaways due to a supposed lack of suitable timber on these exposed and damp coasts, but it can equally be questioned, particularly for Ireland, as to where the large mammals were found to provide hides for currachs in the earliest periods. Both hides and wood can be imported (by people with the appropriate seacraft), as can complete vessels, and the presence of both hide and plank traditions in the western seaways should not at this stage be discounted. Indeed, two Bronze Age find-sites of plank boats are known from Caldicot and Goldcliff at the head of the Bristol Channel on the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary (Nayling and Caseldine 1997). Plank boats are regarded as more stable and robust craft compared with hide boats and the sewn-plank design may be an innovation based on the earlier sewing of hides (Van de Noort 2004). Roger Mercer (2003) has pointed out, however, that an advantage of hide boats is that they are lighter and more easily carried or hauled across the isthmus of a peninsula to avoid the potential dangers of rounding headlands by sea. Such a scenario would perhaps allow the avoidance of Scilly, and the strait between the Islands and Cape Cornwall, by taking boats over the 8km of isthmus between Mount’s Bay and St Ives Bay.

Scilly lies some 45km from Cornwall, 190km from France and 240km from Ireland. The Islands are visible from Land’s End on a clear day and given the lack of any known navigational instruments in this period, sight of the destination from point of departure was probably important. The difficulties of such journeys undertaken in prehistory are often the subject of speculation: ‘The undertaking was formidable, but it was never insuperable’ (Thomas 1985).

4.6       Social relations

The Neolithic archaeology at Old Quay, St Martin’s, is best interpreted as a site that witnessed significant levels of occupation, over the course of several decades or more. The absence of any clearly defined buildings, combined with a palimpsest of postholes (interpreted a representing multiple phases of occupation-related structure, together seem to indicate repeated and fairly substantial, but not permanent, occupation (Garrow and Sturt 2017, 131).

Thomas (1985, 103–9) created a model, now outdated, for early settlement in Scilly; identifying five ‘founder’ settlement sites each with an associated entrance grave. All the sites were in original inland locations which were sheltered, favourable spots, and three had produced early finds.  He proposed that some 50 or 60 people were the founder settlers of Scilly and that subsequent settlement and ritual monuments developed from these original sites: below Knackyboy Cairn on St Martin’s; Gimble Porth, Tresco; East Porth, Samson; Halangy Porth, St Mary’s, and a site below Kittern Hill, Gugh. He envisaged the initial settlement of Scilly as being dispersed rather than nucleated, with the development of a segmentary society expressing its territoriality through similarly dispersed monuments with no sign of hierarchy, although the varying size of different entrance graves could be seen as reflecting a difference in social status or perhaps in function.

Robinson (2007, 145–6) suggests that Early Bronze Age islanders did not fix their settlements within specific locales and that settlement of this period appears fluid and transient, perhaps moving to different locations within the archipelago dependent upon season and availability of resources. This would suggest a degree of residential mobility with relatively little rigid differentiation of settlement space. By this scenario, a distinct class of settlement site would not have existed in this period and those activities defined as domestic took place in different island landscape settings, as yet largely unrecognised.

The abundance of monuments during this period suggests that by the Early Bronze Age the archipelago contained a resident population. In contrast to settlements, monuments of this period are substantial permanent structures that emphasise and fix specific island locales.

4.7       Monumentality, ritual and burial

4.7.1   Entrance graves

Scillonian entrance graves are small chambered cairns, comprising a roughly circular mound of stone and earth, revetted by a kerb and containing a chamber. The Cornwall and Scilly HER records 92 entrance graves, four of which are destroyed and 11 of which are only alleged (Fig 4.6). Whilst higher concentrations of entrance graves are found on Scilly, similar monuments are found on the Cornish mainland – around 13 entrance graves have been recorded in West Penwith (Barnatt 1982; Jones and Thomas 2011; Ratcliffe 1989).

O’Neil and Hencken’s classification of entrance graves draws attention to the standardisation of monument plans and the presence of an open chamber, and therefore the ability to re-enter and reuse the monument after its construction (Hencken 1932, 1933). Although some standardisation exists, the excavated evidence demonstrates a greater variety of monument forms than is implied through the application of a single classification. In practice, the nature of the standing field evidence makes it difficult to always make clear distinctions between open chambers and cairns containing sealed chambers or cists.

As discussed above, the dating of Scillonian entrance graves has been problematic in the past but the new radiocarbon determinations from Knackyboy Cairn indicate that their principal use was in the Early and Middle Bronze Age (Sawyer 2015). Comparison has been drawn between the Scillonian entrance graves and similar monuments located within the Tramore region of County Waterford, Ireland (Piggott 1954; Powell 1941), as well as with Irish wedge tombs which are dated to the Early Bronze Age (Jones and Thomas 2010). Typological parallels could also be made with a group of small passage graves which run up both sides of the Irish Sea and have an arguably early date (Lynch 1975; Powell et al 1969).

