The Curious Case of the Rocky Valley Labyrinths
Located between Boscastle and Tintagel, Rocky Valley is a small valley in northern Cornwall, England, carved by the Trevillet River. A site of mystic and historical fascination, it is home to two small labyrinth petroglyphs, dubbed the Rocky Valley Labyrinths, located within old Trewethett Mill with a plaque accompanying the carving that states “Labyrinth Carvings Probably of the Early Bronze Age (1800-1400 BC).”
The mill in question drew water from the nearby stream, and produced cloth and yarn until 1861. The origins of the petroglyphs are shrouded in mystery and are seemingly of dubious origin, with definite evidence pointing to them not being from the Early Bronze Age. The same has been confirmed in a wonderful study by Abegael Seward, published in the Caerdroia magazine in 2001. Incidentally, Caerdroia is a Welsh word which means a labyrinth or a maze cut by shepherds in the sward, serving as a puzzle.
The Rocky Valley Labyrinths are located by the Trevillet River, pictured here, in Cornwall. (Jenny / Adobe Stock)
Abegael Seward: Dispelling the Notion of Cultural Diffusion
Incidentally, Seward disagrees vehemently with the notion that these are Early Bronze Age petroglyphs. Her analysis focuses on tracing the historical lineage of the find. The discovery was made by a local called S. J. Madge in 1948, on one of his “guide-book walks” around the area. At this time, the predominant notion was that the petroglyphs “represented the direct diffusion of Mediterranean people… to prehistoric Cornwall.”
In the very next sentence, Seward is quick to dispel this as another facet of mythmaking, since there was no material evidence to back it up. At this time, the dominant historiographic traditions were much influenced by the groundbreaking work of Australian archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe, who specialized in European pre-history and this whole notion of diffusion of cultures.
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According to Childe, this cultural potpourri was centered around migrations and the dissemination of ideas that were achieving a sense of universalization. This was aided by the fact that the Mediterranean area and its people had long been credited for being at the center of the labyrinth motif. This was owing to its proximity to northern Africa and the cross-Atlantic journey to the Americas, which made it a hub of cultural cosmopolitanism.
For this purpose, historians compared the mill carvings with Bronze and Iron Age rock art from Pontevedra in northwestern Spain and Val Camonica in Alpine Italy. Yet, there are two points of departure here. Firstly, the petroglyphs have few commonalities to place them in the larger Atlantic tradition. Secondly, there are very few contemporaneous examples of prehistoric rock art in southwestern England.
Close up of one of the Rocky Valley Labyrinths. The origins of these so-called petroglyphs are dubious. (Tuxraider reloaded / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Rocky Valley Labyrinths – Rooted in the Modern Tradition
Seward’s research focuses on the evidence at hand, rather than postulating about what cannot be proved. The hard facts and evidence suggest that the carvings, in the fantastic condition that they are in, were probably carved in the modern era. She writes:
“The carvings are situated on a smooth outcrop of relatively soft shale, and sit beside a small stream that leads directly to the sea. The stream provided the power for the 18th century Trewethett Mill, which stands between the carved rock face and the water. The valley is steep and has many similar outcrops, though none with such a sheltered face as that on which the carvings are found.
The line of the incision is very fine, and both labyrinths appear to have been carved with a similar tool, if not the same one - most likely iron or steel rather than another stone. Also, the condition of the carvings is very good when it is considered that the surface has been exposed to running water and root action for many years. The shale that they are carved into is soft and tends to split when weathered.”
The carvings were found near to the ruins of Trevethy Mill, with some experts concluding that the Rocky Vally Labyrinths were actually carved by a past tenant. (Kmtextor / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Neo-Paganism and Mysticism at the Rocky Valley Labyrinths
According to online publication Atlas Obscura, another theory is that these labyrinths come from the Celtic culture. They may have been a symbol of fertility or life, or maybe even used in pagan rituals. It is a popular visiting site for neo-pagans who often leave offerings that can be found hanging on trees and inside the cracks and crevices of the derelict mill.
Could the petroglyphs perhaps have been created by the actions of an enthusiastic neo-pagan or devotee who wanted to leave their mark in the annals of history and bring repute to the site for having early Bronze Age petroglyphs? It is not uncommon for travelers and those who visit historical sites to leave behind their marks in some manner – either names, or carvings, on monuments, trees and the like.
