The megalithic period in Cornwall stretched across two millennia from roughly 3700 BCE to around 1500 BCE, crossing the neolithic and bronze ages.
The notion of a bronze age is rather misleading. The rise of the use of bronze around 2300 was important, but it's not the same issue as our core subject, megalithic civilisation in Cornwall and the knowledge and worldview that lay behind it.
The bronze age is currently dated from around 2300 to around 800 BCE, and this timespan could be divided into three segments, the first two of which are megalithically relevant.
The peak of the bronze age around 2100-1800 BCE represented a zenith of high civilisation in early Britain and the high-point of the megalithic era. In all its history, Britain has had two zeniths: the high megalithic period and the empire from the 1700s to the mid-1900s.
Prelude to the bronze age
The bronze age brought us menhirs, stone circles and a plethora of barrows, sacred enclosures and other structures. It was the second phase of the megalithic era, the first having been during the mid-to-late neolithic in the mid-to-late 3000s. This second phase slowly gained momentum from around 2900 BCE
onward after something called the Piora Oscillation
, which started suddenly somewhere around 3200 BCE
, tapering off over a period of 200-300 years.
The climate suddenly deteriorated, possibly because of a volcanic eruption (Hekla in Iceland is a candidate) or an asteroid impact somewhere in the world, causing a rapid darkening, a temperature drop and change of climate, particularly in the northern hemisphere. In Cornwall it drew a line between what had gone before and what came after.
This forced the people of Cornwall to change and adapt, obliging a battening down and survival struggle - a tough period lasting a number of generations. Things gradually improved thereafter. Longterm this downturn led to an eventual cultural ascendancy, growth of population and prosperity during the 800 years or so that followed. New people and influences moved into Britain from abroad around 2500, adding to this upward trend.
The climate slowly improved from around 3000, becoming more equable - by the late 2000s marginally warmer and more pleasant than it is today. The people in outlying areas of Britain like Cornwall, Arran, the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys were not, by the look of it, poor crofters eaking a meagre living out of a harsh, poor landscape, once the bronze age got going. Even remote St Kilda had been occupied in the neolithic. The earliest stage of building Avebury and Stonehenge - the henge or bank-and-ditch stage - took place just after 3000 BCE, as the Piora Oscillation was easing.
Megalithic developments taking place during the bronze age had already been on the cards, trialled and conceptualised in the neolithic. Even when new immigrants came in, the bronze age was foreign-influenced yet indigenously originated.
The Piora downturn arguably focused minds, obliging innovation and improvisation, initially for survival but later becoming more creative, innovative and developmental. Perhaps people felt that something had gone wrong with the world, feeling an imperative to put it right - hence their growing interest in, even obsession with, geomancy, astronomy, subtle energy-engineering and the harmonising of heaven and earth.
In their perception, it must have been practical and beneficial to go to the trouble of building so many ancient sites - they were the primary infrastructure of the time. Folly, pastime or delusion are unlikely to have driven such construction. These were central to their lives.
The megalithic age had begun during the neolithic: tor hilltop sites and cliff sanctuaries, quoits and cairns were built from around 3800 BCE onwards. In Cornwall this involved staking out special places on hilltops and cliff promontories and marking other selected sites for their astronomical and subtle energy qualities, upon which quoits and chambered cairns were built.
The key sites in Penwith during the neolithic were Carn Galva, Zennor Hill, Carn Kenidjack, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount. Much of the peninsula was draped with forest. This changed with the Piora Oscillation, when woodland retreated downhill and human clearance increased.
Other sites will have been revered without construction taking place, or perhaps constructions were in wood, or remains would have been upcycled during later reconstructions. Certain places around West Penwith were likely held as special, such as Sancreed Beacon, Chûn Castle, Chapel Carn Brea, Lesingey Round, Carn Lês Boel, Treryn Dinas, Pendeen Watch and Cape Cornwall.
Then, after the enforced pause during the Piora Oscillation, by around 2700-2000 BCE, in the early bronze age, the stone circles were built, on sites probably known and revered long before.