Fig 4.6 Inferred submergence model c 1500 BC, showing the location of entrance graves and cairns based on data from the Lyonesse Project (Charman et al 2016); all details as for Fig 3.3.

Monument construction

The size of Scillonian entrance graves varies considerably, with examples ranging from 5.2m to 22.7m in diameter. The mounds of stone and rubble that comprise entrance graves do not appear to have any discernible structure, although as there have been only a small number of recorded excavations this observation may be misleading. Kerbstones may comprise orthostats or stones laid as coursed walling. Chambers are constructed of a mixture of orthostatic and coursed walling, held in place by ‘trig’ stones along their bases. Surmounting these walls, large capstones are placed across the chamber and levelled into place with smaller stones to form a roof. The shape of chambers is remarkably consistent, being widest at their centres and narrowing towards their entrances and terminals. Evidence from four monuments suggests that some chamber walls were plastered with clay: Buzza Hill (Fig 4.3), Innisidgen Carn and Lower Innisidgen, St Mary’s, and Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s (Ashbee 1974; Borlase 1753; 1756; Hencken 1932; 1933; O’Neil 1952). The orange plaster used within the chambers derives from clayey deposits found within the ram which set hard when exposed. Chamber entrances are frequently restricted, in some instances, as at Porth Hellick Down (Ashbee 1974, 80), by blocking stones. A number of entrance graves stand out from the majority in both scale and complexity. For example, at Porth Hellick and Bant’s Carn (Fig 4.7), St Mary’s, and Obadiah’s Barrow, Gugh, entrance to the monument’s chamber is gained via a seemingly open passage where first an extension collar or platform has been constructed (Ashbee 1974, 79).

A recurrent feature of entrance graves is the incorporation of earth-fast boulders in their construction. In a few instances, the grounders incorporated are substantial and would have been clearly visible within the monument after construction. This feature of monument construction is, however, not limited to entrance graves but is equally apparent within cairns (see discussion below). On Porth Hellick Down an entrance grave, known as Peter’s Barrow, contains a large natural grounder that forms a large percentage of the monument whilst a second entrance grave contains a large weathered grounder which forms the back and one of the sides of its chamber (Ashbee 1974, 83; Robinson 2007, 130). Similarly at Knackyboy Cairn, the back and part of the northern side of the chamber is formed by large grounder (O’Neil 1952, pl XV) whilst on South Hill, Samson, the lower part of the chamber of an entrance grave is formed by a grounder around which the monument was constructed (Ashbee 1974, 84).

Funerary practices and deposition within entrance graves

Entrance graves are associated with a range of practices. At Obadiah’s Barrow, Gugh, unburned disarticulated bones were found in a layer of hard blackish soil on the stone paving that formed the floor of the later chamber  over which were inverted pots containing cremated human remains (Hencken 1932, 28; Hencken 1933, 21; Ashbee 1974, 108-9). At Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s, and North Hill, Samson (O’Neil 1952; Hencken 1933, 22), the excavation of chambers revealed deposits of dark soil (containing small abraded pieces of pottery) below stone paving, but, in contrast to Obadiah’s Barrow, no evidence for inhumation burials was found in either chamber. This may be due to poor preservation of human bone (due to the acid soils), inadequate and limited excavation and disturbance due to later reuse of their chambers.

Whilst containment of the dead was certainly one function of these monuments, the most common recorded contents of these monuments are deposits of dark greasy soil. Ashbee (1982a) and Thomas (1985, 138) describe these deposits as containing soil, small sherds of pottery, charcoal, ash (not associated with cremations) and pebbles, and have interpreted them as representing the deliberate deposition of occupation debris. Some of this material – such as non-local stone like the pumice found at Porth Hellick (Hencken 1932, 20) – could be interpreted as ‘grave goods’ or ritual deposits, whilst others, such as topsoil and ash, are not so easily explained. The consistent deposition of this material within the chambers of entrance graves suggests that such deposits were intentional and significant. An alternative interpretation of these deposits is that they are the scraped up remains of funeral pyres. However, whilst funerary pyres would have existed on the Islands, evidence for their identification is sketchy (Ashbee 1974, 116–117; Cornish 1874). Once the visible remains of cremations, such as human bone, were collected from the pyre and deposited within urns, the remaining material might comprise a dark oily deposit of ash and soil. The description of the contents of entrance graves as ‘dark and greasy’ or as ‘strong unctuous earth that smelt cadaverous’ (Borlase 1754, 54) might fit well with this interpretation, but also with the deposition of midden material (discussed below).

