Gwithian: Dark Age secrets from the dunes

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Interviewed by The Cornishman in 1954 shortly after setting up his excavation at Gwithian, Charles Thomas, a young graduate of the Institute of Archaeology in London, explained his ambition: ‘A dig such as this, systematically developed through the years, is going to provide a background to Cornish history such as has never been worked through before.’

Gwithian became the scene of a major archaeological landscape project from the late 1940s into the 1960s. Over 70 sites were investigated, dating from the Mesolithic to the post-medieval periods, through excavations large and small, field surveys, and field-walking. The site lies on the east side of St Ives Bay in a sheltered location, and if, as seems likely, the extent of the estuarine foreshore was wider than today, it may have made a fine anchorage.

In the post-Roman period, as indeed 2,000 years earlier during the Bronze Age, Gwithian is likely to have been more coastal. The sandy location has created an alkaline environment that preserved many classes of finds, including, unusually for Cornwall, large quantities of animal bone. This was the first time that a sequence spanning this period had been discovered in Cornwall, and the large collection of pottery found within the layers has challenged traditional images of the county’s ‘Dark Age’.

{mosimage}Occupation at Gwithian appears to date from the late 5th to the 8th century AD. It appears to have been a specialised craft centre – one without parallel in the South West – and its unusual buildings probably seasonal workshop shelters. Exactly how, why, and by whom they were used remains uncertain. The excavated site was perhaps an out-of-town complex established to service a nearby contemporary domestic settlement, the evidence of which has yet to be located, but whose remains may well lie within the (larger) unexcavated part of the dunes. 


For the full article, see Current Archaeology 220

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