Cup-Markings: OS Grid Reference – SX 199 868
Archaeology & History
This is an intriguing find inasmuch as cup-marked stones are rare in this part of the British Isles. Antiquarians have noted examples of such carvings in the Cornish townships of Davidstow, Delabole, Portreath, but very few others are known about. But in the once-impressive Tregulland Burrow barrow that was found here on the south-side of the road a few hundred yards up from Cold Northcott, just next to the old township boundary line, as many as eighteen carved stones were unearthed!
They were all found inside different sections of the barrow, which was built on top of an earlier cairn structure, which appears to have been built upon an even earlier concentric ring of upright wooden poles. The cup-marked stones appear to have been introduced, or etched, around the time when the cairn structure was laid on top of the concentric ring of stake-holes. This “tradition” of adding cup-marked stones to cairns is a feature found at a number of sites in the northern lands of Yorkshire, Northumbria and across the Scottish counties, but such a celebrated event as this in the far southwest is highly unusual! (although the custom is pretty universal and is found, not only in the UK, but in many parts of the world).
In Paul Ashbee’s (1958) excellent essay on this prehistoric tomb, he described the carvings at some considerable length — which is unusual for an archaeologist of that period — noting them as the “cup-marked and ornamented stones”. I hope that people won’t mind me repeating his lengthy notes on the relevant carved stones found in the tomb, the largest of which was on a big slab near the middle of the cairn that possessed cup-markings “and an ‘eyebrow’ motif”,* (figure 1, above) as he called it. He described the respective carvings as follows:
“From the Cairn-Ring:
1-2. A hog-backed outlined slate slab (figure 1, above). The bottom has a straight worked edge which suggests that the form was deliberate. On the inner face are four close-set cup-marks, and an ‘eyebrow’ device which has been made around a natural flaw, whilst the outer half has been formed by pecking and bashing to remove an appropriate amount of the laminated slate structure to form a depression. On the outer face there are four widely set cup-marks, one being connected by a channel to the edge of the slab…
3-4. A roughly rectangular slate slab. The upper face bears two cup-marks, one much smaller than the other, together with one abortive cup-mark, the lower a single cup-mark. Four perforations had been used to remove this slab from a parent block, the halves of these perforations gracing the upper edge. The slab was incorporated in the upper part of the cairn-ring material stacked against the largest of the sub-megalithic blocks of the cairn-ring.
5. The slab is hog-backed in outline, resembling No.1 above in general form. On the upper face, at a right-angle to the straight bottom edge, a channel had been produced by pecking, the marks of a pointed instrument being clearly discernible at the bottom of the channel. This channel extends almost from edge to edge of the slab, being narrow at the bottom and then expanding, being thus wider and then gradually tapering. Were it not asymmetrical it could be considered as a dagger representation.
6. A small block of roughly pentagonal outline, one side being irregular. The device it bears has been made by pecking an outline and removing the intervening laminated slatey rock. Found at the base of the cairn-ring on the south side.
7. A weathered pillow-like lump of a coarse sandstone-like rock. The plane face bears at least seven small ‘cup-marks.’ On other sides there are more weathered and uncertain marks which may well be natural. It was found surmounting, in a central position, the faced walling on the western side of the cairn-ring. Dr F.S. Wallis reports that: “This is evidently a sandstone rock with a large amount of quartz. This is a very generalized rock and I am afraid that it is not possible to tie it down to any particular part of Cornwall. The rock is much weathered and, judging from the print, I should say that the pits are entirely natural. Such a rock would hardly contain fossils and thus the pits could not have an organic origin.”
8. A roughly rectangular slate slab with opposing ‘cup-marks’ broken through before complete perforation. In addition there is a single cup-mark on the upper edge. (see figure 2) It was in the banked stones on the western side of the cairn-ring.
“From the soil bank:
1. An even, rectangular slab bearing a group of three cup-marks in one corner, and single cup-marks in two other corners. (see figure 3) From the outer cup-marks of the group run two channels. A channel runs from one of the solitary corner cup-marks. It was found, cup-marks and channels uppermost, almost exactly above the satellite cremation trench-grave.
2. A roughly triangular slab, bearing on its upper face a single centrally set cup-mark. Found by the cairn-ring in the eastern quadrant.
3. A small slab, of pentagonal outline, bearing a single shallow cup-mark. Found by the cairn-ring in the eastern side.
4. A thin U-shaped slab which has been battered into shape by edge chipping. A concavity has been made along the upper edge.
“From the ditch infilling:
5. A tough, quartz-veined slab with a shallow battered cup-mark. From the western side of the barrow.
6. A small, tough, even, rectangular piece of slate, bearing an abortive cup-mark. From the western side of the barrow.
7. A thin piece of slate bearing a small cup-mark set at a point where laminae of slate have left the piece. From the eastern side of the barrow.
All the “unstratified” cup-marked slabs recovered from the central disturbances, both recent and earlier, may well be derived from the destruction of the central grave arrangements.
8. A thick lozenge-outlined slab bearing one large cup-mark, and one smaller set side-by-side. (figure 4, above)
9. A roughly square-outlined slab with two cup-marks of even size set across one diagonal. (figure 5, below) One cup-mark has a smaller one close by it.
10-11. Irregular pieces of thin slate, bearing traces of perforations on their edges, one bearing cup-marks.
12. A roughly triangular slab bearing an ? unfinished cup-mark.
13. An even hexagonal slab that appears to have been, by edge trimming, worked into this form.”
The prolific collection of cup-marked stones in this once-impressive monument would probably indicate that the character buried here was of some significance to the local people, both to those who knew him and, evidently, in the subsequent mythologies surrounding the site (click here for the details of Tregullan Burrow barrow if you wanna know the archaeology and structure of the site). And although we find, statistically speaking, a lacking of other cup-markings in this region, it’s more than likely there are others that are hiding away amidst other old tombs and rocks…
- Ashbee, Paul, “The Excavation of Tregulland Burrow, Treneglos Parish, Cornwall,” in Antiquaries Journal, volume 38, 1958.
* the eyebrow motif description was used by a number of archaeo’s for sometime following publication of O.G.S. Crawford’s book, The Eye Goddess, to which the Antiquity Journal editor speculated some cup-and-rings may have owed their origin.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian