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Iron Age Settlement



A replica Iron Age roundhouse has been constructed in the heart of the ancient landscape of Penwith. Simon Parker met the man who built it
Iron Age Roundhouse is 'dragged from the earth'

William Borlase, the father of Cornish archaeology, had his passion for the subject sparked by the simple fact that as a boy he grew up grubbing about in Pendeen Vau, the astonishingly well preserved fougou situated under the yard of his home close to the cliffs in West Cornwall.

Borlase whose Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall became the authoritative text when it was published in 1754, was very much a product of circumstance, having been lucky enough to live at the ornate granite farm at Pendeen, and to have been blessed with the intellect and educational opportunities to allow him to pursue his passion for antiquity.

Fred Mustill is in many ways similar to old man Borlase in that his latent love of archaeology was rekindled when he, his wife, Penny, and daughter Emma, moved to a 50 acre smallholding at Bodrifty below Mulfra Hill on the Penwith Moors overlooking Mount's Bay some 25 years ago. The neglected splat of land they took on, which includes some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in Cornwall, is also the site of a late Bronze Age and Iron Age village consisting of at least nine roundhouses in various states of preservation.

For two decades as Fred and Penny struggled to make a living and to renovate the farmhouse and the buildings the Iron Age village was a place to walk, to study and to marvel at. But about five years ago Fred's curiosity about the lives of the former inhabitants grew, and he decided to build a replica roundhouse in what is essentially his back garden in order to understand more fully the lives of the ancients. Bodrifty itself is a scheduled monument and Fred fights a constant battle with braken and gorse, which each year threatens to undermine the stones.

The area surrounding Bodrifty has surviving evidence of occupation from Neolithic times, through the Bronze Age and Iron Age, mediaeval times, through to the mines of the 18th and 19th century.

The original Bodrifty village would have been home to more than 100 people living off the land at any one time and was continually occupied for about 1,000 years. Fred is a builder by trade and he says that he always feels that restoring old houses is a kind of archaeological activity. The construction of the roundhouse seemed a logical progression.

He says he often hoped to one day have the time to build a replica roundhouse so when a small grant became available in 1999, he took the plunge.

"I have worked as a builder for many years and have an instinct to mend broken buildings," he said. "Obviously, I couldn't do this to the village because it's a scheduled monument, but a replica seemed a really good way of finding out about the construction techniques of the time.

"I did quite a bit of research and looked at what other people had done in both Cornwall and elsewhere. I didn't copy any of them, but solved construction problems as they arose, according to the material we had and the terrain in which we were working. We ended up with a double hexagonal ring beam which, a visiting academic tells us is unique." Fred recalls that at the outset he envisaged the whole construction project being completed in a relatively short time.

"I originally put aside a few weeks for reconstruction but it actually took two years," he said as we talked in the cool shade of the roundhouse as the August sun baked the earth outside. "To do it as accurately as possible we needed to use very large stones, and moving these alone was a real feat. Then there were two very wet winters. It is hard to believe on a day like this, but at some stages it was like the battle of the Somme out there - drainage proved quite a problem.'

He says he and his volunteers have enjoyed a unique insight into the building techniques employed by the ancient people and the problems they would have faced. "Moving those rocks was difficult enough with a tractor, but without any machinery it must have been an immense task," he said.

As well as shifting granite rocks weighing several tons, hundreds of feet of timber had to be felled, hauled,shaped and lashed and, hundreds of hours were spent cutting reeds for the roof at Marazion Marshes. Traditional rab (granite sub soil) was used for the mortar, with oak, ash, holly and hazel for the roof coming from local woods. The roof was constructed with reference to a number of post holes identified during an archaeological excavation of Bodrifty in the 1950s.

The finished replica is an interpretation of the largest roundhouse at Bodrifty village, which is itself surprisingly well preserved after more than 2,000 years, with walls still 4 ft high in some places. It is said to be one of the best roundhouse remains of its type. "We literally dragged this building from the earth right here, just as the original inhabitants would have done. We used the same granite which generations of farmers have pulled from the fields. The work just went on and on, and last year the water rose higher and higher."

To mark the completion of the project, Channel Four's Time Team, including Phil Harding, descended on Bodrifty for an opening, as part of the filming of excavations at Gear Farm hill fort near Helston. Also present for the event were Dr. Peter Reynolds of Butser Ancient Farm, where the first hands on experiments with ancient living began in the 1970s, and Dave Freeman of Gallica.

Fred now hopes that the roundhouse will be used as an educational resource.

"We see the house as being used by local children and anyone interested in history and archaeology and want it to become a registered charity. I think the key to understanding the future may lie in understanding the past. We would like local people to become involved in developing and teaching ancient skills like spinning, weaving, pottery, woodwork, even farming. Neil Burridge, a local expert in prehistoric smelting also plans to run sessions."

"We don't want a theme park here, but people are welcome to call in," says Fred. "The village site which is on the farm has always been open to all, and the replica roundhouse is only a short walk away."

Volunteers are always welcome to go along and help maintain the site. Anyone who makes the effort to visit the roundhouse will inevitably try to imagine the lives of those ancients who inhabited this area of moor so long ago. And, as they sit beneath the thatch, they might also be tempted to wonder whether in a thousand years our distant descendants will be gazing at this 21st century roundhouse and wondering what kind of man was Fred Mustill.

Settlement spanned 1,000 years

The Bodrifty roundhouse settlement, which was occupied for 1000 years, lie a few miles northwest of Penzance in the middle of the Penwith Peninsula.

It is also an area rich in monuments, with more than 16 quoits and tombs from the Neolithic period, and 20 stone monuments from the Bronze Age, seven being stone circles or holed stones.

The Bodrifty settlement started in the late Bronze Age, but is classed as Iron Age and is one of 30 Iron Age sites.

It was excavated between 1950 and 1954 by West Cornwall Field Club, when some 3,000 shards of pottery were found, some of which can be seen in the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro.

Modern Archaeologists claim that the excavation was carried out in a way that would not be acceptable today, with rocks, earth and paving simply tossed into heaps and left. This was not only destructive and resulted in many walls being undermined, but also confuses the appearance of the site.

The village site is of particular interest as it was occupied from the later Bronze Age to the late Iron Age. The early houses have south-west facing doorways, and the late ones (like the replica) are facing south east. Fred Mustill says its existence and demise might tell us something about climate change.

"There is a whole prehistoric farm up there fossilised in the ground," he says. "It once supported large population living off the land. But an ecological disaster happened a long time ago, and the moors turned into deserts that never again supported life."

The Bodrifty roundhouse replica, based on the largest of the original structures, has an internal diameter of 27ft (8.5 metres); an external diameter of 35 ft (13 metres); and a height of 36 ft (13.1 metres) and a roof pitch of 49 degrees.

Bodrifty can be found on the Land's End map in the Ordnance Survey Landranger series, ref: NGSW 445354

Bodrifty Farm, Newmill, Penzance, Cornwall TR20 8XT, UK | Tel: UK(0044) 1736-361217