All about Alignments - Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula in Cornwall
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All about Alignments


This section of the site gives further details about the alignments map and outlines the issues involved with alignments.

Ancient sites are located where they are for very deliberate reasons, and a range of factors is involved. On this page are details about alignments, how they affect the location of ancient sites and the kinds of sites that are counted as valid when examining alignments.

The map of ancient Penwith shows the geomantic system of West Cornwall as laid out around 4-6 millennia ago, through the neolithic and bronze ages, with additions in the iron age and medieval periods. We do not understand exactly what the ancients were doing or why, but the evidence that they located ancient sites in accurate straight alignments suggests that they knew something about landscape management that perhaps we need to find out today.

The people of the neolithic and bronze ages aligned ancient sites to create a network following a certain organic logic. In so doing they demonstrated an advanced knowledge in engineering, astronomy, mathematics and landscape-management. By investigating these alignments we can gain some access to the thoughts of the megalith builders, with a view to uncovering some of what they knew and understood.

What qualifies as an alignment?
Boswens menhir and, in the distance, Chûn Quoit
Boswens MenhirOn the Map of Ancient West Penwith we are dealing with straight alignments of ancient sites, not with energy-lines that earth energy dowsers and intuitives can pick up. These are different and should not be confused, though both of them contribute to the geomantic wholeness shown in the patterns of ancient sites in the landscape.

Ancient sites were located very deliberately, not just randomly in pleasant places or wherever their builders fancied. Alignments between sites are decidedly accurate, clearly playing a key part in the choice of locations for sites and the reasons why many menhirs, stone circles, mounds, rounds and other sites exist - though a range of factors come into play, outlined on the next page.

Three example alignments

Let’s look at three major example alignments (look at the heavier yellow lines on the map below). This will give an idea of the influence they have on the location of ancient sites:

  • Nine Maidens stone circle, Lanyon Quoit, Boscawen-ûn stone circle and Treryn Dinas cliff castle are all exactly aligned. These are four key sites in Penwith.

  • Boscawen-ûn stone circle is aligned with St Michael’s Mount in one direction and Maen Castle near Sennen (another cliff sanctuary) and Bonfire Carn on South Hill, Bryher, in the Isles of Scilly, in the other direction.

  • Meanwhile, Lanyon Quoit is on an alignment between St Michael’s Mount and Pendeen Watch - both of them prominent cliff sanctuaries.
Three key backbone alignments in West Penwith, Cornwall
By mentioning just these three alignments, the beginnings of a locational order in West Penwith begins to take shape, suggesting that sites such as Boscawen-ûn and Lanyon Quoit are very deliberately placed to it into a wider network scheme anchored to the cliff castles and neolithic tor enclosures - and thus that these alignments are neolithic in origin, since the tor enclosures, Lanyon Quoit and the cliff castles are neolithic too.

The ancients had definite reasons for locating sites where they did. Here it is demonstrated that backbone alignments - the three alignments above being examples - play a defining role in locating stone circles such as the Merry Maidens, Boscawen-ûn, Tregeseal, the Nine Maidens, and also Lanyon Quoit.

Parameters in identifying alignments
during the making of the map
Aligned stone at the Greeb, Land's End, with Longships Rocks behind
The Greeb, Land's End, and Longships rocksIn constructing the map, inaccuracies of alignment of up to only three metres were accepted, with occasional acceptance of five metre inaccuracy in some cases where major sites are involved. That’s a tight accuracy standard. To have four or five sites aligned like this over several or many kilometers is no accident, no matter what sceptics might say.

To qualify as an alignment there must be a minimum of four points accurately located on it. Some geomancers would accept no less than five points. This rule exists mainly to answer sceptics' doubts by significantly reducing the statistical probability of alignments being randomly coincidental.

Ancient megalith builders were not, however, worried about pleasing modern reductionist rationalists. Here in Penwith, omitting four-point alignments would miss much potentially valuable data. So four-point alignments are accepted in this research project as long as they are plausible in terms of the ancient sites they link together.

Three-point alignments

There are cases where three points have been accepted to constitute a valid alignment. This has been done in the following instances only:

  • when an alignment is clearly obvious by dint of the specific sites on it, and they must be relatively close to each other or have some obvious connection, such as intervisibility, similarity of type or antiquity;
  • short three-point alignments radiating from stone circles, 1-3km in length, often astronomically or mathematically oriented, and part of the immediate complexes surrounding stone circles;
  • alignments connecting quoits. These are nearly all three-point alignments and, since there’s a distinct pattern here, these alignments are accepted (more about these here);
  • alignments on the Isles of Scilly, where distances are short and locational permutations are fewer than on the mainland. Three-point alignments are clearly at work here;
  • the Kemyel/Swingate group of menhirs just east of Lamorna, which constitute a localised sub-system of menhirs, erected seemingly for a special purpose that we’re yet to discover. Many of them are mutually aligned as three-point alignments.

If you examine these various instances on the map, you’ll probably see why this decision has been made. Apart from these, all alignments have four or more points on them - many of them more.

