Mounds of different kinds and sizes are the most common kind of ancient site in Penwith. Some have chambers or signs of them, and most don't. Many of them nowadays are a mere bump in the heather, but some are well worth visiting.
They range in time from the mid-neolithic around 3500 BCE right through the bronze age until about 1200 BCE, and they take on various shapes, sizes and possible functions.
Ballowall Barrow, Carn Gloose, looking toward Sennen
There are a few problems around understanding mounds of all kinds. The first problem is that there are many different types, not only in shape and size but also likely purpose, only some of which we can nowadays deduce or imagine. We just don't know what was going on in the minds of their builders.
The second problem is that they have not been well and systematically investigated - and some have been damaged by overzealous antiquarians of recent centuries, as well as farmers.
The third is that archaeologists are rather fixated on their being built for burial and funerary purposes. This has distorted perceptions of mounds and is also rather unimaginative.
Yes, bone and cremation remains have been found at some mounds. This doesn't mean they were built primarily for funerary purposes. The same is the case with Christian churches, the graveyards of which are a secondary feature, an add-on to their primary purpose as 'houses of God'. There's some other reason, or range of reasons, for cairns, tumuli and barrows.
Brane chambered cairn - with hair-do
There is clearly a difference between chambered cairns and solid ones. Chambered cairns were most likely built for initiatory, contemplative, geomantic and other multiplex purposes, and specifically for going inside, though only one or two people at a time would manage. But why?
Trainee Kogi Mamas (shamans in Colombia) lived underground for years in caves and chambers in order to become sensitised to subtle energy and move closer to a real, cellular sense of timelessness, outside the cycle of day, night and season and the buzz of human and natural actvity. This awakened their meditative, healing and shamanistic capacities, and they would emerge into the light when deemed sufficiently trained.
Tibetan Lamas were bricked up in retreats in caves or cells for years, to learn non-attachment to the 'ten thousand things' and to experience the stillness and formlessness of the void. 'God-consciousness' was an experiential matter, not a doctrinal article of faith specified in the scriptures. Such spiritual training is possibly one of the purposes of chambered cairns.
There is also what native Americans call 'vision questing', where a person at a critical stage of life, or a youth undergoing rites of passage, is sent away from the village to be alone for a few days and nights to face themselves and their demons, to fetch a vision for personal guidance and empowerment. This would be an initiation in which a person's life-purpose and calling was clarified and activated. Or if they were deemed to have erred in some way, such a retreat would be a mechanism for self-correction too.
Cairns might also have been places to die in peace, rather than for funerary purposes. They could have been places for women at menstruation or at critical moments of pregnancy - since in pre-Christian times these experiences were regarded as a gateway to an insight and power to which women were uniquely privy. Just because contemplation is conventionally unfashionable in our action-packed modern lives, we should not underestimate its importance in ancient times.
Treen South chambered cairn
Another use can be more practical, such as the improvement of seeds or of herbal remedies. In the 1970s parapsychological experiments were carried out with pyramids or with infusing seeds with energy and intent by holding them and meditating with them. This was shown to yield remarkable results in the productivity and health of plants. Genetic engineering is not new.
There were other experiments some decades ago where razor-blades were sharpened inside pyramids - in other words, tools, valuables and sacred objects could be enhanced by leaving them in an energised environment. The space inside such chambers, charged with negative ions and concentrated subtle energies, possesses an energetic yet timeless stillness. It's worth sitting inside a chambered cairn and letting yourself go quiet, feel this. They are vibrationally insulated spaces.
Then there were the ancestors, whose enduring remains are their bones or ashes, sometimes but not always found in such cairns. These remains could well have been there not for funereal reasons but as tribal inheritances or relics, utilised like the much-treasured bones of saints in medieval times. They acted as spiritual power-objects giving access to the ancestors' guidance, protection and healing.
Ancestors' relics gave a tribe a sense of roots, heritage and legitimacy, and the bones of respected or beatified foreparents will have uplifted the soul of the tribe as a whole - just as, today, we preserve items in museums, or those left by our own family ancestors, to remind us of them.
However, beware: archaeologists, labouring under the notion that quoits were originally buried under mounds, sometimes lump them together with chambered cairns, and this conflation is unlikely to be correct, an implicit cultural bias. It's a sign of an exaggerated preoccupation with burial and funerary rites, as if the rather superstitious ancients were prone to 'ancestor worship' and other ill-founded beliefs. Archaeology is good at uncovering evidence but it has some weaknesses in interpreting it.
Scillonian chambered cairns
Tregiffian chambered cairn, Merry Maidens complex
West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly host a particular kind of chambered cairn that is unique to them, known as Scillonian chambered cairns, 'entrance graves' or 'chambered tombs'. They are called 'Scillonian' because the islands are littered with them, though the evidence shows that they were first built in Penwith, then spreading to the Scillies.
In most cases the chamber is around a metre in height and width, made up of vertically-placed stones or a wall of laid stones, capped with slabs on top, some of which have a bevelled 'pillow' shape. They weren't big, and they were presumably made for sitting, crouching or lying in, or for placing objects inside. Some have cists, or stone boxes, in which urns or ashes were buried. And many do not - suggesting that cists, urns and ashes are secondary issues.
Examples of Scillonian chambered mounds are to be found at Brane, Tregiffian near the Merry Maidens, Tregiffian Vean near Land's End airport, Chapel Carn Brea, Tregeseal, Pennance, and two at Treen near Morvah. An exceptional and unique chambered mound in a dramatic clifftop location is found at Ballowall near Cape Cornwall. They date from roughly 3000-2500 BCE.