Seward also writes in detail about the cultural embedding of mysticism in Cornwall, recognized in guidebooks as being home to magical and mystical sites. During the era of possibilities of the 1970s and 1980s, curious and enthusiastic travelers (especially hippies) brought forward theories of classical settlers from the cults of Ariadne, whose role was pivotal in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and Dionysus the ancient Greek God of wine, fertility and religious ecstasy.
The labyrinths became sites of fascinating theories of mystical origins, such as “the use of labyrinths by witches to induce altered states consciousness.” In nearby Boscastle, at the witchcraft museum, there is another rock plaque with a classical labyrinth, often cited in support of this theory. The plaque itself, however, is also of dubious origins.
As per The Guardian, a rich horde of votive offerings had been found behind the mill which fueled further mystical fascination with the site. This included abandoned coins, keys, a tin Buddha, bracelets, ribbons, feathers, seashells, and sporadic growth of colorful flowers like violets and buttercups. There is also the appearance of wild garlic behind the mill, that prompts further superstitions and folklore.
Alternate Theories for the Origin of the Rocky Valley Labyrinths
No modern theory in Europe is complete without a link to some element of the Church, despite Europe’s tryst with secularism. The proximity further upstream to St. Nectan’s Glen, an early Christian hermitage which contains what is called the Hollywood Stone, the only other petroglyph in the British Isles of any significant antiquity. Yet, there is little material evidence to support this claim of Early Christian origins either.
Landmark research by Unwin in 1999 actually pointed to how one of the prior tenants in the mill (probably one of the on-site workers) probably carved the labyrinths. This hypothesis is supported by “the tenant’s practice of carving various names and dates on the walls of the mill.” Additionally, the mill was abandoned after 1861, which is probably why this was not noticed till another 80 years later.
The use of the classical labyrinth was synonymous with contemporaneous traditions and folklore, which means that this was not a facet of knowledge possessed by those of the upper classes or landowners, but rather by the common folk. Evidence of widespread use during the 18th century was noted in the Chaldon Mine labyrinths in England. There is also evidence of the same from the Scandinavian region during this period.
Silver coin minted in Knossos, Crete, around 300 to 270 BC, with labyrinthine imagery inspired by mythological tales of the multicursal labyrinth created to contain the deadly Minotaur. (Hispalois / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Understanding Petroglyphs and Labyrinths
A petroglyph is an image created by removing part of a rock surface through incision, or carving, or other techniques, classified as a form of rock art. Petroglyphs are associated with prehistoric peoples and can be found in scattered patches all over the world. They generally hold deep cultural, religious and historical significance for the societies that carved them. Their prehistoric association also alludes to a period where language was not complex or well-formed, and thus, a lot of petroglyphs across the world still remain unexplained.
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A labyrinth is an elaborate maze, taken from the Greek mythology of Daedaelus building a multicursal labyrinth in Crete so confusing that it could contain the deadly Minotaur. The quintessential pattern created by it is referred to as a labyrinth in modern day parlance. The classical labyrinth pattern (as observed on the petroglyphs at Rocky Valley) is derived from Cretan coins dating back to between 400 and 200 BC.
Today, there are over 6,000 registered labyrinths all over the world. Labyrinths have become a fascinating area of study, dream representations and the like, including philosophy in the writings of authors like Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, right up till the popular, modern-day Percy Jackson series, and countless films and television. They also find a significant representation in contemporaneous art and video games. For all we know, perhaps the petroglyphs were the talented work of an idle mill worker or just a tenant at the mill, as Unwin suggested!
Top image: The Rocky Valley Labyrinths in Cornwall are located near Tintaget along the Trevillet River. Source: Jenny / Adobe Stock
By Rudra Bhushan
Mamvro, M. 2005. “New labyrinth found” in ForteanTimes. Available at: http://www.forteantimes.com/strangedays/archaeology/346/new_labyrinth_found.html.
Saward, A. 2001. “The Rocky Valley Labyrinths” in Labyrinthos. Available at: https://www.labyrinthos.net/C32%20Rocky%20Valley.pdf. Caerdroia, 32.
Seal, J. 2005. “Lore of the land” in The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2005/jun/18/unitedkingdom.guardiansaturdaytravelsection.
Xulu, M. 2018. “Rocky Valley Labyrinths” in Atlas Obscura. Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/rocky-valley-labyrinths.