Interpretation of the origin and function of entrance graves

Since the mid-eighteenth century antiquarians and archaeologists have conjectured upon the function of the Scillonian entrance graves. Borlase was the first to classify these ‘ancient Sepulchres’ into ‘Caves’ (exposed chambers without cairn and surrounding kerb) and ‘Barrows’ (entrance graves with cairn and surrounding kerb) (Borlase 1756, 14). The number of these monuments in Scilly led Hencken (1932, 38) to suggest that these Islands may have been regarded as one of the special abodes of the departed in ancient times. The term ‘entrance grave’ has only been used to describe this type of monument since the 1940s; before that they were referred to as barrows, covered galleries or passage graves (Jones and Thomas 2010, 283). Ashbee (1981) has argued for a Mesolithic origin but they are now generally considered to date from the Early Bronze Age onwards as they do in Cornwall (Jones and Thomas 2010; Sawyer 2015).  Whatever their origins, antiquarians and early archaeologists saw entrance graves as tombs, whether for single, collective or successive burials, but in the last 40 years or so alternative interpretations have been offered (cf Coate 1994, 18-9).

As a result of his investigations into the relation between entrance graves and field systems, the use of occupational debris and the lack of burials in some examples, Ashbee (1976, 21) suggested that, other than being mausolea, their function might have been as cult monuments to counteract soil impoverishment and loss of fertility. It has been suggested that deposits such as ash and topsoil were derived from settlements and could represent a transfer of material from the world of the living to the ancestors (Thomas 1985, 142; Robinson 2007, 21).

Fig 4.7 The ‘Giant’s Grave’, Porth Hellick, St Mary’s (photo: Cornwall Council).

Thomas (1985, 108, 126) viewed the prehistory of the Islands as that of a segmentary society expanding into estimated territories (above, section 4.6). He suggests that even if the monuments housed burials they were not originally constructed as tombs but as territorial markers, an outward and visible expression of ownership of defined territories by defined groups.

Because entrance graves are mainly situated on the periphery of the Islands and many are not connected with field systems, Ashbee (1986, 199) suggested that they might also have a maritime connection, being intended to ensure continuing fertility of the sea. It has been noted that the chambers of many entrance graves and cists in cairns are boat-shaped (Thomas 1985, 144). Robinson also points out that entrance graves are consistently located close to granite tors, which would have been important navigation aids since the Mesolithic, and that through the construction of these monuments the knowledge and significance of these tors became embedded within the lives of prehistoric islanders (2007, 115–20)

Thomas and Jones (2010, 289), in the most recent exposition on entrance graves, suggest that the Penwith entrance graves may have been communal shrines as much as being repositories for the dead.

The first radiocarbon dates from an entrance grave have recently been obtained (Sawyer 2015); a sequence of 10 determinations indicates that the cremations date to the mid-second millennium cal BC. Therefore the timing of the rapid conversion of dry land to intertidal zone occurs between 2500 and 2000 cal BC just before the main period of use of entrance graves on Scilly.

We know that in Cornwall there is a huge increase in ceremonial monuments, mainly barrows, after 2000 BC (Jones 2005, 138), and in Scilly this may be paralleled by the construction of the large number of entrance graves and cairns, which may have been purposely built in areas that were not very agricultural productive. The particular structure of these numerous monuments may be the result of insular traditions which reflect the local geological and visual landscape in which these early Scillonian communities dwelled (Jones and Thomas 2010, 291–2). Their distinctive form can perhaps most engagingly be seen as ‘a product of imaginative and uniquely Scillonian encounters between the community, landscape and the cosmos’ (cf Owoc et al 2003, 4–5).

Fig 4.8 Bant’s Carn entrance grave, St Mary’s (photo: Cornwall Council).

4.7.2   Cairns and cists

The Cornwall and Scilly HER records a total of 384 cairns in Scilly, the majority of which occur within cairn-fields. Few cairns have been excavated on Scilly and it is therefore difficult to construct a chronological sequence for these monuments. The only radiocarbon determination is from a small cairn at Porth Killer, St Agnes, which is dated to 2026–1665 cal BC (Wk-5690; 3512 ±70BP) (Johns et al forthcoming). Cairns in Cornwall date primarily to the late third and early second millennium cal BC, confirmed by radiocarbon determinations from several cairns and barrows (Jones 2005; Jones and Quinnell 2011). Rather than their contents, the main contrast between cairns and entrance graves is the lack of access to human remains in cairns after burial.

Fig 4.9 Plan of Shipman Head Down, Bryher: the black dots are cairns (© Cornwall Council).    

The largest of the cairn-fields is located on Shipman Head Down at the north end of Bryher (Fig 4.9; Breen 2008). It comprises 134 cairns arranged in both clusters and rough alignments which follow slight ridges or contours. This cairn-field is located upon the highest and most exposed part of the headland within a zone enclosed by the 20m contour. The second largest cairn-field is on the highest contours of Castle Down, Tresco, comprising 78 cairns. The cairn-field on Wingletang Down, St Agnes comprises 43 cairns. At the remaining five cairn-fields (Chapel Down, St Martin’s; Kittern Hill, and Clapper of Works Down, Gugh; and Peninnis Head Down and Salakee Down, St Mary’s), a similar scenario occurs with cairns occupying exposed headlands.