The late megalithic period begins
Carn Galva from Bartinney Castle
Back in the neolithic, living in the northern uplands of Penwith made sense since the climate was warm, at times steamy in the woods - a bit like Dordogne in France today. Leafy, shady, mixed forest covered much of the lowlands, re-growing within decades whenever cleared. Even the Isle of Scilly was wooded in those times.
Living in the forest had its advantages and it provided foods and materials. People will have moved around during the course of the year. The uplands were cooler, more open, less damp, with fewer flies, less undergrowth and a better view, and if children were endangered by wild boars or wolves, you could see them coming.
The situation changed during the Piora Oscillation. It drove people downhill, pushing them into serious farming, building and resourcing enterprises. This changed the nature of the woodland as a result of clearance and occupation, also altering people's landscape perception by increasing the extent of clearings and making some areas more accessible, open and 'ours'.
Perhaps there was a feeling of the past being left behind, of a simpler time of subsistence and tradition coming to an end. More serious farming, landscape management and engineering works were the order of the day.
The Piora Oscillation started with barren, threatening years or decades when it grew colder, darker and more stormy. People worked harder to survive. There might have been food shortages or famine. Piora had big effects on the landscape and people's lives.
Wood was felled for firewood and construction, and newly-cleared spaces were used for grazing and growing. This was a matter of composting, drainage and clearing rocks from fields - capital investment and hard labour, much of it done collectively.
With this came a kind of eco-religiosity, bringing together soil fertility, stock and plant breeding and farming with a magical approach toward weather, season, time and the timeless. Astronomy/astrology and geomancy were key elements of knowledge - knowledge of energy in time and space.
This involved a shift of cultural attitude. Once woodland is cleared and land is tamed, it becomes 'our space'. People's attitudes change subtly. Instead of feeling like subjects of nature in its vastness they felt a little more like owners and masters of their world. This was a critical shift of outlook, taking place in Britain in the mid-2000s BCE.
This incremental historic process - some call it the rise of patriarchy - was to last millennia, up to today, with key crunch-points - one being around 3000 BCE at the time of the Piora Oscillation. This time marked the endpoint and launch-point of many ancient civilisations worldwide, with but small amounts of cultural contact between some of them. There have always been wanderers, migrants and exiles.
The megalithic period ends
Another break point took place at the end of the megalithic period, beginning around 1500 and going critical around 1200 BCE, in the late bronze age. This was a social-cultural shift, though deteriorating climate might have been involved.
The megalithic era ended around 1200 but the bronze age continued until the dawning of the iron age around 800 BCE. The late bronze age was one of worsening, wetter climate, loss of interest in the ways of the past, material development, increasing territoriality, social stratification and signs of growing insecurity.
In the long megalithic period between 3700 and 1500 BCE the impetus was to act on the world in the hope of enhancing the natural order, and there was sophisticated science to the way they did it in the bronze age. This was not the competition with nature that evolved later, though it was moving that way. This was man the interventionist, increasingly moulding the world according to human preferences, though those preferences still involved cooperation with nature and working with the realm of spirit.
Arguably this long post-Piora period could be divided into four chapters:
- 2900-2300 BCE, the buildup;
- 2300-1700, the zenith;
- 1700-1500, the decline; and
- 1500-1200, the fall.
During much of this period, Britain was tribally and regionally organised, yet overall it had a common culture from Cornwall to the Shetlands. Skill-levels, advanced thinking and common threads across Britain and Ireland imply the presence of a druidic, aristocratic and artisan elite whose connections were national.
This culture was linked to that in Ireland, Brittany, Galicia, Portugal and the Atlantic coast of Scandinavia. West Penwith's culture was greatly influenced by its maritime connections. It stood at the heart of this Atlantic coast culture.
The neolithic technically ended and the bronze age phased itself in between 2500ish and 2300ish BCE, and indeed there were technological and economic advances at the time. Yet the social-cultural impetus had begun earlier from 2900 BCE, following the Piora Oscillation.
