St Sampson’s Church, South Hill

Archaeological Survey


Cornwall Archaeological Unit were commissioned by Gilmore Hankey Kirke to carry out an archaeological watching brief during drainage and repair works at St Sampson’s Church, South Hill, Callington. The work comprised the excavation of a trench around the entire perimeter of the church wall in addition to a number of trial pits and the repointing of stone footings seen projecting from the exterior wall of the church, particularly at its eastern end. The church is Norman in origin, although the building that can be seen today dates to the first half of the 14th century, with the addition in the 15th century of a south aisle. It is thought possible that the Norman church was constructed on an existing early medieval religious site. The watching brief revealed the foundations of a south transept possibly relating to the 14th century cruciform church, and the buried remains of fifteen individuals. Of these, four were found within cist graves, and an additional three cist graves were observed (but left unexcavated) during the archaeological recording work. Cist graves, constructed from upright slate slabs with slate capstones are thought to be early medieval in origin, and the preferred burial tradition in early medieval Ireland, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man. Work in Cornwall suggests that the use of cists continued into the later medieval period. At South Hill a relationship between a cist and the tower suggested that they at least pre-dated 1333, the date of the rededication of the church which is believed to relate to the 14th century building work. In two cases cists were found to be earlier than simple earth-cut graves, which would have held shroud burials.  It is hoped that radiocarbon dates can be secured to date these two traditions.

Analysis of the remains of the 21 individuals suggested that the group was fairly typical of medieval cemeteries in terms of age range and pathological conditions - mostly tooth problems and signs of poor diet.  Four individuals were unusually gracile and short in stature.

Associated with the church is an inscribed stone comprising the text CVMREGNI / FILI  MAVCI, topped by two curved lines, above which is a chi-rho monogram with a hooked rho. The chi-rho monogram confirms a Christian influence on the memorial which has been translated as ‘[the stone] of Cumregnus, son of Maucus’, believed to date to the 6th–8th centuries. The sub-rectangular enclosure surrounding the churchyard is another indicator of the Early Christian origins of the site, and may have been a lann enclosure defining not just the church and cemetery but also an early medieval religious settlement.
Right: One of the cist graves
Project Manager: Jeanette Ratcliffe
Project Officer:  James Gossip; Carl Thorpe
Human Bone Analysis: Hildur Gestsdottir


This article reproduced courtesy of the Cornwall County Council Archaeology Unit.

James Gossip of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit has now kindly provided an update on the carbon dating of the bones from the above excavation.

These are the calibrated radiocarbon dates for the burials: 

Burial 20

Disturbed cist or partially stone-lined

cal AD 1160-1280

Burial 25

Disturbed cist grave (cut through by later graves)

cal AD 1010-1170

Burial 27

Earth-cut grave, no cist or stone lining

cal AD 1020-1220

Burial 39A1

Cist grave - burial totally enclosed and covered by stone slabs (as illustrated above)

cal AD 1050-1220


These aren't too surprising, and suggest that the burials are contemporary with the foundation of the Norman church. What is particularly important about these dates is that we have very few dates for cist graves (ie stone-lined and capped burials) for Cornwall, the only other reliable dates being from Padstow, so this adds considerably to our knowledge of this burial tradition. Cist graves are only seen in Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

It is also interesting that burial 27, an earth-cut grave, is a burial rite being practiced at the same time as the cist grave tradition.


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