During 2016 St Buryan Church PCC, Cornwall Archaeological Unit, Scott & Co. Chartered Surveyors and local builders Bolithos together undertook works to restore the imposing stepped medieval cross in the churchyard of St Buryan Parish Church. This also presented the opportunity for some archaeological exploration of how and when this complex monument was formed and to see whether the granite slabs set as the steps include any pieces of early sculpture in addition to the cross-head.
The St Buryan Churchyard cross sits at the heart of an ancient, vibrant community and is a much-loved focus of village life, clambered over by the young and used as a backdrop for many of life’s landmarks, such as weddings. This project has enabled us to stabilise and preserve it for future generations. The work was made possible by grants from Cornwall Heritage Trust and Historic England’s Heritage at Risk fund.
St Buryan has played a key role in the history of West Penwith and of Cornwall. In the 10th century, when the core of the cross may have been erected, it was the focus of patronage by King Athelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great who led resistance against the Vikings, who visited and subsequently endowed St Buryan’s church in around 931. Previously, it was the site of a 6th-century Celtic monastery founded by an Irishwoman, St Buriana, and there are archaeological clues that this may have used an earlier Romano-Celtic courtyard settlement (like Chysauster and Carn Euny) – a type of settlement peculiar to West Penwith and which is redolent of contacts between Iron Age Cornwall and the Roman world.
This was an exciting opportunity to find out more, and to engage the public, of all ages, in exploring the heritage at the heart of living communities. This work has helped us to understand better how the monument and the churchyard assumed their current forms and how they featured in Cornish history and faith. One of the granite steps has revealed, when turned over, that it was a reused tomb-cover which may date from around the 11th century. Research will have to be conducted into this and other discoveries, but suffice it to say that a Cornish monument of this sort is a rare find!
The stepped base recalls that of the Heraclius or Jerusalem Cross. 10th or 11th -century. Irish influence continues to be apparent in the ring-headed form and the heavy bosses symbolising the wounds of Christ, and in the figure of the crucified Christ.
It would appear that, when the churchyard was being remodeled during the 1830-40s in order to accommodate further burials, the ground level was raised, placing the original stepped base to the cross several feet below the new ground level. The earlier steps and other features of the early medieval cross were accordingly encased in a new set of steps which were formed, in part, of Norman recumbent grave slabs which needed to be cleared during these alterations in levels and hard-landscaping of the reconfigured churchyard. The two possible and one certain early grave slabs re-used as part of the rebuild are valuable finds, the latter likely to date from the eleventh century and a tangible link with the time when Domesday Book records that the Canonici S Berrione ten Eglosberrie ‘the canons of St Buryan hold St Buryan’s Church’ (Thorn and Thorn 1979, 4,27).
Educational and community outreach work was undertaken, and will continue, with talks (by Prof. Michelle Brown and Dr Andrew Langdon), guided walks and on-site information being made available. Press coverage was generated and a visit from the local school was made, with a time capsule being placed inside the monument for future generations to discover.