So the six-century period of 2900 to 2300 BCE, from the end of the Piora downturn to the bronze age lift-off, might be regarded as a distinct period. It brought the cumulative ascendancy of megalithic culture, and all that went with it.
The evolving situation in Britain was greatly affected by the influx of what's called the 'beaker package' around 2500, a wave of ideas, technologies and people arriving from Brittany, Iberia, Rhineland and the Danube regions. Its origination point long before was in the Tagus region of southern Portugal, spreading up to Brittany, and from there across to Rhineland and up to Ireland and western Britain.
Spreading quite quickly around Britain, it was a modernising influence. People came with it, though it wasn't a mass migration. Here lies the probable origin of the Celtic languages.
Part of the beaker package was the introduction of the use of copper, of which West Penwith had good deposits. In early days, gold and copper were available by picking around in the ground and the streams, such as between Sennen and St Just, and deep mining hadn't yet developed.
Later, streaming was added as a technique. This involves channelling and re-routing streams to loosen and erode valley banks, exposing gold and copper grains and nodules that then could be panned, sorted and smelted. Many of these metals seem at first to have been exported in ingots to Ireland, Britain and the continent, only later to become a local metal forging and craft industry.
With this metal technology came new advances in husbandry, land-improvement, carpentry, building, medicine and many other things, with increasing social and skill specialisation, a general material increase, new seed and animal stocks and new ideas. This was the 'beaker package'.
Megalithic knowledge also developed alongside this, becoming more scientific, almost to academic-style proportions, through a class of people who were proto-druids, bards and ovates, crossing the boundaries of tribe and locality, many of them mendicant.
Their knowledge in astronomy, geometry, mathematics, engineering, geomancy and physics suggests specialist, advanced and inspired theoretical thinking. Separate yet parallel developments took place roughly simultaneously in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete, Pakistan, China, Mexico and the Andes.
Penwith gained a lot of traction when metallurgy arrived around 2500 BCE, increasing its wealth, contacts and centrality. As the bronze age unfolded, the peninsula became prosperous and densely populated, clearance increased and field systems were established.
But people still moved around on an annual round and lived relatively lightly. They were culturally advanced yet they kept their material life relatively simple. Except that they engaged increasingly in megalith-building.
The Pipers SW menhir, Merry Maidens
Radically new lines of thought formed the basis of the high megalithic era, lasting roughly five centuries from 2200 to 1700ish BCE. We do not know how this body of ideas and cultural patterns arose, but it was largely indigenous, while being influenced by ideas and trends from Europe and the Mediterranean.
Some thinkers work on the basis that it was fuelled by ancient knowledge coming from a former time. Certainly the speed with which advanced theoretical thinking seemed to emerge raises big questions, suggesting either a remarkable wave of inspired genius or a transmission of specialist knowledge from earlier times.
This issue highlights a key paradigm contrast: archaeologists subscribe to a Darwinian evolutionary view of history, an ascendancy of humankind from relative simplicity to increasing cleverness and complexity, while geomancers subscribe more to a model of early received knowledge which, over time, deteriorated, bringing with it a loss of spiritual sophistication and knowledge. This is a matter of ongoing debate, and both are probably partially true.
There wasn't a clear shift from the neolithic to the bronze age but a transition lasting a few centuries, around 2500-2300 BCE, marking the first phase of the bronze age. The beaker package is named after a style of pottery accompanying this, and with this came copper metallurgy and much else - including increased alcohol consumption.
Once thought of as a major influx of people from the continent, it is now thought that it comprised numbers of artisans, travellers and thinkers more than whole tribes of incomers. It was a cultural grafting and interchange, and ideas and trends percolated in the other direction too.
A second phase of the bronze age arose around 2250-1950. There was building, clearance, population, economic and cultural development, making Britain one of the world's leading cultures of the time. The megalithic age was in full swing, and this and the next phase marked the zenith of Penwith's bronze age, when the stone circles and most menhirs were built.
