Bosporthennis courtyard houses

It is not every day that one sets out in pursuit of a possible new fogou; indeed, as dedicated fogou-hunters, we have already visited the eight ‘standard’ sites. However, a chance remark in Craig Weatherhill’s excellent Belerion sent us out on a bright September day in search of the courtyard huts and beehive hut at Bosporthennis, just to the west of Zennor.

The settlement is not easy to get to. Set among some stunning Iron Age fields, walled with mighty boulders, there is no natural path and we approached it across fields (with the permission of the farmer). Another possible approach would be from the side of the hill, Hannibal’s cairn.

Courtyard house gateway at Bosporthennis

It was worth the effort. Bosporthennis (‘dwelling  at the entrance to the isolated place’?) lies at the top of the shallow valley which includes the Porthmeor (‘large cove’) settlement barely 500m away which has its own fogou.

Looked at with a broad view, the whole valley must once have been a thriving series of small farms, each centred on individual courtyard houses, each with its own individual fields which would no doubt have been filled with livestock. Satisfyingly, the Tinners Way crosses the head of the valley at a rather marshy area, linking it to a known Iron Age thoroughfare.

Courtyard gateway at Bosporthennis

Little remains of the courtyard houses, certainly not as much as can be seen at Carn Euny or Chysauster. One is fairly easy to work out, with its courtyard and circular hut, each sporting a single vertical door jamb facing east. The rest are vestigial. But the view is worth a pause, the fields unrolling in front of you towards the modern Bosporthennis farm. This is another of those sites which feels as though it has been inhabited non-stop since the original dwellers dragged some stones together for protection from the elements.

Medieval walling at Bosporthennis

A short distance away is a complex which looks very different. A large rectangular field has walls reaching about 2.5m in height, well above the height of those in surrounding fields. At the south-east corner is the remains of a medieval house set amongst the remains of a former courtyard house. This takes some disentangling.

Bosporthennis Beehive hut: entrance from the medieval field

In the opposite north-east corner stands the beehive hut which Craig describes as … It is not known for certain what the Beehive hut actually was, but comparing it with the underground one at Carn Euny, some people believe it to be a unique form of above-ground fogou. [Belerion, 1981]

Bosporthennis Beehive hut. Note the small niche on the lower right

This is indeed an unusual structure and the comparison with Carn Euny is very apt. There are two entrances, one from the medieval field which is itself thought to be medieval, the other from an adjacent field which is probably original. There is also a third doorway giving onto a small rectangular space with a small niche alongside it, similar to that at Carn Euny, opposite the original entrance.

Bosporthennis Beehive hut. Note the discontinuity of stonework

There is strong evidence of former corbelling to create a roof but it is also clear that the structure has been -re-constructed/amended at later dates for the quality of workmanship and size of stones varies quite markedly. At one point there is a clear discontinuity of construction.

A short distance away is a round, another late Iron Age semi-defensive structure expressed here as a simple circular field boundary.

A fogou or not a fogou?

The Beehive hut is a fascinating structure and incredibly similar to the circular hut at Carn Euny but is it an above-ground fogou or not? Craig himself seems to have changed his opinion over time. In Belerion he says .. some people believe it to be a unique form of above-ground fogou. In his later book, Cornovia (1985), he says it is … now regarded as an above-ground fogou while the illustrated edition of the latter (2009) says … generally regarded as …

I suppose it comes down to the question of ‘what is a fogou?’

On the one hand we have  seven classical fogous all of which consist of straight/curving tunnels with certain familiar features, notably the ‘creep’ entrance, large roofing slabs and occasionally a trip stone or narrowing point in the passage. Some are above ground (Pendeen), some below ground (Hallyggye, Boleigh).

On the other we have Carn Euny which has both passage and beehive hut with the hut pre-dating the tunnel, and Bosporthennis with its beehive but no passage.

If we knew more about their purpose, we would be better able to answer the central question. Our feeling is that the beehive hut is a separate entity. It is surely hard to compare Pendeen fogou with Bosporthennis beehive hut and say they had the same purpose. Carn Euny is simply confusing things by having a hut and fogou attached to each other.

Corbelling is a technology in its own right and there is no doubt that it would have provided an excellent advance on the simple wood and turf roofs that probably covered courtyard houses. But it would also be a more difficult structure to create. Could it be that the two beehive huts we have – a mere five miles apart – are simply technological dead-ends. They tried corbelling but found it easier and more practical to stick with the familiar methods of wood and turf?

Either way, we would encourage a visit to this fascinating and beautiful part of Cornwall (on a sunny day) when the sky and distant sea are blue. Our ancestors knew how to choose a good spot for a house.

Having said that they are not easy to find:

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