History of Porth Hellick Down Burial Chamber
This is one of the largest and best preserved of the distinctive burial chambers known as entrance graves.
Dating from about 2000 BC, Porth Hellick is the largest entrance grave in a scattered cemetery that includes six others, and two low cairns.
At the time when this imposing structure was built, most of Scilly comprised a single landmass. A steady rise in sea level has since engulfed the wide central lowlands, and with them the fertile farmland that provided the economic base for the first farmers, four to five thousand years ago.
As on Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, the early farmers built their ritual monuments on the upper slopes above the cultivated land. This grave, like others on Scilly, lies close to the edge of a prehistoric field system.
Entrance graves are perhaps the most impressive of Bronze Age ritual monuments, and that at Porth Hellick Down is typical in its design. It consists of a near-circular mound, about 39 ft (12m) in diameter and up to 5 ft (1.6m) high, which is retained by a kerb of stone slabs.
This mound is built around a stone-lined, roughly rectangular chamber, about 12 ft (3.5m) long and up to 5 ft (1.5m) high, which is roofed by four massive capstones. A long unroofed passage leads from the edge of the mound to the chamber entrance, its sides lined with stone slabs and rubble.
Unusually, passage and chamber are at angles to each other rather than in line, and the junction between the two is marked by a projecting jambstone, which almost blocks the passage. Surrounding the mound is a low, circular, outer platform, about 70 ft (21m) in diameter, whose outer edge is just visible as a slight slope-break.
During the excavation of the tomb in 1899, the capstones and the kerb around the mound were exposed, as well as an outer kerb around the edge of the platform. In the course of later restoration work the platform’s outer kerb was removed and the kerb around the mound was slightly modified.
The chamber’s contents had been destroyed or removed long before the excavation: the only finds were some fragments of Bronze Age pottery. However, entrance graves elsewhere have been found to contain cremated human bone and small burial urns – in one grave, Knackyboy Carn on St Martin’s, the remains of over 60 people were discovered.
Such entrance graves remained in use over a long period, and may have performed other functions, perhaps serving as shrines or as territorial markers.
Other well-preserved entrance graves on St Mary’s can be seen at Bant’s Carn and Innisidgen. Related sites on the mainland include Tregiffian Burial Chamber and Ballowall Barrow.
Ratcliffe, J, Scilly’s Archaeological Heritage (Truro, 2003)
Thomas, C, Exploration of a Drowned Landscape: Archaeology and History of the Isles of Scilly (London, 1985)
The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.