This is interesting because, if you were the designer of Penwith's ancient sites, faced with a blank canvas of the Penwith landscape back in 4000 BCE
, you probably wouldn’t choose to locate many of the sites in the places where they actually are located. But the ancients had definite reasons for locating sites where they did. Here it is demonstrated that backbone alignments
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
Aligned stone at the Greeb, Land's End, with Longships Rocks behind
In constructing the map, inaccuracies of alignment of up to only three metres have been 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 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 and many geomantic possibilities and patterns. 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.
There are cases where three points have been accepted to constitute a valid alignment. This has been done in the following instances:
- when an alignment is clearly obvious by dint of the sites located on it - and they must be relatively close to each other or have some obvious connection, such as being intervisible;
- short-distance three-point alignments radiating from stone circles, often astronomically or mathematically oriented;
- 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 later);
- 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 for a special purpose 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
There's another kind of alignment with, in many cases, just two points, but they are not proper alignments as we know them. These are sight-lines or attention-lines that stand out when we are out in the landscape. This concerns particularly the intervisibility of sites.
To take an example, stand on top of Trencrom Hill, and Godrevy Head, Carn Brea, Godolphin Hill, Tregonning Hill and St Michael’s Mount simply yell at you unavoidably - they're very visible from Trencrom, drawing attention toward themselves.
These are an important element of landscape psychogeography and, in some cases, they form astronomical alignments - that is, the rising or setting points of the sun, moon or perhaps even stars coincide with them. From Trencrom, the summer solstice sun rises over St Agnes Beacon up the coast, and the winter solstice sun rises between Goolphin and Tregonning Hills. Stand at Chûn Quoit at summer solstice sunset and the sun will set 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 visually dominant in the landscape, not just visually but also in terms of psycho-geographic presence. They form part of the scenic backdrop across much of Penwith.
Carn Kenidjack from Carn Les Boel (telephoto shot)
Carn Kenidjack is not actually very high, but it is nevertheless noticeable, 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.
However, in this research project, these two-point alignments are not counted as classic alignments. However, 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 serve as the anchor-points of the alignments system, laid down from somewhere around 3500 BCE in the mid-neolithic, and hotting up in the bronze age between 2500 and 1800 BCE.
That’s when 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, metal smelting, construction and household consumption consumed large amounts of timber, removing many of the forests. The older field systems of Penwith, such as those around Zennor, were established by the late bronze age around 1500 BCE, at the end of the megalithic period.
Gurnard's Head and, behind, Pendeen Watch, from Carn Naun
Up to around 3500 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 building 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 - places to get some space.
But by the bronze age, humans were impacting much more visibly, 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 was happening: a preoccupation with sacred landscape engineering shifted into a preoccupation with farming and wealth creation. In Penwith the tribes and their chiefs became quite wealthy, exchanging tin 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 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 sanctuaries (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 quite so much in alignments;
- Old churches and early Christian oratories and crosses.
All known locations in Penwith, around 500 of them (list here
), some no longer in existence, have been accurately placed on the map – you can zoom in close to examine their precise locations.