Newsletter December 2015

So what's been going on since the last update of August? Well quite a lot, though it has to be admitted that it all revolves around our dig site near Lanyon in the parish of Madron. This has attracted a lot of attention over the last few months with around 60 people being led up through the valley to see the remains of this Tudor tin mill. Some of these people were experts in their own field, others just had a general interest in history but all have been a pleasure to lead and many ideas have come from these sessions. It has also been a busy time of slide shows, which shows no sign of abating at the moment, so the site is really getting the recognition it deserves and word is beginning to reach all those involved in this field.

Pat and I had a nail biting time when we visited Carl Thorpe, pottery expert for the County Archaeological Unit. We turned up with our box of finds, all documented and for an hour and twenty minutes all we heard was how the pottery sitting on the granite floor was dating from around 1650 onwards, some even ran into the possible 18th century! It was seriously starting to undermine our belief that this was a mill from the Tudor period, which in some respects was not a total loss, as little is known of tin milling pre 19th century anyway, but thankfully in the last ten minutes I brought out the few pieces of pottery that had been found beneath the floor itself and with a sigh of relief we heard 1480 pop into the conversation.  The end result of this meeting was that we had a Tudor floor, with pottery from around 1450 sitting beneath the floor and the earliest piece upon the floor being the late 1570s, meaning the floor had to have been laid between these dates. All the pottery had clean breaks, which showed they had not been washed into the site, though this would be all but impossible as it is surrounded by high Cornish hedges. Another point that came from this meeting was that nearly all the rim pieces we had were from the same style of vessel but not from the one individual vessel. The style of this vessel was a cream-separating dish, with a wide rim and shallow depth. Along the rim would be a narrow spout for running off the milk. At first this had us perplexed, as the site is not close to a dwelling or farmhouse to be a dumping ground, but then when the pottery report reached Adam Sharpe of the CAU he immediately suggested that they were being used to pan fine tin, and this remark has been backed up more recently by other experts. It seems we have good evidence for a cross over of domestic wares into an industrial situation, a little akin to ones husband taking out the kitchen knife to cut cauliflowers in the fields!

The photographs, which correspond to this update, show that we have now completely excavated the inner remains of the mill and is currently working outside of these four walls. We know that there was never a door to this area, instead they entered over a lower front wall and this makes perfect sense as it contains their waste within the site and equally prevents other waste from entering. Anti pollution laws are not a 20th century idea, we understand they were in existence as far back as the 14th century with stiff penalties. What must be remembered is that the landowners and Lords of the land made a lot of money from the water which was being used as a source of power and if one business was to pollute or choke a stream then many small businesses could fail reducing the Lords income! To have a better understanding of the historical point in time that this mill was operating, it is necessary to realise that the milling crew here would have, in living memory, a knowledge of Richard III and the battle of Bosworth field and that King Henry VIII was sitting upon the throne and America was a new country.

What did we find when we excavated the lower section within the four walls? This was a smaller area than the first and thankfully it was not as wild and buried so we were able to move along quite well. The first find was another settlement pit, approximately the same dimensions as the first, seen in the last update. This came as no surprise as De Re Metallica had hinted at this and it made perfect sense. What was interesting, was that, yet again, we had an inner wall haphazardly built along the inside of the main outer hedge walls, which leads us to the conclusion that these were definitely built to reduce the action of the moving water  upon the base stones of the outer walls. Remember, no foundations, these large 'grounders' would be dug into the earth and packed, but if you had constantly turning water working at their bases it could certainly cause problems of stability in the future. What was curious was the discovery of a raised floor, which appeared to have no true defined, strong edge. Its whole construction, as it stands, makes little sense at all at the moment. The only thing we found which would tie in was what appeared to be a filled in old pit, possibly a much earlier, cruder settlement pit which may have preceded the much stronger pit found intact. Certainly the material that was dug from this 'pit' was the expected stream type material and clays and slimes that one would expect from an old settlement pit but we also found a hand grinding stone. We have to thank Allan Buckley and Bryan Earle for this identification. This was laying within the lower most, black organic layer sitting on the top of the bedrock, but as with all recycling back through the ages this cannot necessarily give us an earlier date in itself, but maybe the fact that it was found at least three layers down from any tin processing layers may do is difficult to say. An interesting point here is to note the fact that several weeks later, whilst working outside of the four walls, we found yet another grinding stone, again buried in an old pit within a layer below the slimes and clays timeline. It is slightly smaller but exactly the same in shape. Both these stones fit perfectly the depressions made in the mortar stone, identified as 14/15th century, a little way up the valley. This may reinforce the thought that the 19th century stamps remains are indeed sitting on top of our earlier stamps.