Some of the cairns within cairn-fields have been interpreted as agricultural clearance mounds. This interpretation has arisen through their association with boulder walls that connect cairns such as those found on Shipman Head Down and Kittern Hill (Ratcliffe 1994; Thomas 1985; below, section 5.4.4). The sequential relationship between cairns and walls on the downs is difficult to determine and might only be clarified through excavation.

The interpretation of these walls as evidence for agricultural intensification has been considered problematic because these downs are the most barren and exposed places in the archipelago and are unlikely to ever have been exploited for agriculture, so that perhaps other interpretations for these stone structures should be sought (Lousley 1977; Thomas 1985, 132–3; Breen 2008). At the same time it should be remembered that the climate was more clement in the Bronze Age and that Bodmin Moor and the Penwith Moors, equally inhospitable today, contain considerable evidence of Bronze Age settlement and agriculture (see below, section 5.3.4, for further discussion). 

A range of sizes and types of cairn occur on Scilly, all employing similar structural principles. However, due to the lack of excavation within cairn-fields we do not know how this variation relates to the use of these monuments. Most cairns are relatively small with visible diameters falling between 4m and 7m and seldom rising over 0.5m in height. In a small number of instances, however, larger cairns occur, with dimensions of up to 22m in diameter and 2.2m in height. Cairns vary in form, the most basic comprising small piles of loose boulders, whilst kerbs of orthostats surround others. Questions remain as to how many cairns contain burial deposits, but on the basis of excavated examples it would appear that a significant proportion contain stone-lined cists or burial pits (cf Thomas 1985, 129-33). In a few instances, such as North Hill, Samson, and Hillbenigates, St Martin’s, cists beneath cairns have been identified through excavation (O’Neil nd e; Smith 1863), while in other instances the presence of a cist is suggested by depressions within the fabric of the cairn, resulting from antiquarian robbing. A cairn on North Hill, Samson, contained a carefully constructed central cist, held together with mortise and tenon joints, a technique more akin to woodworking than stone working (Smith 1863; Piggott 1941; Ashbee 1974).

Cists are also found on Scilly without covering cairns, as at Old Town (McKenzie 1965), Content Farm (Ashbee 1954) and Town Lane (Crawford 1928), all on St Mary’s. The dating of these cists is problematic because of limited and poorly documented excavation and the apparent absence of datable finds, although bone from the Old Town cist is due to be radiocarbon dated together with the samples from Knackyboy and Obadiah’s Barrow (Sawyer 2015). By analogy with similar monuments on the Cornish mainland, these monuments should belong to the early second millennium cal (Jones and Quinnell 2011). The classification of flat cists as a separate burial tradition to cairns should be treated with caution as, in a number of instances, archival reports suggest small cairns may once have covered them (Ashbee 1952–53, 30; O’Neil nd a).

A recurring feature of cairns is the incorporation of natural earth-fast grounders and outcrops. In a few instances, the grounders incorporated are substantial and would have been clearly visible within the monument after construction. The most striking example of this occurs on Castle Down, Tresco, where a large grounder, known as the ‘Borlase Altar’, is incorporated within a kerbed cairn (Quinnell 1978). Similarly, a large grounder covered in solution holes on Wingletang Down is encompassed within a kerbed cairn, while at Hillbenigates (also known as Flat Rock Hill) a cairn containing a cist was constructed directly on top of a large grounder, with the burial chamber constructed within a natural hollow in its surface (O’Neil nd e). These tor and boulder cairns are also a key feature of the Cornish Bronze Age where they are sometimes associated with multiple urned and unurned cremation burials (Borlase 1879; Tilley and Bennett 2001). On Scilly many entrance graves are also associated with natural rock outcrops (Ashbee 1974, 82-84). In some instances the similarity between these monuments may have resulted in misclassification.

4.7.3   Standing stones and stone rows

The Cornwall and Scilly HER identifies 13 possible standing stones, five of which are upstanding. These standing stones are found throughout the archipelago but little evidence for their date is available. An excavation at the base of a standing stone on Gugh (Fig 4.10) found no evidence of associated features or finds (Borlase 1756, 40). On Mount Flagon, St Mary’s (Fig 4.10), and Higher Town, St Martin’s, standing stones are found at the centre of small cairns, whilst at Gun Hill and Chapel Down, St Martin’s, standing stones are used to form the sides of stone cists. A standing stone on Cruther’s Hill, St Martin’s, recorded as upstanding by Borlase (1756), lies fallen amongst gorse. Ashbee interprets a large stone incorporated within a house at Halangy Down, St Mary’s, as a ‘decommissioned’ standing stone. The surface of this stone is decorated with a pecked-out geometric design which he suggests represents a stylised face (Ashbee 1966, fig 2; 1974, 153). Borlase recorded a standing stone; the ‘High Stone’ on Peninnis Head, St Mary’s, and this has been possibly identified as a now recumbent monolith (Seaney 2010b).

