Standing enigmatically on the southern slopes of wild, gorse covered moorland is the conundrum known as Men-an-Tol. This megalithic monument comprises of a wide but shallow stone standing 1m tall, which has been hewn into a roughly circular shape by human hands. Punctuating the centre of this stone disc is a hole some 45cm in diameter. Lying either side of this holed stone is a standing stone, about 1.2m tall. The holed stone, formerly referred to as the "Crick Stone", or the "Devil's Eye", is placed perpendicular to the alignment so that the flanking stones can be viewed through the hole.
Like Stonehenge, Men-an-Tol is a very famous megalith because it is atypical. It is unique. Other holed stones exist (see The Long Stone, Gloucestershire and Davidstow Well, Cornwall) but there is no other example in the U.K. of an alignment of stones like this. It has been suggested that the stones are the remains of a chambered tomb, presumably with the holed stone forming an entrance. Although the holed stone may well have once been part of a tomb of some description, the symmetry of this site would imply deliberate positioning. Indeed, a plan of the site by William Borlase in 1754 shows a triangular arrangement of stones.
In recent years the Cornwall Archaeology Unit (C.A.U.) have cleared the area of gorse and suggested that the stones may once have formed part of a stone circle comprising nineteen or twenty uprights. They found evidence for eleven stones which could form a circle measuring 16.5m in diameter. Although this is quite small for a West Penwith circle, Aubrey Burl notes that the Penwith circles are all located above the 100m contour and contained twenty to twenty-two uprights. So it certainly fits. Geomagnetic or dowsing surveys could be used to test for the existence (or otherwise) of the missing stones.
The C.A.U. further speculated that the holed stone would have most likely stood in line with the perimeter of the circle, with the hole facing the centre such that observations could be made from the circle in NNW or SSE directions. Suggesting that this site was a unique example of a ritual site or of an astronomical observatory.
Kris Bond and Andy Norfolk have calculated that the major southern standstill moonrise could be viewed through the in-line holed stone when sitting near to the centre of the circle. Bond also notes the similarity in architecture between the proposed Men-an-Tol circle, the Merry Maidens, (also in Cornwall), and the Little Hound Tor circle in Devon. Each are orientated on the major southern standstill moonrise. It is also interesting to note that the remaining line of three stones, a central stone and two flankers, are reminiscent to the great recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire which are also believed to be lunar observatories.
Sir Norman Lockyer identified that the axis of the row aligns with the Beltane (1st of May) and Lughnasad (1st of August) sunrises to the NE, and to the Imbolc (1st February) and Samhain (1st November) sunsets in the reverse direction. In addition, John Michell has reported an alignment with a courtyard settlement at Mulfra, a standing stone, Chysauster ancient settlement terminating at the hilltop enclosure of Castle-an-Dinas.
Although a number of holed stones are known to exist in Britain, none are specifically incorporated into stone circles. A stone at Machrie Moor Circle 5, Arran has a small perforation but can hardly be compared to this site. A holed stone used to exist near to the great circle henge complex at Avebury, and the holed Stone of Odin used to stand between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness on Orkney.
However, Robert Knox reported the existence of a holed stone in the SSE arc of a small circle at Cloughton Moor, Yorkshire which is believed to be the kerb of a ruined barrow. But note the SSE orientation. Aubrey Burl also suggests that these holed stones may once have been portal entrances to chambered tombs, similar to that seen at Trethevy Quoit near to Bodmin Moor in the north of Cornwall. Further support for this suggestion is that the vestiges of a ruined cairn can be seen in the vicinity of the holed stone. The remains of another round stone with a 15cm perforation can be seen built into the hedge in the lane, opposite to the entrance to the Men-an-Tol.
A further alternative, of course, is that the holed stone did not originate at this site but was brought here at a later date to form a new kind of monument, the significance of which is now lost.
The unusual nature of these holed stones have attracted much folklore over the centuries. They are regarded to have special properties of healing, fertility, and divination and have often been used to seal bargains (see The Long Stone, Gloucestershire). Here, children were thrice passed naked through the hole and drawn on the grass three times against the sun (widdershins) to obtain a cure for scrofula (lymphatic tuberculosis) and rickets. Adults too would crawl through the hole as a cure for scrofula or back complaints. But they would need to pass through nine times to find healing. Paul Devereux has shown that the radiation levels around the inside edges of the hole are approximately twice that found in the background environment - coincidence or relevant?
It has also been suggested that passing through the stone could signify a ritual rebirthing process, perhaps performed as a rite of passage or to ensure fertility. Robert Hunt, writing in 1856, recalls the belief that the holed stone could answer any question put to it by moving two brass pins laid across one another on its top edge.
So, even after all of the attention that this site has attracted over the millennia, it still manages to retain its secrets. This mysterious and enigmatic structure is one of the many jewels in the crown of West Penwith. It is perhaps best visited on a crisp and sunny winters day when the gorse is less likely to be an obstacle and the pure air facilitates a clear view across the heath on this ancient and magical peninsula. Don't forget to check out the nearby inscribed stone of Men Scryfa and the Nine Maidens stone circle while you are here. You won't regret it.
|SW 426 349 (203).|
|1½ miles E of Morvah, 3¾ miles NW of Penzance.|
|From the southbound B3306 from St. Ives, take a left turn at Trevowhan. Within a mile, the Men-an-Tol studio can be seen at a road junction on the right. Just beyond this there is a rough farm track heading uphill on the left. Park on the verge near to the track & walk uphill for about half a mile. Shortly after passing some ruined cottages, a stile on the right leads to the Men-an-Tol.|