ICTIS INSVLA

Romano-British Port

St. Michael's Mount, Marazion, Cornwall

NGRef: SW515299
OSMap: LR203, Explorer7
Type: Trading Port, Settlement

St. Michael's Mount, Marazion
The ancient trading port of Ictis
on a warm Summer's day in 1999.
Roads
Via Tidal Causeway:
Probable Native Trackway: NW (5) to Chysauster (Cornwall)
Probable Native Trackway: W (8) to Carn Euny (Cornwall)
Probable Road/Trackway: ENE (13) to DVROCORNAVIVM (Carn Brea, Cornwall)

Ancient Port and Market

St. Michael's Mount was widely known as a port and trading market from very early times. Prehistoric traders passing between the western parts of Britain and the Continent would not have wished to risk the rough and dangerous voyage around Land's End, and so sent their cargoes across the narrowest and most level part of Cornwall from the Hayle estuary to St. Michael's Mount. Ireland was rich in gold and copper, and the Irish traders would have found transport by sea much simpler than the journey along the tracks through the almost impassable forests and swamps of England and Wales. Dr. H. O'Neil Hencken in his book Archaeology of Cornwall and Scilly, published in 1932, suggested that by the Iron Age the island of St. Michael's Mount would have become a highly important port. St. Michael's Mount was also at one time probably the island of "Ictis" from which Cornish tin was exported to the Greek trading communities in the Mediterranean. Towards the end of the fourth century B.C., shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, Pytheas, a Greek geographer from Marseilles, had made a voyage of exploration round the coast of Britain looking for the source of amber in the Baltic. Unfortunately, the records of his voyage were lost but they were known to later classical writers such as Timaeus, Posidonius and Pliny. The evidence of these writings is vague and conflicting but represents all that was known about the tin trade in the ancient classical world. In particular, Diodorus, a Sicilian Greek historian, writing in the first quarter of the first century A. D., gives an account which is probably a description of the working of Cornish tin (by streaming from the rocks) about the time of the voyage of Pytheas, and how it was carried over to St. Michael's Mount. "The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion [that is to say Land's End]," Diodorus says, "are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilised in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like astralgi [knuckle-bones] and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Ictis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons." In a later passage in the same context ~Diodorus says, "Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone." Diodorus mentioned both Marseilles and Narbonne by name as places to which Cornish tin was sent on the Mediterranean coast. "St. Michael's Mount, the trading station of the ancients," Dr. Hencken wrote, "rises from Mount's Bay in full view of the early tin streamers' forts and villages." However, he pointed out that it must be admitted that not many signs of the rather advanced civilisation of the foreign merchants have come down to us. One of the main difficulties of identifying St. Michael's Mount with the island of Ictis was the legend that St. Michael's Mount was within historic memory five or six miles inland from the sea in the middle of a dense forest. When William of Worcester visited the Mount in 1478 he recorded that it was formerly called "the Hore-Rock in the wood". Also the old Cornish name for the Mount meant "the grey rock in the forest". However, Sir Gavin de Beer, F.R.S., a former Director of the Natural History Museum, wrote in his book Reflections of A Darwinian, published in 1962, that scientific methods of analysing the traces of old tree trunks still found in Mount's Bay had indicated that the forest was submerged by the sea at least 1, 500 years before Pytheas came there on his voyage of exploration in about 325 B.C. The most likely alternative to St. Michael's Mount as the island of Ictis was the Isle of Wight, the Roman name of which was Vectis, but Sir Gavin de Beer suggested that it had not been possible to cross to the Isle of Wight by foot from the mainland since the days of neolithic man. Also it is most unlikely that Cornish tin should have been carried so far to the port of embarkation. Canon Taylor in his History of St. Michael's Mount suggests that William of Worcester may have confused the English St. Michael's Mount with Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy and that the "Hore-Rock in the wood", referred to the French and not to the English Mount. It is improbable that the merchants who bought the tin at St. Michaels Mount were Phoenicians or Carthaginians. Probably the tin was shipped to Gaul by the Veneti, a powerful sea-faring people who inhabited Southern Brittany. The Veneti had close linguistic and cultural contacts with Cornwall. Their ships were described by Julius Caesar who fought a naval battle with them in 56 B.C. They were built solidly of oak with high prows and leather brown sails. Julius Caesar was the last classical writer to mention Cornish tin, probably because the tin trade was ended by the defeat of the Veneti and the Romans had discovered the other sources of tin in Spain. In 1995 an archaeological watching brief of a sewer trench found Later Iron Age pottery, of the Ictis period, and its distribution drew attention to a group of six possible round house platforms - perhaps the site of Ictis itself - on the south-eastern slopes of the Mount. A Neolithic flint arrowhead (circa 3500 B.C.) was also found, adding some support to the suggestion that somewhere as dramatic as the Mount, whether rising from sea or forest, would have been from earliest times a central place of authority similar to Carn Brea, the Neolithic hill-top enclosure near Redruth.
Above paragraphs quoted verbatim from St. Aubyn (pp.3-4).

Roman Milestones from South-West Cornwall

Milestone from St. Hilary, 2 Miles East of Ictis

IMP CAES FLAV VAL CONSTANTINO PIO NOB CAES DIVI CONSTANTI PII FEL AVG FILIO
"Imperator Caesar Flavius Valerius Constantinus Pius, son of the noble Caesar, the divine Constantinus Pius Felix Augustus."
(RIB 2233; Constantine II AD337-40)

Milestone from Breage near Helston, 6½ Miles East of Ictis

IMP C DO NO MARC CASSI ANIO
"Imperator Caesar Dominus Noblissimus Marcus Cassianus."
(RIB 2232; Postumus AD258-68; Gallic Empire)

Aside from the two milestones shown on this page, which were found along the coast to the east of St. Michael's Mount, three other Roman honorific pillars have been uncovered in Cornwall; there is one near the Romano-British hillfort of Durocornavium (Carn Brea), and another two near Tintagel on the north-west coast, both of which are detailed on the RBO page for Statio Deventiasteno (Nanstallon).

View of Marazion Beach in August 1999

Marazion Beach
The ancient tin-trading port of Ictis, now St. Michael's Mount, pictured from the beach at Marazion two days before the total eclipse of 11th August 1999. The tidal causeway, which is reputed to date from neolithic times, can be seen passing behind the rock to the left of the picture. A summer-time favourite of the holidaymakers in this part of Cornwall is to walk across the causeway (which is paved) during the ebb tide, while the causeway itself is still covered by water; a past-time the children and myself enjoyed on several occasions during this particular holiday, and indeed, shortly after this photograph was taken, which was early evening as can be seen from the lengthy shadows.
See: St Michael's Mount - Illustrated History and Guide by John St. Aubyn (Cornwall, 1978);
The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
All English translations, including any inherent mistakes, are my own.

Click here for a map of Ictis from StreetMap.co.uk

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