The cover of my novel Harm None—the first in the Davies and West mystery series set in Cornwall, England—is dominated by the image of a massive stone monument, a thirteen ton slab of granite perched atop three hulking stone pillars. The image is not photo-shopped, it’s real. It’s been real for at least 5,000 years, maybe longer. It’s prehistoric. It is called Lanyon Quoit and is technically a dolmen, believed to have been a burial chamber for a chief or shaman, originally covered with earth and stone. It stands on a lonely hill but it’s hardly alone. It’s one of several in this area.
But that’s just the beginning. The far southwestern tip of Cornwall, called West Penwith, is home to the largest concentration of Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Age stone monuments in all of Europe: standing stones, stone circles, hill forts, settlements, long barrows, clusters of stone huts (their foundations intact), sacred wells, ceremonial underground fogous, not to mention ancient field systems bordered by stone walls (called “hedges” here) that suggest stone was the prehistoric settlers’ first “harvest.”
The variety is stunning; the fact that they survive at all is mind-boggling. Not long ago, I shouldered a light day pack and walked all the way from the English Channel on the south of this peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean cliffs on the north (it’s not a big achievement; it only took about four hours and one of my favorite pubs was waiting for me at the end). But so help me, every few hundred yards I was almost literally tripping over prehistoric monuments of one sort or another. It is a strange and humbling experience to wander among these ancients.
Harm None also features a settlement that may first have been established before the Bronze Age. It too is very real and was only abandoned after the Roman Era. That’s thousands of years! I call it Carn Dewes in the book but its real name is Carn Euny. With a commanding hillside location looking south toward Land’s End, the settlement is circled by a thick stone wall that encloses nine round courtyard houses complete with outbuildings for storage and livestock. But its most stunning feature is a sixty-five foot long stone-lined underground passage within which is a perfectly round domed underground stone chamber. I am well over six feet tall and I can stand up in it.
Its purpose? There have been theories, most of them debunked. Was it to store grain? Not likely: too damp; the grain would have rotted. A hideout from invaders? Equally unlikely, as it would have been quickly discovered and anyone sheltering there would be smoked out easily. It is likely to have been ceremonial, worshipers must crawl in order to enter. There is a sort of “hearth” directly opposite the chamber entrance, but no chimney. It is a mystery.
You’ll have to read Harm None to learn what I think that “hearth” was for…