Lighting the Darkness – Tregeseal passage grave and cross based urns

First appeared in Meyn Mamvro Issue 100, First Series, Winter 2019

Tregeseal, Scillonian Style Passage Grave

The importance of the Sun has been recognised throughout history. This luminous body defined the lives of people it shone on and the clocklike regularity of its rise and the set was well understood by humanity. Due to its significance symbolic representation of the Sun stretches far back into prehistory. Designs including the Sun weren’t uncommon and by the Bronze Age examples of solar symbolism are found across a range of mediums. Drawings and designs were often abstract in nature. Representation included circles, waves and cross shapes. The cruciform shape in particular has been linked to the Sun by Mary Cahill (2015) and her work on Irish Sun discs. These are flat circular objects made of gold, designed to shine brightly when sunlight radiates onto them. The etching of a cross on the surface shows the rays of the Sun in a conceptual way, maybe representing various solar events such as; Sundogs, pillars, rays and halos. Although no Sun discs have been found in Cornwall, these golden objects have also been linked to the lunula. A lunula was found with a pair of Sun discs in Coggalbeg, Co Roscommon, confirming an association. Furthermore designs on lunula lend themselves to observation with sunlight. There are examples of lunula found here in Cornwall and if you get the chance it is worth visiting the Penlee House Gallery where the Penwith Lunula is on display.

Sun discs with cross-shaped designs were found at Tedavnet, Co. Monaghan Ireland. Image Credit: The British Museum.

Other objects discovered in Cornwall from this period incorporate a cross design. Although perhaps not as glamorous as a golden disc, local urns can include a similar decoration. Trevisker style urns are a design of urn which are predominantly found in the South West of the UK. Dating from the Bronze Age the style is known for its hash/dash and zig-zag lines and use of local materials such as gabbroic clay from the Lizard peninsular. On occasion, the urns have a cross or cruciform design within the interior of the base. This seems to be a rare occurrence but there have been examples of cross based urns found at the Trevisker village excavation, Boleigh barrow, Tregeseal chambered tomb and an example from further afield in Kent. This final example was placed in a ring ditch, and the soot recovered from inside the Urn was radio carbon-dated to 1600-1320 cal BC. It was found shattered into over 200 pieces but was reconstructed, with its internally crossed base being clearly observable.
The urn from the Tregeseal chambered tomb was recovered by William Copeland Borlase in 1879. Found at the end of the passage, in a separate area, it was recovered almost complete by Borlase during his excavation. It now resides within the British Museum. Tregeseal Chambered tomb is part of a group of Bronze Age entrance graves in Penwith which include Bosiliack, Tregiffian and Pennance. As an aside radiocarbon dating results on a burial at Bosiliack gave 1690-1510 cal BC (Jones, A and Thomas, C. 2010) a similar date to the urn found in Kent. The Tregeseal urn is a large example and is 21 inches in height. The Cross shape was meticulously drawn in plan form at the time. The plan was reproduced in the London Illustrated Times and it can also be seen on the wall of the Penlee House Gallery Museum in Penzance.

Trevisker Urn from Tregeseal. Image Credit British Museum Collection Online.
The cross itself would not be integral to the structure of the urn. There seems to be no practical explanation as to why an urn of this size would have this addition in the base. It is therefore interesting to consider if some Trevisker urns could be following the tradition of Sun discs and offer a design that is indicative of solar symbolism? One aspect which strengthens the case of this idea is that the Urn would have started as a disc shape on which the cross shape would be added. Then the sides would have been added to the urn creating the final vessel. Looking down from the mouth of the urn it would have clearly taken on representation of the Sun in a similar way to the Sun disc design. An alternative explanation has been offered by Kavanagh, R (1973) who suggested that the cross was added to demonstrate a bottom of a basket and was a nod to the basketry traditions of the period.

The Tregeseal Urn base – in plan.
Image credit: Report by W.C Borlase circa 1879

The Tregeseal example was discovered within the tomb base up, containing cremated remains. So the cross would have been above the remains. This could have been intentional. Many funerary urns are found base up. A cross at the top could represent a number of ideas. A Sun in the dark? A route to the heavens? A set Sun? There was just one time of the year which the Sun would shine down the chamber to its rear. This was the winter solstice sunrise. A recent survey undertaken by Carolyn Kennett and Grenville Prowse supervised by Penwith Landscape Partnership archaeologist Jeanette Radcliffe found the passage to be orientated at 128degrees. This orientation towards the solar extreme of winter solstice sunrise is in common with local tombs at Bosiliack and Pennance. On this day the sunlight would shine down the passageway hitting the back upright stone at the rear. The urn was positioned behind this back stone in a separate area or cist. Although currently it is difficult to understand the full design of the tomb, as this rear section has been removed and our understanding is reliant on the original plan from the Borlase excavation. It is also worth considering if the positioning of the urn in a separate section was intentional? This position would ensure that no natural sunlight would reach the urn at any time. The symbolism may have shown that it was providing its own light, even on this important day of renewal in the solar calendar.
A photograph taken by Gibson and Sons at the time of the excavation shows a possible blocking stone at the start of the passageway, which would have further limited light down the passage on the solstice. There is no evidence remaining of this stone now, so it is difficult to understand the overall effect this would have had on limiting light at the solstice. It is worth remembering that the final resting place of this urn probably came after a life of servitude. The urn in Kent had traces of animal fats within it and was probably used as a transportation vessel for food before its final role as a funerary urn.
Trevisker style urns are not the only vessels to include crosses on their base. Although in general this cruciform addition to urns is rare and seems to be reserved for the more decorative funerary examples. Other examples of cross based urns have been found in Ireland, Scotland and Yorkshire.
As a final thought, I doubt we shall ever know the full truth behind this oddity in the design, but it is a nice idea to consider that the cross was added by our ancestors to bring light to the darkest of places.

Cahill, M. (2015) Here comes the Sun – Solar symbolism in Early Bronze Age Ireland. Archaeology Ireland 29(1), 26-33,, 2015.

Jones, A and Thomas, C (2010) Bosiliack and a reconsideration of Entrance Graves. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 76, 2010, pp 271-296.

Kavanagh, R (1973) The Encrusted Urn in Ireland, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature, Vol. 73 (1973), pp. 507-617

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