Gwithian, Cornwall

The dune sands at Gwithian are some of the most remarkable systems on the north Cornish coast. They provide excellent preservation and as such a detailed picture of land use of the past four millennia have been provided in the southern Geoarchaeology regional review and in the database. There is evidence for sands dating to the Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, Roman, 11th-12th centuries and the Post Medieval periods. In turn some of these have been used for palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, the pollen and molluscs would suggest that in the Middle Bronze Age an open landscape dominated, however by the Late Bronze Age period this has evolved and evidence of more vegetation and scrub was clear (Bell and Brown 2007; 38).  Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) dating was carried out on two sand units at Gwithian. The results suggested that two units were laid down in quick succession c. 3500 years ago with a small hiatus due to cultivation (Roberts 2007; 14).

Gwithian is a well-known Bronze Age site. The rates of preservation are so good that during excavation in the 50s and 60s individual spade marks created by people of the Bronze Age can be seen in the sand (Nowakowski 2009; 117). The potential of the site was first noted and subsequently excavated in the 1950s and 60 under the direction of Professor Charles Thomas (Roberts 2007; 1). The archive for this work is publically available and published on ADS . A summary based on the archive is published in Land and people papers in Memory of John Evans (2009; 119-122), occupation at the site has been divided into three phases;

  1. Farming community with dispersed houses (earliest evidence of farming in Cornwall)

  2. Significant amount of sand deposition hindered farming of the area

  3. Further intensification of cultivation, defined fields, boundaries, evidence of animal farming from sheep and cattle bones and again evidence of dispersed settlement rather than nucleated settlement.

  4. Hiatus in landuse, the nature of which is unknown.

  5. The Late Bronze Age saw a renewal in land use and the refurbishment of field boundaries and the movement towards a nucleated settlement with associated farm and industrial buildings.

Although Gwithian has been investigated in the past, the nature of eroding archaeology allows for further recommendations for work prior to the site being lost. The main settlement area is c. 700m from the coastline but ‘eroding cliff and dune systems have produced palaeoenvironmental data and a possible prehistoric field wall’ (Murphey 2014, 114).

The site has been subject to coastal monitoring and investigation by the National Trust Collaborating with the Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service.


Much of the industrial/modern era archaeology is to the west of the Red River. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the area of Gwithian/Godrevy Towans was used as both a tin and sand extraction site. The remains of the industrial era impact on this site are clearly visible from the extraction pits which have now been turned into a nature reserve, and the bases of the cable carts which were used to transport material to and from the extraction furnaces. This part of Gwithians history is largely underexplored, with passing references in documents and Ordnance Survey maps of the twentieth century providing limited plans of the site as it evolved and grew.

During 1939 and 1940 the threat of invasion was at its peak, the beaches which were considered an option for landing from an invasion force were defended and the large expanses of sand which are exposed at Gwithian beach were no exception. Buried within the dune sands at Gwithian are the remains of a number of the WWII beach defences including the remains of the anti-landing scaffolding and pillboxes.