Mên an Tol
Men an TolThere's another kind of alignment with, in many cases, just two points, but they are not proper alignments - they are lines of sight or attention that stand out when we are out in the landscape. This concerns particularly the intervisibility of ancient sites.

To take an example, stand on top of Trencrom Hill, and Godrevy Head and St Agnes Beacon up the north coast of Cornwall, Carn Brea, Godolphin Hill and Tregonning Hill in East Penwith and St Michael’s Mount southwards in Mount's Bay simply yell at you unavoidably - they're very visible from Trencrom, drawing attention toward themselves.

These are an important element of the landscape psychogeography of Trencrom Hill and, in some cases, they form astronomical alignments - that is, to the rising or setting points of the sun and moon at certain critical points in time such as the solstices and lunar maxima. From Trencrom, the summer solstice sun rises northeastwards over St Agnes Beacon, and the winter solstice sun rises southeastwards between Goolphin and Tregonning Hills. Meanwhile, the summer solstice sunset sets northwestwards in a nick between Trink Hill and Rosewall Hill to the northwest. Similarly, if you stand at Chûn Quoit at summer solstice sunset, you'll ind that the sun sets in a nick in the rocks of Carn Kenidjack.

Prominent hills are important as a focus of attention. They give a sense of 'placeness' and orientation. Carn Kenidjak and Carn Galva in the north of the Penwith peninsula, and Chapel Carn Brea and Bartinney in the west, are dominant in the landscape, not just visually but also in terms of psycho-geographic presence. You definitely notice them.
Carn Kenidjack from Carn Les Boel (telephoto shot)
Carn Kenidjack is not actually very high, but it is nevertheless outstanding, sometimes from the most unexpected of places, including the Isles of Scilly. At Carn Lês Boel, seven miles (12km) from Carn Kenidjack, if you stand on a particular tumulus just off the carn (map ref SW 3578 2331), you'll see Carn Kenidjack - but move just a few paces away and it disappears from view. This is just classic.

However, in this research project, these two-point lines of sight are not counted as alignments - they are simply intervisible sites, hills and landscape features. A survey of intervisibility will be carried out in coming years and a map will be prepared to show which sites are visible from which.

Laying down the geomantic system

The hills and coastal headlands of West Penwith form key features in the landscape and they serve as the anchor-points of the alignments system, first laid down somewhere around 3700 BCE in the mid-neolithic, and rising to a peak in the neolithic/bronze age crossover period between 2600 and 1800 BCE - the classical era of the megalithic period. The megalithic era as a whole lasted from 3700 to around 1500, with its final end around 1200 BCE.

In this crossover period humans increasingly tampered with the land, carrying out settled agriculture, earth-moving and building projects. Things developed from there: clearings and fields appeared and, as time went on, large amounts of timber were consumed by metal smelting, construction and household consumption, removing substantial tracts of forest. The older field systems of Penwith, such as those around Zennor, were established by the late bronze age from around 1500 BCE onwards, at the end of the megalithic period.
Gurnard's Head and, behind, Pendeen Watch, from Carn Naun
Up to around 3700 BCE in the mid-neolithic, people lived relatively lightly and inconspicuously on the land, and they weren't the dominant force in nature that they later became. Hilltops, trees, rocks, cliffs, wells and glades were their special places. Wood, stone and organic materials were their materials.

They were enveloped in nature, by degrees overwhelmed by its enclosed, wooded character - though they were starting to create clearings. This is why hilltop tors and coastal headlands were important - they were places where people could get some space.

But by the bronze age humans were clearing land, heaving enormous stones around, constructing and re-shaping things. During the neolithic, there were clearings in the woods, but in the bronze age there were woods interspersed amongst cleared areas.

Bronze age people also built up a worldview that was increasingly human-centred and, amongst elites and tribes, increasingly stratified. So much so that by 1500-1200 BCE a fundamental shift unfolded: the former preoccupation with sacred landscape engineering shifted into a preoccupation with farming and wealth creation. In Penwith the tribes and their chiefs became more prosperous, exchanging tin, copper and gold for tools, food, crafts, ornaments and other gifts, developing early forms of employment, trade and patronage.

Acceptable types of sites

The kinds of ancient sites that have been accepted as valid alignment points are the following:

  • Significant hilltops, headlands, tors, carns (outcrops) and large natural rocks;
  • Stone circles, quoits and menhirs;
  • Holed stones, old boundary stones and other deliberately placed stones;
  • Hill camps (hillforts), cliff castles (headlands) and rounds (lowland enclosures);
  • Cairns, barrows and tumuli - whether chambered or solid;
  • Ancient settlements, hut circles and villages - though these are less reliable as decisive points in an alignment by dint of their size and indefinite edges;
  • Fogous (underground chambers) and holy wells - though these two don't seem to figure much in alignments;
  • Old churches and early Christian oratories and crosses (many of which are located on older ancient sites).

All known locations in Penwith, around 500 of them (list here), some of them no longer in existence, have been accurately placed on the map – you can zoom in close on the Google version of the map to examine their precise locations.

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