Fig 4.10 Standing stones: left Gugh (photo: Ian Dennis) and right Mount Flagon, St Mary’s (photo: Cornwall Council).

A possible stone row has been recorded on Par Beach, St Martin’s, located midway along the beach between the high and low tide (Fulford et al 1997; Ratcliffe 1990, 22, figs 8 and 9), it consists of three granite orthostats set along an east-west alignment and with an overall length of 15m. The location of a stone row on Scilly, within a coastal context, is without precedent and suggests caution. In 1949, O’Neil excavated a prehistoric house on Par Beach in close proximity to the suggested stone row (O’Neil nd a) uncovering two parallel rows of stones running along the beach, between high and low tide which he interpreted as field boundaries. The lower wall consisted of a single row of orthostats between which sections of coursed walling occurred. The location, description (except for the coursed sections), and alignment of this wall match well with that of the suggested stone row and it is possible that the lower wall identified by O’Neil and the recently identified stone row are the same feature. If this interpretation is correct, the higher of O’Neil’s wall is now buried beneath sand dunes further up the beach. A photograph taken in 1990, when there was much less sand on Par Beach than today, shows one of the field boundaries and the stone row (Fig 4.11).

Two more stone alignments were identified on Castle Down, Tresco by Dave Hooley during the Monuments Protection Programme (MPP). Stone rows have a wide distribution in Britain, with concentrations in the south west on the uplands of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor (Barnett 1982; Butler 1997; Johnson and Rose 1994).

Fig 4.11 The possible stone row on Par Beach, St Martin’s, in 1988 (photo: Cornwall Council).

4.7.4   Pits

The digging of pits and burying of pottery and other artefacts and deposits is a well-attested phenomenon in the British Isles during the later prehistoric period (cf Richards and Thomas 1984; Bradley 1990; Bradley 2007; Cole and Jones 2002–3; Jones and Reed 2006; Anderson-Whymark and Thomas 2011) and extensive archaeological evidence has been discovered in Cornwall for the curation and ‘structured deposition’ of broken potsherds, worked stone and other artefacts (e.g. Gossip and Jones 2007).

It has been suggested that the act of pit digging and deposition may have been intended to render activity memorable and fix a connection between people and place. In Cornwall the shape of pits and repertoire of materials placed in them seems to have changed little from the beginning of the Neolithic period into the Bronze Age, other than the changing ceramic types deposited in them, although it has been argued that the character of such pits generally developed over time, with more care taken over the objects selected and the pits themselves being better crafted (Cole and Jones 2002-3; Jones and Reed 2006).

A growing number of prehistoric pits are being identified in Scilly and their significance is being reassessed (see below, Section 5, for further discussion). Two pits excavated at East Porth, Samson, in 1971 contained Neolithic pottery, as well as some carefully selected stones and a fragment of pumice (Neal and Johns forthcoming). Neolithic pottery was in the vicinity of a pit exposed in the cliff face at Old Quay, St Martin’s (Quinnell 1994), and two nested vessels found in pits in a field near Kallimay Point, St Agnes, in 2007, are tentatively dated to the Early Bronze Age (Johns and Quinnell 2014). A number of pits were revealed at Old Quay, St Martin’s, in 2013/14, including one (F5) which contained and assemblage of 27 pieces of worked quartz and 1o fragments ofpottery from a curved-sided Neolithic bowl, another large pit (f33) contained 738 sherds of pottery and 308 flints (Garrow and Sturt 2017, 83–89).

4.8       National and international context

4.8.1   Introduction

The Isles of Scilly have the potential to make a significant contribution to our understanding of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age more broadly – at both a national and international level – in a number of ways. Equally, as with any region, it is vital that we seek to understand the specifics of the Islands’ archaeology in relation to this bigger picture.

4.8.2   The Mesolithic/Neolithic transition

As discussed above (Section 3), the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain and Ireland is a topic which has witnessed a considerable resurgence of interest in recent years (for example, Thomas 1999; 2008; Pailler and Sheridan 2009, Whittle et al 2011). One of the major issues debated is the broader process by which the transition occurred: indigenous adoption, migration/invasion from the European mainland, or a combination of the two (Garrow and Sturt 2011). A secondary, directly related issue, has been the actual route(s) that either native British or migrating northern European mariners (or both) would have taken between mainland Europe and the British Isles and Ireland (Callaghan and Scarre 2009, Sheridan 2010, Whittle et al 2011).

