Natural Wonders and National Monuments: A Meditation upon the Fate of the Tolmen

By Evans, Christopher | Antiquity, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Natural Wonders and National Monuments: A Meditation upon the Fate of the Tolmen


Evans, Christopher, Antiquity


A key place in the 19th-century view of the British prehistoric landscape was taken by an ancient wonder which was not a human or artificial device at all. An account of this anomaly is called for.

This paper is concerned with the definition of natural landmarks and cultural monuments -- the archaeology of 'place' (Evans 1985). Its archaic sub-title, 'a meditation', forewarns of the diversity of its themes: where does the past reside, locally or nationally? when was a national (prehistoric) cultural landscape constituted within Britain? and how are disciplinary boundaries established?

Discussion of these broad issues springs from the study of a specific event, the destruction of an extraordinary stone, The Tolmen, in March 1869. Its relevance to the formulation of monument protection law within Britain has not been recognized, nor the potential impact of artistic depictions upon the evaluation of monuments. Earlier in the century this 'megalith' had twice been portrayed by Richard Tongue of Bath and its short-lived prominence evidently related to the situation wherein these paintings hung.

The stone dislodged

In recent years much has been written concerning the passage of the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882 (AMP) and its background (e.g. Chippindale 1983; Murray 1989; Carman n.d.). A mention in the Illustrated London News, 10 April 1869, seems, however, to have been overlooked:

The Tolmen, more properly written Tol-Maen, or Hole of Stone, in the ancient Celtic language of West Britain, but usually called the Main Rock, by modern Cornishmen, stood in the parish of Constantine, halfway between Penrhyn and Helston, and 4 miles from Falmouth. It is thus described by Borlase, in his book on the antiquities of Cornwall: 'But the most astonishing monument of this kind is in the tenement of "Men", in the points of two natural rocks, so that a man may creep under the great one and between its supporters through a passage about 3 feet wide and as much high. The longest diameter of this stone is 33 feet, pointing due north and south, 14 feet 6 inches deep and the breadth in the middle of the surface (where widest) was 18 feet 6 inches from east to west. . . .'

Immediately beneath the 'tolmen' was a valuable granite quarry, which had been worked to a depth of 40 feet, close to the beds where the Tol-Maen rested. This has been rented by someone, who, unknown to the proprietor, Mr. Hosken, had a hole bored underneath the rock and charged, and this, when fired, threw the Tol-Maen off its bed and caused it to roll into the quarry, 40 feet below.

In consequence of Sir John Lubbock's appeal on the destruction of the Tol-Maen, the council of the Ethnological Society have appointed a committee to investigate the prehistoric monuments of these islands, and the measures to be taken for their preservation. It includes Sir John Lubbock, Professor Huxley, Colonel Lane Fox, Mr Hyde Clarke, Hr. John Evans, Mr. Thomas Wright, Dr. Thurnam, Hr. H.G. Bohn, Mr. Blackmore and Mr. A.W. Franks of the British Museum. It is said that an ancient popular tradition of Cornwall denounces a terrible superhuman vengeance against the destroyer of the Tol-Maen. [My emphasis.]

Dislodging this enormous egg-shaped stone, 'a natural and historical curiosity', evidently caused much furore. It set in motion a chain of events or, more accurately, protracted negotiations that were to have major consequences for the future of British archaeology -- the eventual advent of ancient monument legislation (Chippindale's comprehensive analysis of the Bills of 1873 and 1882 does not mention the Tolmen incident, which provides his 'unknown date' of the Ethnological Society's establishing a 'Prehistoric and Other Monuments Committee' (1983: 6, note 25; a letter of 20 June 1870 which Pitt-Rivers/Fox sent to Worsaae, stating this committee had been already formed, is cited in Thompson 1977: 59).)

Perched upon an outcrop, the Constantine stone's extraordinary situation and deeply channelled surfaces had earlier led to associations with Druidic rites. …

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