Entrance Graves

Entrance Graves have a very restricted distribution, they are found only at the very tip of Cornwall and on the Scilly Isles. Around 14 definite Entrance Graves are known on the mainland compared to about 106 on the islands, but these figures are probably under-estimates in both cases. Mainland tombs may have been misidentified as Round Barrows, a monument they strongly resemble in an unexcavated state. It is likely that many Scilly tombs now lie under the sea as the present land area of the Scilly Isles is a fraction of its prehistoric extent. The present islands represent only the high ground of the former habitable area and since Entrance Graves are found at all elevations on the mainland, it is probable that many of the island tombs now lie submerged. Powell (1) has pointed out similarities between the Scilly group of Entrance Graves and a small number of Passage Graves around Tramore in County Waterford Eire. Some of the Irish tombs have many Entrance Grave features, particularly the tomb at Carriglong (2), so it may well be that there was a strong Tramore-Scilly connection in prehistory.

The earliest accounts of Entrance Graves are probably those of the Borlase family beginning in the mid 18th century, but it is not until 1932 that Hencken (3) defines Entrance Graves as a distinctive monument class.

Entrance Graves are upstanding monuments, their mounds reaching 2.5m high with most in the 1m to 1.5m range. The mounds are generally round or slightly oval in plan and consist of packed earth, stones and boulders. The typical original profile of the mounds is unknown, existing mounds having been eroded or restored. These are small monuments, their mound diameters ranging from 3m to 21m with the majority in the 6m to 12m range. The mound is retained by a kerb of large boulders which can show height and size grading towards the entrance. A few tombs have a low platform of stones surrounding the kerb and extending outwards for up to 3m.

Entrance Graves are chambered and an unusual feature of this class is that the chambers usually extend well beyond the midpoint of mound. The example at Brane being an extreme example of this trait. Chamber construction varies, large slabs were employed at Brane, whilst dry stone walling was used at Pennance and a mixture of these methods at Tregiffian.  Earthfast boulders and massive orthostats are also employed in the tombs with larger chambers. Roofs are formed using large flat slabs resting on the side walls with packing stones sometimes being incorporated for levelling purposes.

Entrance to the chamber is through a simple gap in the kerb, in some tombs the flanking kerbs project into the gap, constricting the entrance. Chambers generally open to the east, but examples exist opening on most other directions.

Some chambers are roofed over their whole length and some have an open unroofed section running from the kerb to the chamber proper. There are also several variations in chamber plan, Daniel (4) proposed a classification scheme for Entrance Graves based on chamber form:-

  1. Two element chambers with an outer section running from the edge of the kerb to meet the inner section at an angle.
  2. Chambers that increase in width towards the rear, but have straight side walls.
  3. Chambers where the portal and back wall are the same width, but the walls are not straight, so that the middle of chamber is wider. This class is subdivided into C1 - one wall straight, and C2 neither wall straight, the latter being the most common.
  4. Constant width chambers

Entrance Graves are burial monuments, the primary burial often being cremated bone and charcoal deposited in a small pit in the chamber floor. Another common find in Entrance Graves is one or more pots or urns filled with cremated bone. The pots range in date from late Neolithic to middle Bronze Age, hinting at a long currency of use and re-use. Although cremation is the usual practice seen in the deposits, many of the tombs are in areas of acid soil which would not allow unburnt bone to survive intact.

Entrance Graves are thought to date from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, this assessment being based largely on pottery finds. Opposing this view, Ashbee (5) has suggested a much earlier Mesolithic or early Neolithic date based on typological considerations.

The large amounts of middle Bronze Age pottery found in many tombs is looked upon as being evidence of later reuse of the monuments. It is possible that some tombs are of multi-phase construction, the addition of a second outer element being an explanation for the unusual form of the type A chambers. In the absence of radiocarbon dating evidence from known primary deposits, the true age of these tombs is presently uncertain. Considering the evidence available, it seems likely that Entrance Graves were constructed from the late third to the early second millennium BC, with an overall period of use covering about 700 years.

1. Powell T.G.E.  Proc. Prehist. Soc. 7, 142-3 1941
2. Powell T.G.E  J. Cork Hist Archaeol Soc 46, 55-62 1941
3. Hencken H.  The Archaeology of Cornwall and Scilly, 1932, Metheun
4. Daniel G. The Prehistoric Chambered Tombs of England and Wales, 1950, Cambridge University Press.
5. Ashbee P.  Cornish Archaeol, 21, 3-22 1982