History of Chysauster Ancient Village
Chysauster is one of the best-preserved ancient villages in Britain. A close-knit community lived and worked here between the late 1st century and the end of the 3rd century AD, a time when much of Britain was under Roman rule. The villagers lived in stone-walled houses, each with a number of rooms arranged round a courtyard – a unique house layout found only in late Iron Age and Romano-British settlements in western Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Although the courtyard houses at Chysauster were built in the Romano-British period, the settlement probably has its origins in the middle Iron Age (from about 400 BC), and occupation in the surrounding area is likely to have begun much earlier. Aerial photography and field surveys have revealed the remnants of prehistoric field systems and associated small round houses in the landscape, probably dating from the Bronze Age (2300–800 BC).
In the Iron Age, the settlement pattern in West Penwith (the westernmost part of Cornwall) seems to have shifted from scattered, isolated houses to villages like Chysauster.
Life in the Village
Chysauster was surrounded by fields, where the inhabitants grazed their flocks of sheep and grew cereal crops. The field boundaries have survived for 2,000 years as low walls and earthworks.
The village is laid out on top of a series of field lynchets, probably dating to the late Iron Age. Lynchets are ridges created by the build-up of soil along the lower boundary of a field when it is ploughed. These long fields were divided into smaller plots, creating the characteristic brick-shaped fields of this period.
Closer to home, people probably used their garden plots to grow vegetables and keep pigs. The villagers may have been involved in tin-streaming, using stream water to separate tin ore from sediments. The tin may have been exchanged or exported, along with woollen cloth and agricultural produce.
It is likely that a network of trusted chiefs organised trade in tin and agricultural produce from a series of local centres, including defended hillforts and coastal cliff castles. The larger courtyard house settlements often seem to be found near one of these small hillforts – Chysauster lies less than a mile west of the impressive hillfort of Castle-an-Dinas.
Below: A reconstruction drawing showing the village as it may have looked at its peak, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD
© Historic England/English Heritage Trust (illustration by Peter Urmston)
South of the houses at Chysauster lie the remains of a fogou – a term derived from the Cornish word for a cave. As the name implies, fogous are stone-built underground tunnels, usually with a long passage and sometimes a chamber. They are distinctive monuments found only in the far west of Cornwall – there are 15 definite fogous, including Halliggye and Carn Euny, and another ten possible examples. Most were built during the later Iron Age (about 400 BC–AD 43).
The original purpose of fogous is unknown. Traditionally they have been interpreted as storehouses for food or valuables, or as refuges to be used during times of conflict. However, it is more likely that they had a ritual or ceremonial purpose of some kind.
The fogou at Chysauster was described as partly destroyed in 1865, with further damage recorded in 1938. It remained accessible to visitors until 1986, when the structure became unstable and a grille was installed. It has never been excavated, so its original size and shape remain unknown.