Archaeologists from Historic England and the Cornwall Archaeology Unit (CAU) have uncovered proof that a standing stone circle once stood inside Castilly Henge, a Neolithic-period earthwork found near Bodmin, Cornwall, a small town in southwestern England in 1962. The henge was constructed between the years 3000 and 2500 BC, and the rediscovered stone circle would have been added to the ceremonial site sometime within that timeframe.
Until now no one had ever suspected that a stone circle might have existed in this out-of-the-way location. Its discovery will force scholars to adjust their thinking about the motivations of the builders of Castilly Henge, who may have been more religiously observant that had previously been believed.
Long Hidden Castilly Henge Finally Reveals Its Secrets
This exciting new discovery emerged from archaeological surveys of what had been a lightly explored site. In 2021 Historic England and the Cornwall Archaeology Unit formed a partnership to conserve and repair damaged or degraded monuments throughout Cornwall county, and the administrators of their joint Monument Management Scheme selected Castilly Henge as a site in need of protection (it was already listed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register). After the protection order was issued Monument Management Scheme officials recruited a team of volunteers to clear the henge of its thick vegetative cover , which could eventually damage underground ruins and artifacts if nothing was done to restrain its growth.
“The help of the local volunteers has been invaluable in removing the bracken and scrub obscuring the henge,” proclaimed CAU archaeologist Peter Dudley in an Historic England press release . “Over the winter, thirteen people gave 111 hours of their time and now the monument is looking so much better. The project has also re-fenced the field and the farmer is happy to start grazing again, improving the long-term management of this amazing archaeological site.”
A panoramic look at the “new” Castilly Henge in Cornwall, England, which had been forgotten under dense vegetation for a long, long time. ( Cornwall Archaeological Unit / Historic England )
With the henge cleared of the dense, thick foliage that had made it inaccessible for so long, archaeologists were provided with their first opportunity to perform a comprehensive topographic and geophysical survey of the site. The full results of this study will be released later this year, but Historic England has chosen to announce the discovery of the previously undetected stone circle now, in light of the significance of this stunning find.
Like many other similar earthworks found in England, Castilly Henge consists of an oval-shaped outer enclosure that surrounds an interior ditch and a large tear-drop-shaped flat mound that is located in the henge’s center. The complete earthen structure is an impressive 223 feet (68 meters) long and 203 feet (62 meters) wide, while the inner platform is 157 feet (48 meters) long and 92 feet (28 meters) wide.
It was right in the middle of the platform that the archaeologists and their volunteer assistants discovered the remnants of a buried stone circle. While Cornwall is covered with a vast collection of stone circles and monuments that date back far into the past, this is only the second stone circle ever found on a Cornwall henge.
Built by late Neolithic period farmers , the henge would have formed an amphitheater-shaped structure that could have hosted large religious ceremonies and grand banquets. Other notable social events may have taken place inside the henge’s curved border walls as well, as the henge would have been seen as a sacred space that would confer blessings on all who visited.
Earlier research found evidence to suggest that the henge was used as a staging ground for public plays in the Middle Ages, and then as a military installation during the English Civil War of the 17th century. Since Neolithic stone circles in England were usually installed to align with important astronomical objects or to highlight dramatic events in the heaven, it seems that the original builders were deeply religious and saw Castilly Henge as a metaphysically and spiritually significant site.
“The [latest] research at Castilly Henge has given us a deeper understanding of the complexity of this site and its importance to Cornish history over thousands of years,” explained Ann Preston-Jones, a Heritage Risk Project officer at Historic England. “It will help us make decisions about the way the monument is managed and presented so that it can be enjoyed by generations to come.”
It can be extremely difficult to preserve ancient mounds, monuments, or ruins that are found in rural, underpopulated locations. This image shows King Arthurs Hall, a famous megalithic monument on Bodmin Moor, which is very close to the newly discovered Castilly Henge. (Dietrich Krieger / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Protecting a Priceless Heritage
It can be extremely difficult to preserve ancient mounds, monuments, or ruins that are found in rural, underpopulated locations. While Stonehenge has become world-famous, guaranteeing its eternal preservation, sites like Castilly Henge are often forgotten by all but the most dedicated students of ancient history. The Heritage at Risk Register is designed to call attention to such sites, to help rally the public to support efforts to protect them from vandalism, agricultural or construction activity, or long-term neglect.
Once overgrown with thick bracken and other dense vegetation, Castilly Henge has now been opened for further archaeological exploration. The freshly cleared area has been fenced in and reserved for grazing, which will prevent excessive plant growth from covering it over in the future.
The discovery of the stone circle on the henge has led to a reconsideration of the site’s historical importance. That will give local and national officials plenty of incentive to make sure Castilly Henge is carefully preserved in the years to come.
Top image: An aerial view of Castilly Henge, a classic horseshoe henge that had long been hidden in dense vegetation in a lonely landscape. Source: Cornwall Archaeological Unit / Historic England
By Nathan Falde