The ‘western seaways’ of Britain have long been considered crucial, geographically, to any understanding of these processes of transition (Callaghan and Scarre 2009; Garrow and Sturt 2011). In recent years further weight has been added to this suggestion, as it has been noted that many of the earliest glimpses of Neolithic practices and material culture occur within and around the western seaways zone: early cow bones have been found in Ireland (Woodman and McCarthy 2003), potentially early pottery in western Scotland (Sheridan 2000), possibly very early cereal pollen in the Isle of Man (Innes et al 2003), and a passage tomb of earlier Neolithic date in Devon (Sheridan et al 2008).

If we accept that people were indeed journeying between Britain, Ireland and mainland Europe within this zone, the importance of a clear understanding of the late fifth and early fourth millennium cal BC archaeology of Scilly in relation to this question becomes clear. The possibility that the Islands may have witnessed very early Neolithic settlement from the Continent or Cornwall as a consequence of this maritime activity is raised. Equally, if the Islands did not see such early settlement, that in itself tells us something important about the process of transition: either that early colonists were seeking only large land masses on which to settle, or that they journeyed in short hops along the shore of the mainland rather than carrying out long-distance sea voyages (Garrow and Sturt 2011, 68).

4.8.3   Continuing Neolithic and Early Bronze Age maritime connections

The subject of maritime connections around the western seaways in the later third and second millennium cal BC is a very important one, which is not only of relevance in relation to the Neolithic / Early Bronze Age transition. The Early Bronze Age in particular has long been viewed as a period in which long-distance, trans-European networks of interaction were important: Beaker pottery is found across a wide area of western Europe (for example, Vander Linden 2007), and the raw materials required for bronze moved over long distances (Ottaway and Roberts 2008). Intriguingly, given these pan-European connections and similarities, the evidence from the Isles of Scilly during this period does not fit particularly well with the broader picture even across the rest of Britain. Beaker, Collared Urn and other Early Bronze Age pottery types current across most of Britain are rare, with even  the Trevisker style found across mainland Cornwall being relatively uncommon (Jones and Quinnell 2006; Pollard et al 2008, 86). Jones and Quinnell (2006) have suggested that in Cornwall, Beakers were adopted relatively late from further east in England, rather than from the Continent, and were slotted in alongside pre-existing local pottery traditions. It is quite possible that, in the Isles of Scilly, we are seeing a more extreme version of a similar process, with very few Beakers at all ever having been used.

Having noted this pattern, which appears to be reflecting a strong assertion of local regional identity (as seen in the uptake of pottery styles at least), it is interesting to note other patterns which show a somewhat contrasting picture. Jones and Thomas (2010, 291-2), for example, have discussed the possibility that entrance graves, which are abundant in the Isles of Scilly (above, Section 4.7.1), represent one manifestation of a very broad phenomenon whereby closely comparable tomb types also emerged  in Ireland, Scotland and perhaps even the Channel Islands at around the same time (2100-1700 cal BC). Intriguingly, given the above discussion of pottery styles, Jones and Thomas suggest that these shared tomb styles may actually been a consequence of the same maritime connections which led to the spread of artefacts, including Beakers and lunulae (Jones and Thomas 2010, 292). Recent research into the British Neolithic has tended towards the production of regional studies (for example, Brophy and Barclay 2009; Anderson-Whymark and Thomas 2011), and a consequent understanding of regional variability across Britain. In this context, the Isles of Scilly offer an excellent opportunity to investigate the way in which local identities and broader trans-regional connections were played out materially during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

4.8.4   Diet and taskscapes

One issue which has caused considerable debate in recent years is whether or not there was a dietary ‘slighting of the sea’ at the beginning of the Neolithic. Based on isotopic evidence, it has been argued by some that a (possibly cultural) rejection of fish and other marine resources occurred at that time (Schulting 1998; Richards and Hedges 1999; Thomas 2003). Others have pointed out, however, that the archaeological evidence – particularly in island contexts – supports continued fishing (and thus presumably also the eating of fish) well into the Neolithic (Milner et al 2004, 12; Sturt 2005). Clearly, if the Isles of Scilly were being visited periodically, perhaps specifically for the purpose of fishing, then archaeological evidence there has significant potential to contribute to this often heated debate, again adding south-western substance to a picture glimpsed further afield. However, unburnt human skeletal material is rare in Scilly and in the south west in general, and is unlikely to survive from the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age because of the soil acidity, which means that it has not been possible to carry out stable isotope analyses. Future recovery of suitable human bone for isotope analyses is therefore a priority to answer questions of changing dietary preferences. 