In the third phase, from around 1950 to 1700ish, it seems that Britain became a cultural exporter. Its crafts, metals and ideas spread through Europe and to the Mediterranean sphere. Penwith was involved, with its sea connections up into the Irish Sea and south to Atlantic Europe, especially because of its metals trade.
Tin was by now a high-value commodity, being relatively rare. It was a key hardening ingredient in the forging of bronze, which is 90% copper and 10% tin, and Cornish tin had a trademark arsenic content, allowing archaeologists to discover that Penwith's market stretched as far as the Mediterranean, Rhineland and the Baltic.
Since there was no money, it brought a rich variety of exchanged goods, since tin ingots were valued items. Trade was carried out by a kind of ritualised mutual gifting by which future good relations were encouraged when both partners were happy with the exchange.
Tin trading made West Penwith central, strategic and prosperous. The trading focused on St Michael's Mount, Porth Ledden between Cape Cornwall and Cape Kenidjack, Lelant and St Ives.
Penwith became one of the more significant megalithic areas in the isles of Britain, together with about twelve other concentrations such as Dartmoor, the Mendips-Cotswolds, Salisbury Plain, Mynydd Preseli in SW Wales, Powys-Shropshire, the Peak District, Cumbria, Arran, Argyll, Aberdeenshire, the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys and Shetlands.
In the southwest there were three distinct areas of ancient sites: West Penwith, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor - all of them granite uplands with cultural and environmental similarities.
The megalithic inheritance
Mên an Tol
Somewhere between 3500 and 2500 BCE, a system of backbone alignments between major neolithic sites such as tors and cliff sanctuaries was established. Sites such as uoits and chambered cairns were built to create or reinforce those alignments, and this method was bequeathed to the bronze age. It formed the basis upon which many significant sites were later located during the bronze age zenith around 2000 BCE.
This system of backbone alignments
is anchored to the neolithic tor sites dating back to 3700-3500 BCE
and also to cliff sanctuaries which, as suggested elsewhere
, were significant during the 3000s.
All of Penwith's surviving stone circles, together with other nodal sites such as Lanyon Quoit and the Botrea Barrows, are located on these backbone alignments. The alignments formed the geomantic foundation upon which the bronze age system of ancient sites in Penwith was built.
A large component of the backbone system is natural, since its key sites are prominent hills and headlands. Some of these are themselves mysteriously aligned - such as Carn Brea, St Michael's Mount and Treryn Dinas, or St Ives Head, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount. The structure of the backbone system was thus drawn from nature and topography, while nevertheless acting as a framework for a man-made geo-engineering project.
Nodal sites were placed into this framework somewhere after 2700ish. These were the stone circles, Lanyon Quoit and Botrea Barrows, plus a few menhirs such as Carfury and cairns such as Numphra.
Then, during the bronze age, many more menhirs, barrows, stones and enclosures were erected to extrapolate the system, all of them plugged into the network - that is, aligned with other sites. They were installed for a variety of purposes, terrestrial, astronomical and geomantic.
As explained here
, these alignments are not
energy-lines: they are simply individual sites aligned with each other
. They were aligned for a purpose that we, in our time, do not yet understand. Their locations were determined by other factors too, and in every ancient site a number of factors
seem to interlock.
Geomancy was one of the ancients' core subjects: megalithic feng shui. Another was astrology - not about birth charts and personal fortunes, but concerning the nature and passage of time, its interpretation and its effects on the land, the sea, wildlife and the welfare of people.
The bronze age zenith
Gateway propped stone at Carn Lês Boel
Something clearly drove bronze age people to do the engineering they did. There was an elegant system to the layout of the megalithic landscape.
It had a complex rationale behind it, concerning marking out space with structures and encapsulating time and cyclicity into that system of structures. It was sophisticated, deliberate, rooted in a consistent philosophy lasting over a millennium, and it clearly had a purpose.