The last find in this lower section was the culvert that carried the water out of the site completely. We had been looking long and hard for this and yet it had been staring us in the face the whole time in the form of a straight and narrow run of stones. Pat found the top stones in the hedge that one would expect to cover a culvert opening and so she just followed the stonework back. To prove the point it was decided to lift every third stone to see what we had below, as it turned out we didn’t t need to. Most of the stones in this line were fairly large, robust and firm in the ground but there was one that was a lot smaller and every time we touched it, it would rock. At first we thought it was the instability of this floor area but, since it rocked anyway we decided we would lift it first...well you could have bowled us over with a feather!! There was a small finger sized type notch cut out of the stone and when I stuck my finger in it and pulled it came up the same way as it did back when it was laid!! Unbelievable!! It maybe one of the earliest inspection hatches anywhere in my opinion, it had been purposely cut with an angled back so that it would lift as if hinged and slot back in the same way.... I have to say it is one of my favourite parts of the walk, to show this in action. Interesting to note that the pottery finds were not as common in this section of the site.

So what can we now tell you about the way this site was operated? Well I think quite a lot, thanks particularly to Bob Orchard, Charles Smith, Allan Buckley and Bryan Earle. We are now convinced that the entry culvert carrying the water into the site was what is known as a pinch buddle and worked in a similar manner to the main tye channel, except due to its steeper drop on the floor was possibly more concerned with the coarser sands before they entered the tye house.

Incidentally, there would have been no roof over the tye area. (It would be helpful to refer to the previous and the present update photographs for orientation). Basically the water would have passed from a launder and down through the entry water culvert, at which point it would have come up against a dam where the coarser material would quickly settle on the bottom floor. From here the unsettled material, still water borne would pass over the dam and into the tye channel where the same again would happen. As explained in the previous update, at the head of the tye is a lip and it is just to the downstream side of this that there would have been another dam. Within this dammed area and behind the lip would have gathered the more concentrated tin, which would then be turned out onto the work floor ready to go to the smelters. Again, the unsettled materials would flow over the dam and would run down through the tye channel. These materials would come to be known as the MIDDLINGS and the TAILINGS; they would still be heavier than the general stream material but not as heavy as the tin concentrate. The reason these would now settle in the tye channel is because the flow of the water has been slowed giving this lighter material a chance to drop onto the granite. This statement takes us back to the differing water flow rates of the different areas of the site. Again the channel material would be constantly agitated to stir the materials and overtime the channel would be filled with these middlings and tailings. Once the channel was full, the water would be diverted away leaving the layers of material to dry. The easiest way to describe middlings is as a course sand to gravel composition whereas the tailings are more like a pink slime, very fine. From here the middlings would be removed to one settlement pit, probably the one on the upper floor whilst the tailings would be removed to the lower settlement pit for further processing. Obviously there is far more technology and detail to this operation but this is a quick summary of what we understand of the working site. A more detailed report will be written soon and this will update the previous report and add the new material so the reader is able to see the dig evolve as time goes by.

Our excavations have now moved above the original site and outside of the walls in the hope that the walls, leats and structures will be equally revealing to us as to where this process actually started and again, more about how it was worked. It is so pleasing to see enthusiasm now beginning to appear outside of our group, with others coming from all over Cornwall to help dig or to sound some ideas out on site. Pat and I have always maintained that the importance of the site needs the thoughts and views of everyone in order to tell its stories and it is great that that is slowly starting to happen.

Finally to close this update we would like to offer our sympathies to the family of Hilary Richings of Newmill who recently and unexpectedly passed away. Hilary was a staunch supporter of ours and would constantly update her Cornishman column with news of our antics in the wilds of Lanyon. She will be greatly missed by all that knew her.

Stuart Emmett