The Extraordinary and Ancient Entrance Grave of Bant’s Carn
The five inhabited islands of the Scilly Isles, an archipelago located off the south-west coast of England, is popular with visitors because of the warm climate and beautiful beaches. There are, however, a number of historic sites on the islands to entice those who love ancient history. Bant’s Carn is a unique entrance grave and one of the finest examples of such a burial in Western Europe, offering insights into the prehistoric past.
The Mysterious History of Bant’s Carn
The Scilly Isles was first settled in about 2500 BC during the Bronze Age. The sea level all those years ago was much lower than today and the isles were more accessible. They were, in fact, one island. Bant’s Carn is now located near the coast but was once located inland and surrounded by fertile fields.
The monument was built not long after the first humans inhabited the isles and it is almost certain that the builders originated from what is now Cornwall. It is believed that the carn was used to inter the cremated remains of local people, one of about 80 examples on Scilly. These are a type known as the Scillonian and they have been found all over southern Britain, Brittainy, and south-east Ireland.
A standing stone (Long Stone), not far from the communal burial site, was aligned with the grave on summer sunrises. This may indicate that the site was also used as a ceremonial area and astronomical observation. Another theory states that Bant’s Carn was as a marker that delineated a tribal or a clan’s territory.
A reconstruction illustration showing the late Iron Age courtyard houses at Halangy Down Ancient Village (Illustration by Phil Kenning / Historic England)
The tomb is located not far from the small Iron Age settlement of Halangy Down. It is believed that it was inhabited during the Roman era by Romano-British and that those who lived in the village were buried in Bant’s Carn.
The site was abandoned sometime during the Iron Age when people preferred to bury their dead separately. The many folktales told by the local people about the site may have helped in their conservation.
Bant’s Carn was investigated in 1900 by a group of archaeologists. In the 1970s the entrance stones which had fallen were restored to their original position.
Sketch of Bant’s Carn, Scilly Isles.
Bant’s Carn, a superb example of the Scillonian entrance grave, is located on the island of St Mary, located on a hill above the ancient remains of Halangy Down village. In the past the burial monument was a circular mound, inside a stone ring. The cairn which became covered with earth and grass was built over a rectangular burial chamber, constructed of slabs. Much of this can still be seen today.
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An interior view of Bant’s Carn, Scilly Isles (Stringer, J / CC BY-NC 2.0)
Evident at the site is the distinctive, stone-lined narrow entrance. It was once roofed by a number of capstones, some of which can still be seen at the site. A stone jamb separates the entrance from the inner burial chamber. The mound is retained by a stone block that has enabled it to withstand countless Atlantic storms down the centuries.
Bant’s Carn has an outer platform that encircles the cairn which is supported by a stone kerb. Today the mound is about 25 feet (8 m) in length and 20 feet (7 m) in width. The roofless mound would once have been topped by a massive cairn. Inside the exposed mound, the chamber itself is in the shape of a boat which is thought to be of symbolic significance.
In the ancient village of Halangy Down, prehistoric stone-lined terraces as well as ruins of 11 stone houses remain. The stone cupboards built into the walls can still be seen.
Visiting Bant’s Carn on the Scilly Isles
Once on St Mary’s Isle, the site can be reached by bike or on foot. Less than half a mile by road from Bant’s Carn is the standing stone known as the Long Stone. Some claim that there is a carved face on this 8 feet high slab of stone, but you’ll have to search for it. The site is managed by English Heritage and no admittance fee is charged to visit; Barn’s Carn can be visited anytime during daylight hours.
Top image: The entrance to Bant’s Carn Source: Stringer, J / CC BY-NC 2.0
By Ed Whelan
Ashbee P. 1970. Excavations at Halangy Down, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly, 1969–1970. Cornish Archaeology 9, 69–76
Ashbee, P. 1996. Halangy Down, St Mary’s, Isles of Scilly. Excavations 1964–1977. Cornish Archaeology 35
Jones, A. M., et al (2010). Bosiliack and a reconsideration of entrance graves. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 76, pp. 271-296). Cambridge University Press