Freelance consultant for digital heritage

Image repeated from article below. For illustration only.

A Cornish rock art discovery at Carn Leskys – the Carn of Burnings

I was recently conducting research for a talk on Cornish Midsummer customs when I had cause to read through the book Observations on the Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall by William Borlase, published in 1754. Many of the Midsummer customs in West Penwith involve fire and bonfires, so my eyebrows were raised by the following quote:

In Cornwall we have Karn-Gollewa, that is, the Karn of Lights; and Karn Leskyz, (the Karn of burnings), both call’d so probably from the Druid Fires kindled on those Karns. Karn Leskyz has some things which deserve a particular description.

Observations on the Antiquities Historical and Monumental of the County of Cornwall by William Borlase, 1754, p.131.

“Karn Leskyz” is spelt “Carn Leskys” today and can be easily spotted on a modern Ordnance Survey map south-west of St Just, and just south of Porth Nanven.

A screenshot of OpenStreetMap showing the location of Carn Leskys which is shown as a red dot with an arrow next to it.
Red dot indicates approximate location of Carn Leskys. Mapping from OpenStreetMap.

Borlase goes on to describe what could be a stone at Carn Leskys containing natural solution hollows and potentially some cup marks, making this stone of interest to archaeologists. A quick check of the Cornwall Historic Environment Record (HER) didn’t show any record of any rock art in this immediate area.

He went on to describe the stone, and provide a sketch plan.

Black and white engraving of an interesting stone noted by William Borlase and published in 1754. It shows the outline of a stone containing shallow basins, narrow channels and some circular depressions which may be cup marks, a part of the prehistoric Atlantic rock art tradition.
Borlase’s sketch plan of the cup-marked stone at Carn Leskys

Since I know the area around Carn Leskys reasonably well, I thought that I must go and search for the stone. J. O. Halliwell in his 1861 Rambles in Western Cornwall suggested that he couldn’t find it saying that “these stones have been destroyed by mining operations” (Halliwell 1861: 126), but it would be good to confirm this.

Borlase’s description reads:

It is a large ridge of rocks, descending from a very high hill in the tenement of Lechau (St. Just.) to the sea, and consisting of several groupes, in the highest of which there is one small bason, about 18 inches diameter, it’s sides about six inches deep, (Plate III. fig. 1. D); about five paces to the left of which, on the same Karn, whose surface is plan’d or flat, is an oblong cavity five feet long, (B), and in the shelving sides of the rocks adjoyning on both sides, are several little grooves or channels about two inches wide, and as many deep, cut into the surface, and running by the side of one another in a vernacular direction (C); they are certainly artificial, but what use to assign them I know not, unless we suppose them the divinatory channels, into which, as the blood of the unhappy victim flow’d, either to the West or East, North or South, freely or languidly, into few or many of these ducts, so the fate of the nation, the army, or the sacrificing enquirer was accordingly predicted to be happy or unhappy*. There are also on the East side of the oblong cavity before mention’d, and on the same Karn, two small, exactly round holes sunk into the top of the rock; some others of like kind may be seen intermix’d with the little ducts; they are about four inches diameter, and three deep (A A A).

This photo shows a scenic, slightly hilly landscape covered in lush greenery and wild vegetation. The foreground features a variety of low-lying plants and shrubs, with several tall, purple foxglove flowers scattered throughout. A wooden post with a small yellow sign is visible among the foliage. In the background, the rolling hills are covered in dense green vegetation, with a few patches of bare earth or rock. Towards the right side of the image, there are a few buildings, including what appears to be residential houses, set against the clear blue sky. The overall scene is bright and serene, suggesting a sunny day.
A collared mineshaft above the Cot Valley close to Carn Leskys. A yellow sign can be made out on the left. Not all mineshafts are collared or have signs.

Locating the range of rocks called Carn Leskys was simple. However, the number of mineshafts – some collared and some not – close to the path on both the inland and seaward sides meant that searching the undergrowth wasn’t safe to do as part of a casual search.

But soon enough the path opened up and I came to an open view of the sea. And some flat granite rocks with some interesting features.