Geomantically, chambered cairns are often oriented toward points on the local horizon which mark the solstice or other rising and setting points of the sun, or lunar standstills. They sought to capture the essence of light and life at such special times, or to draw light into the underworld, or to store it, as if such cairns operated as batteries or transformers.
Whatever was placed inside them might have been put there to absorb the particular quality of light or energy inherent in the time of such sun or moonrises. Different mounds would be dedicated to different purposes and their orientation would reflect these. This all needs further research, and the MAP project currently plans an archaeoastronomical survey of such sites in 2016 to find out more.
Sancreed Beacon, a degraded chambered cairn
Chambered cairns might be calendrical too - ways of identifying a particular day from which subsequent days can be counted. If sitting at a particular place inside them one would see the sun rising either at the centre of the doorway or at its left-hand wall. Alternatively, it could be that the centre is for sunrise at, say, solstice, and the left-hand wall for the moon at the lunar maximum (on average 5-10° to the left of sunrise - depending on the visible horizon at the place in question).
Chambered cairns are built of vertical stones with capstones placed on top, then covered with soil - usually just about high enough to sit inside. Some have encircling kerbs of stones to contain their outside edges, or stones outside the entrance to narrow the view from inside.
Perhaps they weren't specifically for sitting inside. Instead, one could sit outside and watch the light and shadows play on the inside walls. Or perhaps one's own shadow would be highlighted inside the chamber, as a way of working with one's daemon or inner guide.
Cairns atop Chapel Carn Brea
Many mounds built in the neolithic and bronze ages had no chambers. A small number of these contain bones, urns or other items, and many do not. Some archaeologists suggest that these, if containing funereal remains, were for protection and demarcation of a tribe's territory - a viable possibility.
There are cases of cairn-fields with multiple barrows, such as at Mulfra, Lady Downs and Beacon Barrows, which were probably mainly for burial (there are some on the Scillies too). Apart from this, there can be a variety of other reasons for the cairns' existence.
They might mark special ground and territorial centres, or they might serve as standpoints - specific unique locations for standing to see other sites and landscape vistas, or for stargazing and observing the rising or setting of sun and moon, aligned with another site or a natural feature on the horizon. Some mounds definitely were there for astronomical purposes. A more complex structure than a mound is not needed, since the complexity is provided by distant visible features in the visible landscape.
Or they might simply be good places to sit and rest - neolithic park benches. After all, these people did a lot of walking around. Some mounds also started their lives in woodland glades and clearings.
Here, conventional thinking is not helped by the downplaying or ignoring of astrology as a crucial element in the life of every single culture in world history apart from our own. To people living largely outdoors with no artificial light, there is a natural unity between events in the heavens and events on earth. The pattern of daily life was more directly determined by light and darkness than now, and this was naturally extrapolated to wider, deeper and subtler matters.
Heavenly observation was all-important and a key element in life. It was part of the advanced education and initiatory practices of the time. Locations for sky observation were crucial, and the way that they tied in to other marked and natural ancient sites in the area, or to features on the horizon, is significant. One thing that is so special about many ancient sites is their brilliant locations.
Orgone, prana and vril
Those who omit earth energies from their calculations miss a big trick. Many tumuli, barrows and cairns sit atop water domes (blind springs) or energy upflows or downflows, or they are located at intersections of underground water movement or geological faults, which often have subtle atmospheres and paranormal phenomena associated with them. The building of a mound would presumably be to cap, contain, concentrate or entrain these energy-patterns, or to act as storage batteries, or as buffers for smoothing energy fluctuations.
Arguably, many barrows were built in the fashion of Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulators, with alternating layers of organic matter (turf, compost or rich soil) and inorganic matter (stones, sand or gravel). In time the organic matter has incorporated into the inorganic, so this alternation is less visible today. Also, since archaeologists don't look for it, they generally don't find it. The purpose is for the generation of what Reich called 'orgone', akin to what the 'water wizard' Viktor Schauberger regarded as levitational force, or others might see as the activating component of life-energy. This 'vitalist' way of seeing things is regarded by some as hocus-pocus but, without it, the most likely raison d'etre of many ancient sites is lost.
The purpose of solid mounds can be for raising the water table, improving land fertility, weather moderation, ceremony or a number of other functions - and probably different functions for different sites. The platform-like barrows at Botrea Hill are easy to imagine as stages on which to enact ceremonies. While standing stones increase energy-conductivity between earth and sky, mounds would tend to dampen or moderate it.
This energy-working component could be the main reason for the construction of most mounds. While this, of course, is classic, inadmissible hocus-pocus and woowoo, it makes more sense than the currrent rather weak prevailing idea of burial. Nevertheless, it would still make sense to bury the dead at such places, precisely for the earth energy, since people would want the best for the dead in the afterlife - just as they are laid to rest in churchyards and special places today.
The urns found at such sites don't always contain ashes, though customarily it is assumed that they did. They might also have contained liquids such as herbal decoctions, alcohol distillations or psycho-active substances that were charged thereby with benign qualities, or that were buried as offerings.
Some cairns are made entirely of stones, such as the cairn atop Watch Croft, but there aren't many.
We do not know what was really in the thoughts and beliefs of neolithic and bronze age peoples when they built mounds, and this might have varied a lot, but the above conjectures move in a likely direction concerning their true use 4-6,000 years ago.
Cairns, tumuli and barrows have been under-researched, and they have been excavated without a wide-spectrum archaeological approach, so there is much more work to be done in finding their true original purposes. There are so many of them that they deserve this, especially since we nowadays have non-intrusive means of investigating them, ranging from geophysics detectors to pendulums.