In the neolithic, people generally established their sacred sites where they felt best, fitting in with nature in an intuitive manner. In the bronze age they took this intuitive geomancy as their basis yet they applied a more sophisticated megalithic scientific system to it. They started building menhirs and barrows because of the way they fitted into the wider system, not because those specific locations were in themselves intuitively right.
In many bronze age sites in Penwith locational influences are complex and subtle: visit Boscawen-ûn or the Merry Maidens and their positioning is not immediately obvious. They appear to be plonked rather randomly in the landscape, on slopes without the best views, though this is not actually the case on further inspection.
They sit atop blind springs (water domes), as part of larger complexes of sites (megalithic parks), and form sightlines to hills and other sites, playing a part in alignments and at alignment intersections, embodying astronomical factors and sometimes having incredible landscape placing. Megalithic science was intricate, synergistic and complex.
Many sites are located in places that might not in themselves be obvious or magnetic, yet they are placed there according to a wider sense of landscape geometry and appropriateness. Thus, while Bartinney Castle, on top of a hill, makes sense in its location, nearby Caer Brân downhill from there makes less sense. It does have a good panoramic view, though inside its banks you cannot see it. In other words, Caer Brân was placed there for complex reasons.
Watch Croft menhir (centre, trig point on right), from Mên an Tol
While the cairn on top of Penwith's highest hill, Watch Croft, makes sense, the location of the menhir slightly on the side of the hill downhill from it doesn't make much sense when you're there. But when it is seen from Mên an Tol it is highlighted on the horizon (nowadays accompanied by a relatively modern trig point). It was placed there because of its sighting significance as seen from other sites lower down. The menhir's placing is thus more complex, and the question is what it is marking as seen from Mên an Tol.
There is a lot more to decipher in understanding megalithic science. Some progress has been made nationally, especially with the geometry of stone circles, and archaeo-astronomical and other locational factors. But this is yet to be done systematically in Penwith (we hope to).
More work needs to be done on the geometry of the placing of sites and on systematically dowsing and surveying underground water and subtle energy. The aim here is to penetrate the minds of the megalith builders, to understand more about their thoughts, beliefs and intentions by studying the patterns in what they left behind.
Many ancient sites and alignments in West Penwith come from the zenith of the bronze age, between about 2200 and 1700 BCE. During this time a comprehensive geo-engineering system was built up. Penwith's specific advantages over other areas were its maritime location, its tin deposits, probably the crystalline nature of its largely granitic rocks, and also its genetic inheritance. Even today, Penwith's indigenous gene stock contains a larger proportion than many areas in Britain of genetic patterns from very ancient times. In this respect Penwith is even marginally different from that of the rest of Cornwall.
Ring of power
The Merry Maidens
Something was mastered during the bronze age: para-technological breakthroughs in harmonising the relationship between people and their natural and spiritual environment. How successful Penwithians were at this we do not know, but this vision of relative harmony is what interests people today.
There is idealism and romanticism attached to this interest, but bronze age society was also genuinely at a highpoint of cultural development, of a kind we have not seen since.
A concept used by some anthropologists and students of ancient societies is the ring of power. This is a virtuous cycle of mutually reinforcing customs, consensus, ethics, kinship, solidarity, mutuality and cooperation that can form in societies with low levels of social alienation, high group coherence and relatively clear shared moral values - not just institutional but societal.
In recent times this has mostly been seen in isolated simple societies, but elements are also present in embattled societies such as those of the Palestinians and Kurds, or during wartime or disasters. It doesn't happen easily: it is a matter of collective social choice and consensus.
What permits such synergy is mutual trust, practical cooperation and social convergence. This allows social triumphs to happen and it builds a shared support and protection that holds up even when under duress, and sometimes because of it.
When it breaks down the results can be tragic and terrible - this is witnessed in the rapid urbanisation and modernisation of many developing societies today, bringing breakdown of village communities, kinship structures and social support systems. Individuals suddenly find themselves alone to fend for themselves. On a collective emotional level, such breakdowns represent traumatic periods within the psyche of humanity and specific ethnic groups.
