Chysauster Ancient Village, Cornwall

Chysauster Ancient Village has been dated to the Roman period, although similar settlements in Cornwall were known to have been occupied during the Iron Age, and indeed some fragments of Iron Age pottery were excavated from Chysauster. However, most of the finds were Romano-Cornish ware, leading to the belief that the main period of construction was between the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

These 'courtyard houses' were peculiar to West Cornwall, and often associated with hill-fort settlements. Chysauster Ancient Village is an exceptional example of the standardised house type, but even more amazing is the regular lay-out of the buildings - perhaps another factor of the Roman influence. But with so little evidence of everyday life from various excavations of the site, Chysauster Ancient Village remains something of a mystery. How long was the site occupied? What work was carried out by the villagers? Why was the village subsequently abandoned when the Romans left?

Today, some nine separate dwellings can be explored, mostly excavated during the 1930s by Dr Hencken. Although each house generally consists of a main entrance leading to an open courtyard on one side, with two round rooms and a long room on the other side, there are slight variations. A couple of the houses seem to have additional rooms or annexes, but it could be that they are surviving rooms of a semi-detached dwelling. The function of the courtyard area was possibly to accommodate livestock, as many have a defined 'bay' on the left. All the houses were constructed within very thick walls, and all the round rooms were found to have a hollowed stone, suggesting a timber pole was held in place to support some kind of turfed or thatched roof structure.

Every house at Chysauster Ancient Village had a water channel, bringing water in through the entrance and draining it away under the south-east wall. These channels are commonly found in courtyard area, some with their stone covers still in place, and others appear in the smaller rooms as well. In House 6, Dr Hencken uncovered a U-shaped stone structure running around the north side of the round room which could possibly have served as a sleeping bench. Finally, most of the houses appear to have had a garden terrace, perhaps indicating that this was a 'new' development where additional space could be created.

Located about 495ft (150m) south of the main settlement is yet another intriguing feature of Chysauster Ancient Village. Here lies the remains of a 'fogou' (or constructed cave), usually built within the confines of the village, and mostly associated with Iron Age occupation. This suggests that the site may well have been inhabited before the Romans, and that the former settlement extended to the outer boundaries to incorporate the fogou. What the purpose of this stone-lined, underground passage-way was is yet another unknown fact, but some theories include a cellar or store, a refuge, or a religious centre. A much better preserved example of a Cornish fogou can be entered at Carn Euny, where the 66ft (20m) passage leading to a large round chamber, has been fully excavated.

As the definitive history of Chysauster Ancient Village is unlikely ever to be revealed, the site provides plenty of food for the fertile mind. Wandering among the dry-stone walls, now dressed with nature's growth, you can speculate on the simplicity of a life spent among these granite hills. Of course, it may well have been a 'luxury' development for its former inhabitants, and it certainly offers rich pickings for today's wildlife.


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