We headed back the way we had come, to take the narrow turning we had missed…a fortuitous misstep which had allowed us to see Cape Cornwall. We were looking for an old tin-mining site where, once upon a time, something quite remarkable had been found buried beneath the debris.
Ballowall… Krug Karrekloos in Cornish and sometimes called Carn Gloose… is a cliff top barrow that was first begun in the Neolithic era, which began around six thousand years ago, and which saw continued use through the Bronze Age. The factual description of the place is the easy bit. Borlase, the Cornish antiquarian who first excavated the site, not long after it was exposed beneath the mining debris, was drawn to the barrow in 1878 by the miners’ tales of strange lights and dancing fairies.
The excavation was not up to modern standards… they seldom were in the early days of archaeology. Finds were not fully recorded and have been lost over the years. Interpretation was not always well-informed and the reconstructions undertaken were sometimes less than accurate. Even so… this place is quite unique.
The barrow is seventy-two feet across, and while its walls now stand ten feet high, they would have originally been twice that height, making it a striking and impressive structure, perched on the moorland above the sea where the rays of the setting sun would touch the pale stone with gold and illuminate its entrance.
The first phase of the barrow was a central chambered tomb. Later, in the Bronze Age, the outer ‘apron’ of walling was added, with Borlase creating a walkway between during his reconstruction. Within the central chamber five stone-lined burial cists were found, containing fragments of pottery that were probably funerary urns for cremation burials. There are also two deep pits that were probably graves.
The central chamber is a beehive-shaped structure, with walls that slope upwards and inwards, very similar in shape to the strange chamber in the fougou at Carn Euny. Beyond its walls is the later walkway which, though it damaged some of the cists, allows you to see the other burial places and graves within the structure. The apron or curtain wall that surrounds the whole is also pierced by a grave chamber that contained Bronze Age pottery and bone.
The site may have continued to be a place of reverence long after the final burial and building work was completed. For how long, there is no way of knowing, though a Roman coin was also found during the excavations, and the Romans were here until the early years of the fifth century.
We arrived, once more shrouded in mist, to find the site deserted, mysterious and not at all happy about its current state. I did say that ‘facts were the easy bit’. The barrow rises from a sea of bracken and wildflowers, with purple heather and the blue of sheep’s-bit punctuating the green. Stonecrop and other succulents nestle between the stones and the air is alive with the buzzing of bees.
We walked the perimeter, marvelling at the stonework and the beauty of the place. In an ancient landscape unmarked by the spectral skeletons of the mines looming through the mist, the structure would have commanded attention from afar. Within the greater prehistoric landscape of the area, strewn with hill- and cliff-forts, Ballowall would have been a sacred and significant place, home to the ancestors and a link with both the past of the clan and with the Otherworld.
Climbing the apron, we entered the inner walkway created by Borlase and trod the circle around the central chamber. He may have maimed the site with his interpretation of its form, but in doing so, he inadvertently returned a sense of awe and mystery to the barrow. You walk the narrow passageway, embraced by the walls that still tower above your head and feel the touch of the past, a breath on the nape of the neck, a whisper in the shadows. Finally, we entered the central chamber and sat for a while in the place of the dead.
Here, we were the ghosts… the beings out of sync with time, whose place was in another world and another era. We did not belong within the resting place of the ancestors… and yet, we were not unwelcome guests.
The only thing that the graves now hold are wildflowers, bees and memories. Within the walls of the tomb there is a silence that goes beyond sound. The air itself flows differently as the wind is forbidden entry and, though roofed only with mist, the walls amplify each quiet word.
The barrow, though a tomb, is not an unhappy place. It is a place of peace and is as welcoming as all of these ancient houses of the dead seem to be. There is none of the modern fear of death…only respect and a kind of familiar reverence for those who have passed into the beyond and who guard the way for those who are to come after them. Yet something in the stones felt saddened and in need.
It is one of those things impossible to describe without sounding like a basket case, but we both felt the same thing… the chamber wanted to be closed, re-roofed, restored to its womblike state. Just a few hours earlier we had worked in another beehive chamber at Carn Euny. We knew how it should feel, what it should look like, how such a chamber would sound. And so, in imagination, we rebuilt the chamber. Stone by stone, tier by tier, we restored the roof and, before we left, sealed it behind us.
Such things may sound strange, but these ancient sites still speak to something deep within the human heart. Those who were laid to rest here were our distant kin. Go back far enough in time and we are all kindred. Human imagination is a potent thing, residing at the heart of magic, mystery and emotion…even respect. All that we imagine has a reality on its own plane, and although, when we departed, the site looked no different from when we had arrived, something had changed.
Whether that change was in the spirit of the place, or whether it was in us, this simple act of respect for the ancestral dead, and for the once-living who had held the place as sacred, made a difference. There are ancestral memories in our DNA, folk memories that speak to us beyond logic, and each site seems to carry its own signature experience that can be shared by those who ‘open up and get out of the way’. We do not always have to understand. We do not even have to believe… we can simply set aside disbelief and accept the experience that the moment offers. And usually, that is its own reward.