The character of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age settlement, and of the broader distribution of tasks across the landscape at that time, have also been much-debated in recent years (for example, Gibson 2003; Rowley-Conwy 2003; Garrow 2010). The unusual geographical location of the Isles of Scilly – in terms of Britain as a whole, at least – ensures that the Islands’ archaeology has a strong contribution to make in relation to these debates. At present, many would agree that, broadly speaking, across much of southern England, people remained fairly mobile throughout the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, moving intermittently around the landscape rather than settling permanently in one place (for example, Whittle 1997; Brück 1999b; Pollard and Healy (eds) 2008, 80-83). As might be expected, particular places often came to be associated with particular tasks (Edmonds 1997). Until the Neolithic Stepping Stones’ evidence from Old Quay, St Martin’s,  which may imply a fairly settled population on Scilly from a date within the Early Neolithic (Garrow and Sturt 2017; Quinnell 2017a), the consensus of opinion was that the Isles of Scilly were themselves occupied only intermittently before the Early Bronze Age, with perhaps seasonal visits from people who more usually resided in mainland Cornwall, perhaps in order to collect shellfish and hunt sea mammals or as a landfall during deep-sea fishing trips (cf Robinson 2007, 65). Intriguingly, there is also evidence for agriculture preceding the construction of entrance graves, which may hint at settlement of a more permanent nature (above, Section 4.4.1).  In many ways, therefore, the picture for the Isles of Scilly – of intermittent occupation, and of task-specific associations – matches that for much of southern England rather more closely than might have been expected. Again, further evidence revealing in more detail the character of occupation sites in the Islands during this period would help flesh out what is at present a rather patchy picture.

4.8.5   Summary

The key maritime location of the Isles of Scilly in relation to assumed networks of connectivity between the European mainland and Britain and Ireland means that a good understanding of the Islands’ Neolithic and Early Bronze Age archaeology is crucial to this broader national and international picture. Equally, their offshore location ensures that they have the potential to make a crucial contribution to our appreciation of marine exploitation and taskscapes more generally during this period. The archaeological evidence for wider contacts in Scilly suggests they are both long-term and varied, including occasional imports such as pottery, metalwork, pumice (although this might have floated to the Islands)and faience which reflect a tradition of adopting some things but rejecting others. Entrance graves and cairns also provide evidence for contact and possibly a shared wider identity; the local form of pottery may speak of a more nested identity which developed during the Bronze Age, suggesting that people may have wanted to affirm wider ancestry and connections at some times but a more local identity at others.

4.9       Scientific dating

4.9.1   Radiocarbon dates

The 47 radiocarbon determinations listed below in Table 4.1 below have all been calibrated using OxCal 4.3. Previous modelling of dates has not been used and all are expressed at the full 95.4% confidence level, rather than to the period to which the date may be weighted (for example at 89%). This means that the calibrated dates in the tables may vary significantly from the publications where they originally appeared.

