A Variety of Holy Bumps - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

West Penwith, Cornwall
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End Peninsula
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A Variety of Holy Bumps

Cairns, Barrows and Tumuli

Mounds of different kinds and sizes are the most common single kind of ancient site in West Penwith - there are a lot in neighbouring Scilly and the Lizard too. Some have chambers (or leftovers of them), and most don't. Many barrows are nowadays a mere bump in the heather, and only some are noticeable. Some are well worth visiting. Those with chambers are often misleadingly called 'chambered tombs' or 'entrance graves'.

Map of the Cairns and Quoits of West Penwith
Mounds first appeared in the neolithic (not least because piling up earth is an obvious thing to do), but most are bronze age from around 2600 BCE onward. They take on various shapes, sizes and possible functions.

There are problems around understanding mounds. There are many different types, not only in shape and size but also in likely purpose, only some of which we can nowadays deduce, infer or imagine. We just don't know what was going on in the minds of their builders - and that's the big question we struggle to decipher.

The second problem is that barrows, cairns and tumuli have not been well and systematically investigated, either by recent excavation or by less intrusive means, ranging from dowsing to geophysical surveys. Quite a few have been damaged by zealous antiquarians, looters, farmers, miners and the rigours of time.

The third is that archaeologists are rather fixated on their being built for burial and funerary purposes - calling these cairns 'entrance graves' or 'chambered tombs'. This has distorted perceptions of mounds, and few experts seem interested in correcting it. Yes, bone and cremation remains have been found at some mounds, though not always in a place where one would expect them to be if those remains represented a genuine burial. In many cases, chips of bones from many people are stuffed in urns and buried in mounds. Such remains were thus used as sacred relics, or for oracular or even fertility purposes.

Burial can also have been a secondary issue, carried out because the cairn, barrow or tumulus was already regarded as special for other reasons - therefore it was significant to be buried there. Urns, cups and other objects, plus layers of earth, sand or ashes are found, but not universally.

This suggests that many mounds were not built primarily for funerary purposes. They were built as shrines or depositories, or for geomantic or other reasons. In the case of churches in later times, graveyards are an add-on to churches' primary purpose as 'houses of God', and this is likely also with cairns, barrows or tumuli - in most cases they were not built primarily for burial or funerary purposes.

This said, some cairns do seem to be for burial - or at least, people were buried there. Whether burial or other purposes were the primary purpose is difficult to tell, except perhaps in the case of cairnfields, which are more likely dedicated cemeteries for the great and good of the time - but even this is not certain, only assumed. There are only a few cairnfields in Penwith, such as at Mulfra and on Botrea Hill.

The isle of Scilly had far more of them, giving rise to the idea that Scilly was in ancient times the 'island of the dead', to which many mainlanders might have been taken to be buried. This idea is now disputed, and the commonality of cairnfields on Scilly might simply suggest a local habit of building them. The jury is still out on that question.

Chambered Cairns

Tregiffian chambered cairn, Merry Maidens complex
Tregiffian chambered cairnWest Penwith, Scilly and south-east Ireland host a particular kind of chambered cairn unique to them only, known as Scillonian chambered cairns. They're often called 'entrance graves' or 'chambered tombs', which, as mentioned above, are terms that rather confuse things.

They are called 'Scillonian' because the islands are littered with them. However, the evidence suggests that they were first built in Penwith, then to spread to Scilly. Some of the Penwith chambered cairns pre-date the first permanent colonisation of Scilly, which is reckoned to be around 2250 BCE. The people of Penwith and Scilly would have been genetically and maritally related and, with summertime traffic to and from the islands, this diffusion is to be expected.

In most cases the chamber is around a metre in height and width and around 2-3 metres in length, made up of vertically-placed stones or a wall of laid stones, capped with slabs on top, many of which have a bevelled 'pillow' shape on top. Then this stone structure is buried under a mound of earth and sometimes stones. Around many of these cairns is a kerb of stones inserted as an edge to the mound's perimeter. It's probable that the kerb stones had a greater purpose than merely stopping the cairn from eroding and spreading, but that purpose is unknown.

The summit cairn on Chapel Carn Brea
The summit cairn on Chapel Carn BreaThe chambers weren't big, and they were presumably made mainly for lying in, or for placing objects inside, since in many cases they are not high enough for comfortable sitting. Or perhaps there might even have been a purpose in making them slightly uncomfortable to sit in.

A few cairns, and probably their chambers, were bigger - such as the two now much-denuded kerbed cairns on the ridge-top a few hundred yards NW and SE of the Nine Maidens stone circle. Some have cists or stone boxes in which urns, artefacts or ashes were buried. And many do not - suggesting that cists, urns and ashes might be secondary issues.