This photo depicts a stunning coastal scene with a focus on a rocky cliffside overlooking the sea. In the foreground, large, weathered rocks are interspersed with patches of grass and small wildflowers, adding a touch of colour to the rugged terrain. The cliffside slopes down to meet the ocean, with a mix of green vegetation and exposed rock formations. The water below is a deep blue, shimmering in the sunlight, and stretches out to the horizon. Small waves break against the rocky shoreline. In the distance, the coastline continues, fading into a hazy outline. The sky is clear with a soft blue hue, enhancing the overall serene and expansive atmosphere of the coastal landscape.
The top of one of the ranges of Carn Leskys with Lands End and the Longships lighthouse visible in the distance.

Unless Borlase’s plan was truly very bad indeed, perhaps Halliwell was right. Although it is quite possible that Borlase’s plan was drawn from memory at a later date. However, the rock closest to the cliff edge seemed to have some interesting features. Some definitely natural, and others that definitely seemed to be deliberately shaped by human hands. It contained all of the features mentioned by Borlase in his description.

The setting of the grey granite of Carn Leskys on the clifftop, with the sea and blue sky, and the two islets of the Brisons in the distance on the right-hand side.
Carn Leskys with the Brisons islets in the distance. Does the pair of ‘breast’ motifs echo the twin rocks in the sea?

A large solution hollow similar to Borlase’s (a scale marker can be seen at the bottom of the basin) about 182cm (or 6 feet) in width is visible and its shape wasn’t unlike his sketch.

A view of the granite stone containing prehistoric motifs. Much of the grey granite is covered in spiky pale green lichen. Pockets of heather and grass can be seen. The sea below the cliffs is just visible indicating the height of this rock above the cliffs.
A very interesting stone indeed. The large solution hollow can be seen in the lower half of the photo, with a ‘pasty’ shaped stone above which contains some interesting features both natural and human-made.

On the seaward side, above the solution hollow, is a curiously-shaped stone. The natural fissures have eroded away to create a ‘barley twist’ pattern along the edge; perhaps originally the location of large feldspars. There are some circular depressions that could be cup marks. There are plenty of ‘features’ that are completely natural. But what interested me most were two circular features similar to those interpreted as ‘breasts’ found in, or as part of, passage tombs in Brittany, France.

A view of the granite stone containing prehistoric motifs. Much of the grey granite is covered in spiky pale green lichen. Pockets of heather and grass can be seen.

Framed by a trapezoidal boundary, the motifs are facing inland, and as such have a small degree of shelter from the prevailing westerly winds off the sea. This position is likely to have contributed to their survival.

A composite of 4 images of prehistoric (neolithic/Bronze Age) breast motifs from Brittany.

These images show comparison ‘breast’ motifs from allée couverte de Tressé, Prajou-Menhir, and allée couverte de Kergüntuil, in Brittany, France.

I have also made a basic 3D scan of Carn Leskys. This is best viewed as a Gaussian Splat where you can appreciate the monument’s setting, or as a mesh via Sketchfab where you can view the stone with annotations and alter the lighting.

A computer generated image of the decorated stone at Carn Leskys. Ambient Occlusion shading has been used to increase the visibility of carved areas. A dotted blue line outlines the trapezoidal panel containing the two breast motifs, which are outlined with a dotted yellow line.
The blue dots indicated the trapezoidal panel breakpoints, and the yellow dotted circles show the approximate breakpoints of the breast motifs.

Clearly much more work and verification is required at Carn Leskys. When I visited the lichens were covering the base of the trapezoid enclosure which contains the motifs. In Cornish granitic rock art there is rarely much evidence for pecking/working the stone, mainly due to the coarse nature of the granite and their exposed locations. The Breton examples are usually within a megalithic structure (tombs) which have given degrees of protection from erosion along with being carved into finer grained stone.

A view of the granite stone containing prehistoric motifs. Much of the grey granite is covered in spiky pale green lichen. Pockets of heather and grass can be seen.
A different view of the stone with its curious ‘crimped’ shape, cup marks, and potential breast motifs.

This is the second set of breast motifs that I have found in Cornwall, with the first being at Boscawen-Ûn stone circle in 2015, alongside my reinterpretation of the axe carvings on the central stone as feet. The breast carvings are about 500mm above the feet.

This is an area relatively (for Cornwall) rich in rock art. In 2021 I also discovered a large cup marked stone at Nanjulian 1.3km to the south of Carn Leskys. Many other cup marked stones, and stones with shallow channels and linear features can be found within a few miles.

Clearly this is now a good time for a renewed effort to survey and collate all that we know about these sites, perhaps in a similar way to Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP).

This post will be updated as I study this stone further.


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