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A recent gorse fire on Carn Brea, near Redruth in Cornwall, could provide an opportunity for further investigation of this interesting site. The fire – cause currently unknown, but arson is suspected – covered an area of around 3 hectares on the night of 26th May. The gorse (which burns easily and gives off a lot of heat – it was a source of fuel in past times) had grown quite high and dense in the affected area, and strong winds hindered firefighters attempts at controlling the blaze. I was actually in the area only last week, and Carn Brea is a well know landmark, providing good views on a clear day to an extensive section of the north coast of Cornwall, from Godrevy to St Agnes.

Carn Brea in flame - credit to Darrin Roberts

Carn Brea in flame – credit to Darrin Roberts

Carn Brea was first investigated in the early 1970’s by a team led by Roger Mercer, and their findings led to a new site classification: the Early Neolithic Tor Enclosure. Dating from nearly 6000 years ago, stone walls were built up between outcrops of the granite bedrock to form defensive enclosures around the top of the hill. Signs of early habitation were found, in the form of ‘lean-to’ buildings against the insides of the enclosing walls. In addition, up to 700 leaf-shaped arrowheads were among some outstanding finds – evidence of a past attack on the settlement. Nearby outcrops of rock suitable for manufacture as axes and edge grinding stones, blanks and incomplete and finished axes found on the site suggest the settlement was used for the manufacture and trading of tools. These investigations showed that the east end of the hill was the focus of most activity, whilst the fire was on the northwest flank, which was most heavily covered in vegetation. The hill displays evidence of human use almost continually since the Neolithic, with mining, quarrying and the building of a monument and a castle in more recent times.

Whilst gorse fires are dangerous, and damaging, the eco-structure tends to recover quite well from such events and the clearance factor can open up the landscape to inspection where before only vegetation was visible. It is to be hoped that the opportunity will be taken (once fire investigations have completed) to further survey the area in the weeks to come.

For more information about Early Neolithic Tor Enclosures, see Simon Davies’ excellent paper (PDF link)

Update (1st June): The blaze, which covered an area equivalent to 10 football pitches, destroyed gorse, heather and bilberry and it is estimated that the area will take ‘years’ to recover, according to the environment manager at Cornwall Council. Nesting birds, small mammals and reptiles  were among the casualties of the fire, which was apparently started by a disposable barbecue.

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