Surviving examples of Scillonian chambered mounds in Penwith are to be found at Brane near Sancreed, Tregiffian near the Merry Maidens, Tregiffian Vean near Land's End airport, on top of Chapel Carn Brea, around Tregeseal stone circle, at Pennance near Zennor, with two at Treen above Morvah. Most Scillonian mounds in Penwith date from roughly 2500 BCE onwards, though arguably some might be older. Most have not been properly dated - and there might be a surprise in store, since some might be older than commonly assumed. Dating is tricky because only organic remains can be used, which can have been deposited some time after the cairn's building - and many cairns were used for centuries.
Ballowall Barrow, Carn Gloose, looking toward Sennen
Ballowall Barrow, Carn Gloose, CornwallAn exceptional and unique chambered mound in a dramatic clifftop location is found at Ballowall Barrow, at Carn Gloose near St Just - it is completely different and more complex, in a class of its own. It seems to have been built in stages over a long period, starting in the later neolithic and mostly in the bronze age.

Its maritime panorama is spectacular, visually connecting it with the Longships rocks - in the bronze age the rocks were far more prominent than today because of lower sea levels, and rocks such as these were highly regarded (as demonstrated by the number of sacred site alignments oriented to them). Ballowall Barrow was also a fine location for seeing the isle of Scilly, 25ish miles westwards over the sea, on the way toward what was then probably thought of as the edge of the world.  [Ballowall is pronounced with the emphasis on 'low': bu-lowall.]

Why Build Chambered Cairns?

Geomantically, the chambers in chambered cairns are oriented toward points on the local horizon that mark the solstice or other rising and setting points of the sun, or of lunar standstills (in which the moon moves higher or lower in the sky through a 19 year cycle). They seem mainly to have a variety of eastward orientations, and summer solstice orientations are quite common. In doing this their builders clearly sought to capture the essence of living light at such special times, or to mark the passage of time, or to draw light into the underworld or the darkness, or to store light or solar/lunar energy as if such cairns operated like batteries.

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 sunrises or moonrises. Different mounds would be dedicated to different purposes and their orientation would reflect these. This tradition was emulated later on in the middle ages with the orientation of churches to the rising point of the sun on a particular saint's day.

Cairns and barrows need much more research. Many of the ideas presented below are speculative, though they give prehistoric mounds a level of added purpose and significance that is nevertheless plausible.
Brane chambered cairn - with elaborate hair-do
Brane chambered cairn, Cornwall
There is clearly a difference between chambered cairns and solid barrows and tumuli. Chambered cairns were likely built for initiatory, contemplative, geomantic and other purposes, even as places for conscious dying. They were presumably intended for going inside, though only one person at a time would fit easily. But why were such cairns really needed?

Trainee Kogi Mamas (shamans in Colombia) lived underground for years in caves and chambers to become sensitised to subtle energy and develop a sense of meditative timelessness, beyond the cycles of day, night and season and the buzz of human and natural activity. Longterm sensory deprivation awakened their spiritual, healing and shamanistic capacities, and they would emerge only when deemed ready - often after 10-20 years. Tibetan Lamas were bricked up in retreats in caves or cells for at least three years, if not longer, to master non-attachment to 'the ten thousand things' and to experience inner stillness. Christian hermits stowed themselves away in cells and oratories for similar purposes.

Truthwall Common chambered cairn, near Tregeseal stone circle
Contemplation and spiritual training is thus likely to be one of the purposes of chambered cairns, though the above-mentioned practices were probably more extreme than was the case in Cornwall 4,000 years ago. It is likely that people retreated into cairns for a period of days, or for a moon cycle, though if they were in shamanic training this would probably have been longer.

This is 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 to be alone for some days and nights to face themselves and their fears, to fetch a vision for personal guidance and empowerment.

Or, if a person was deemed to have erred in some way, such a retreat could be a mechanism for self-examination and self-correction, perhaps under the instruction of a druid. It is also imaginable that older women or men might have spent time there in order to transition to the status of an elder. And for chambered cairns to be used in the training of the druids, healers and seers of the time.

Chambered cairns might also have been places to die consciously and in peace. This does not mean these cairns were built for funerary purposes or burial, but for 'conscious dying'. Nowadays we fear death and have few cultural techniques for dealing with it, except perhaps drugs and painkillers, but back then death would have been seen as a return to the source, to the otherworld, to rejoin the ancestors or to graduate to become one of them. One interesting theory mentions molecular transfer between stones and bones (to make bones more like stone and to infuse the stones of chambers with the essence of those who have died).

They could conceivably have been places for women at pre-menstruation, or at critical moments of pregnancy or key points in the menopause - in pre-Christian times these times were regarded as gateways to a mystery and power uniquely privy to women. Only later in history did menstruation become a matter of culturally-imposed shame for women. For conception, women might spend time in the chamber to 'call in a soul' from the otherworld, then to emerge to a blessing ceremony and fertility rites. Doing this at summer solstice would create a child in springtime - just the right time of year to get born.