The stronger usually gain from this while the weaker are left to an uncertain fate. Sometimes it leads to civil war or social disintegration - criminality, abuse, destitution, intoxication and corruption. It can also lead to materialism, economic growth and conspicuous consumption as compensatory activities, together with a hardening of social values, increased stratification and a weakening of society. This leads us to the downfall of the megalithic period in West Cornwall.
Decline and fall
By 1700 BCE
the megalithic impetus was slowing, after half a millennium of development. Fewer ancient sites were built thereafter and a new dynamic entered society: by degrees people began to impose themselves on the land and on each other, pursuing greater material security and losing impetus for megalith building and all that went with it. Or perhaps the megalithic system was complete.
Nevertheless, society continued along traditional lines for at least two centuries more, but something was changing underneath.
Then from around 1500 the climate grew cooler and wetter, forcing a retreat downhill and a lot more agricultural work to maintain crop yields and food stocks. Whether prompted by this or an independent social phenomenon, a cultural change around this time brought a shift of societal beliefs and values. There was pressure on land, deterioration of social relations and craft quality, growth of unrest and increasing material preoccupation.
Across Eurasia this was the emergent 'axial age', a transitional time between that of the ancient civilisations surviving up to around 1500 BCE and that of empires, which gained impetus from around 500 BCE onwards, particularly in Greece/Rome and China.
In Cornwall land was being re-divided and capital improvements grew - land enclosure, wall-building, clearing, levelling, crop-rotation, building. Farming moved from sufficiency farming, catering to modest needs, toward more 'maximiser' farming, seeking to build up and store surpluses and to use farm products in trading, feasting and gift-exchange. It became a bit less collective-cooperative and a bit more more privatised, especially for people higher up in society.
Horses came into use, dogs were trained for hunting and shepherding and animal breeds were refined. Weapons became more common.
But traditions and beliefs continued, even though people subscribed less to them. Younger generations probably had their own ideas. People's focus was shifting. There was probably something else too.
When the dynamics of self-interest start entering society, they have a viral effect, ricocheting through social situations, causing a painful tightening and reactivity in society, a growth of distrust and alienation, a feeling of being let down, even violated. It's a defensive retraction of goodwill and relatedness.
These dynamics have come in waves throughout history, but in this critical instance the 'ring of power' binding people together was crucially shattered. Somewhere around 1200 BCE there was a downfall and collapse of a social order and a whole reality. It probably happened quite quickly once it started. A new social configuration was developing.
The national connectedness of earlier times deteriorated, and there was a breakage of the enchantment that lay at the heart of the megalithic worldview. This was the collapse of a vision and a whole perception of reality - one that saw things as beings, that sensed the psyche of nature and strove to engage deeply with it. Now ownership and control were entering the arena. Self-preservation was taking over.
Megalithic society had no doubt been imperfect, and life would have had its problems and rigours. But there was a certain cohesion and consensus to it, evidenced in the ancient sites it left behind. Society had mores, traditions and implicit agreements, unspoken social contracts incorporating a sense of contract also with nature and the divine.
Yet the magic was broken, the megalithic sites lost much of their meaning and people got on with other things. Land was reapportioned, farming methods changed, there were increasing signs of sacrifices (such as treasures thrown into rivers), presumably to propitiate the gods; there was an increase in cremation of the dead and in weapons production, and a rise of warrior elites and patron-client social arrangements. The clans still survived but they became more hierarchical.
Climate also deteriorated further. In 1159-1141 (dated dendochronologically) there was a volcanic eruption somewhere (again, Hekla in Iceland is a candidate), bringing colder conditions, increased cloud and rainfall, crop failure and abandonment of marginal land. Things later improved somewhat, but around 1000 BCE there was a longer term climatic change, with cooler and wetter weather setting in. Overall productivity of the land and human wellbeing declined. Life in Britain went through a downturn lasting until around 600 BCE.
The megalithic era was long gone.The bronze age passed into the iron age.