Lab Ref 14C age BP Cal BC @ 95% Site Context Reference
GU-5061 5210 ±50 4230–3947 Par Beach, St Martin’s Basal 10mm of exposed peat, -2.02m  OD Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 19, 127
Wk-19091 4968 ±38 3914–3654 Dolphin Town, Tresco Potsherd residue, layer 15 in house 13. This is an anomalous date – the potsherd is BA Taylor & Johns 2009–10
GU5060 4510 ±60 3486–3017 Par Beach, St Martin’s Basal 50mm of exposed peat, -0.21m  OD Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 19, 127
OxA-31872 4511±33 3355–3097 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charcoal (wood), Prunus: young roundwood Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-31868 4506±31 3351–3097 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charcoal (seed), Triticum  (wheat) Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-31990 4451±31 3337–2945 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charcoal (wood), Leguminosae; young roundwood Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-31871 4442±35 3334–2929 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charcoal (wood), Leguminosae;  ulex (gorse); young roundwood Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-31873 4414±30 3312–2918 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charcoal (wood), Leguminosae; young roundwood Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-29340 4407±30 3265–2916 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charred ?food residue (external) Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
GU-5394 4310 ±60 3263–2704 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Basal 20mm of exposed peat Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 127
SUERC-32991 4310 ±30 3013–2886 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humic acid fraction), 16-17cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
OxA-23825 4377 ±30 3090–2911 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humin fraction) 5–6cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
GU-5393 4280 ±50 3082–2698 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sample 1 (top 40mm of exposed  peat) Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 129
SUERC-32992 4345 ±30 3080–2898 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humin fraction as SUERC-32991 Charman et al 2016
OxA-23826 4270 ±29 2925 –2779 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humic acid fraction) 5–6cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
SUERC-38094 4260 ±35 2926–2704 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sediment: humic acid, 1-2cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
OxA-23859 4269 ±38 3011–2705 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Monocot stem, 23cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
SUERC-38098 4235 ±35 2915–2696 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sediment: humin fraction, as SUERC-38094 Charman et al 2016
SUERC-38090 4160 ±35 2880–2628 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sediment: humic acid, 28–29cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
SUERC-38091 4135 ±35 2873–2588 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sediment: humin fraction, as SUERC-38091 Charman et al 2016
GU-5396 3980 ±100 2866–2205 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Basal 20mm of exposed peat. Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 127, 129
SUERC-38093 4160 ±35 2880–2628 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sediment: humin fraction, 0–1cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
SUERC-32925 3980 ±30 2578–2457 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humic acid fraction) 2-3cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
SUERC-32926 3980 ±30 2578–2457 Par Beach, St Martin’s Bulk: organic sediment (humin fraction), as  SUERC-32925 Charman et al 2016
GU-5395 3900 ±70 2572–2151 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sample 2 (20-40mm towards top of peat) Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 127, 129
GU-5392 3810 ±80 2471–2032 Porth Mellon, St Mary’s Sample 2 (wood towards base of intertidal peat) Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 129
SUERC-38092 3795 ±35 2397–2061 Porth Mellon, St Marys Sediment: humic acid, 0–1cm below surface of intertidal peat Charman et al 2016
OxA-X-2465-6 3740 ±30 2275–2035 Par Beach, St Martin’s Domestic cow tooth Charman et al  2016
OxA-26474 3837±38 2459–2154 Knackyboy Cairn St Martin’s Charred human bone Sawyer 2015, 87
HAR-239 3260 ±280 2287–848 Nornour Charcoal (oak & larch) from lower midden in passage between houses 1 & 3. Butcher 1978, 29-112
OxA-3649 3620 ±70 2198–1772 East Porth, Samson Charred seeds (naked barley) from OLS Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 62
HAR-4324 3490 ±100 2127-1535 Little Bay, St Martin’s Charcoal (gorse) from heath [60] in House 2. Neal 1983, 52; Radiocarbon 1985 27, 83
Wk-5690 3512 ±70 2026–1665 Porth Killier, St Agnes Twig of Ulnus sp (elm) of 20–30 years growth from fasal fill (156) in cist [163] below cairn [154]. Johns et al, forthcoming
OxA-26373 3492 ±28 1893–1702 Old Town Cist, St Mary’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
OxA-32024 3413±32 1870–1626 Old Quay, St Martin’s Charred ?food residue (external) Garrow & Sturt 2017, 127
OxA-26372 3386 ±29 1747–1621 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
OxA-26364 3365 ±28 1743–1564 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
HAR-1715 3190 ±110 1742–1133 Little Bay, St Martin’s Charcoal from hearth F in House 2. Of limited value due to high deviation? Neal 1983
OxA-36363 3319 ± 29 1683–1520 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
OxA-3647 3220 ±70 1664–1304 Porth Killier Charred seeds (Hordeum sp.) from layer 14 at top of midden in house exposed in cliff-section. C14 dates inconsistent with stratigraphy Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 67; Archaeometry 1995, 421-2
GU-5413 3250 ±50 1634–1426 Porthcressa Shell (Patella Vulgata) from midden 3 in house exposed in cliff-face Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 77
OxA-26370 3276 ±29 1626–1466 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
HAR-3694   3100 ±100 1611–1060 Higher Moors ?Peat. Of limited value due to high deviation? Scaife 1984
OxA-3648 3170 ±65 1611–1282 Porth Killier Charred seeds (Hordeum sp.) from layer 14 at base of midden in house exposed in cliff-section Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 67; Archaeometry 1995, 421-2
OxA-26367 3246 ±30 1611–1448 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87
OxA-4701 3165 ±55 1603–1284 Porthcressa Charcoal (Rosaceae) from midden in hutcircle exposed in cliff-face Ratcliffe & Straker 1996, 77; Archaeometry 1995, 421-2
OxA-26368 3215 ±28 1596–1425 Knackyboy Cairn, St Martin’s Cremated bone (human) Sawyer 2015, 87

Table 4.1 List of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age radiocarbon dates.

4.9.2   OSL dating

Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating was applied to sand-sized quartz taken from clean grey sand between intertidal ‘peat’ units found at Porth Mellon, St Mary’s, during the Lyonesse Project (Roberts and Marshall 2016).

Location Lab no. Context Material OSL Age
Porth Mellon, St Mary’s 161/LPPM1-1 15–17cm below surface of intertidal peat Quartz 4750 ±1210
Porth Mellon, St Mary’s 184/LPPM-2 0.11 ±002m down core Quartz 4630±250
Porth Mellon, St Mary’s 184/LPPM3B 0.03 ±0.01m down core Quartz 4290 ±250
Porth Mellon, St Mary’s 184/LPPM3A 0.17 ±0.02m down core Quartz 4120 ±250

Table 4.2  List of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age OSL Ages, expressed as years before AD 2010, rounded to the nearest 10 years.