These are hypothetical purposes for chambered cairns, yet they make some sense and there are plenty of anthropological instances of such practices in other cultures. Rites of passage were particularly important to ancient people.

Though contemplation and solitary quietude are strange to many of us in our perpetually busy modern world, we should not underestimate their importance in ancient times. It is likely that the ancients built these chambers for the purpose of cultivating a connection with the 'still, small voice' within, to listen to the undercurrents in life. This was not just a spiritual add-on but a practical necessity, improving the mindfulness with which ancient people moved in a somewhat hazardous world running according to nature's rules.


Treen South chambered cairn
Treen South chambered cairnAnother likely function of cairns is as repositories for objects - as demonstrated in many of the finds from chambers. This might have had a connection with soil fertility since some cairns were built close to field systems. By interring samples of soil, ash and sand, or organic material, or offerings, such samples were somehow potentised, either for scattering on the surrounding land or for use in some other way to raise energy-conditions in the land - rather like scattering blessed water.

Another use can be the improvement of seeds, the potentisation of herbal remedies or psychedelic elixirs, or the application of a treatment that might help in the storage of food. In the 1970s experiments were carried out with pyramids by putting seeds inside them, then planting them in controlled trials. Remarkable results in the productivity and health of plants were obtained - genetic engineering is not new. Other experiments were carried out in which razor-blades were sharpened inside small-scale pyramids. In other words, there is something about the energetics created inside such a space that alters the nature and vitality of seeds, food or items.

Thus, tools, valuables and sacred objects could be enhanced by leaving them in an energised environment - the Tibetans use stupas, or monuments built to exact sacred shapes and proportions, where sacred relics and manuscripts are stored inside. The space inside chambered cairns, charged with negative ions and concentrated subtle energies from underground, located over underground water-vortices, and periodically infused with light from outside, possesses an energetic yet timeless stillness.

Inside Treen South, looking out
Inside Treen South chambered cairn, looking outIt's worth sitting inside a chambered cairn and letting yourself go quiet, to feel this - try Bosiliack Barrow, the Treen Barrows near Morvah, the Pennance Barrow near Zennor, or the Brane Cairn near Sancreed. They are vibrationally insulated spaces. Nothing happens.  It's quiet, yet there is energy present - it changes you.

That is what they were most likely for, to provide quietened, energy-intensified spaces for the purpose of going deeper or higher. Many are located over blind springs or the intersections of underground water lines: the energy-emanation from below then gets concentrated, amplified and stored inside the stone chamber.

Then there were the ancestors, whose most enduring remains are their bones or ashes - items which sometimes but not always are found in such cairns. These relics acted as spiritual power-objects giving access to the ancestors' guidance, protection and healing - or their judgement.

Ancestors' relics gave a tribe a sense of roots, heritage, continuity, legitimacy and counsel, and the bones of respected or beatified predecessors will have uplifted the soul of the tribe as a whole. Similarly, today, we preserve items and relics in museums, or we keep family mementoes to remind us of our predecessors, on whose shoulders we stand.


Sancreed Beacon, a degraded chambered cairn
Sancreed BeaconIt is unlikely that chambered cairns were built solely for calendrical purposes - for providing ways of identifying a particular day, after which subsequent days could be counted. Accuracy of measurement of the sun's rising on the horizon would be insufficient in a chambered cairn - two aligned stones would be better. Contemplative observation or witnessing in a more magical-ceremonial sense is more likely in a chambered cairn.

Conceivably, in some cases the sun rose in the centre, and the moon at its 18.6 year maximum at the left-hand doorpost, with the moon at its minimum nine years later at the right-hand doorpost. At Penwith's latitude, the horizontal difference would be about 7-15 degrees of the horizon each way from the sun's solsticial rising point - depending on the immediate horizon's shape and elevation. In those days, when life-expectancy for most was about 40-50 years, 19ish years marked one human generation, so lunar maxima and minima would be a significant measure of time.

It was a matter of participating in nature's cycles, and this was both a spiritual, magical, emotional and practical issue. Enhancing the subtle energies and patterns of nature was a way of improving the fortunes of the tribe and the living environment the tribe lived in. It was a key reason why they went to the trouble of building ancient sites. Think of the difference between a candle that is alight in the darkness compared to one that is alight in the light.

It is imaginable that, if a person has lain in the chamber overnight, at the time of year when the sunrise fills the chamber at dawn, in the morning they would receive healing, blessing and rebirth into the light. Or perhaps a wooden door might be placed over the entrance, with a hole or a gap in it so that, on the appointed day, a shaft of light fell on the rear wall of the chamber. Whether or not a person is there to witness it or to have that light fall on them, such an infusion of darkness with light can have had profound cosmological significance.

Perhaps the cairns weren't even built specifically for sitting inside. Equally, one could sit outside and watch the light and shadows play on the inside walls. Or perhaps one's shadow would be highlighted inside the chamber, as a way of working with one's daemon or inner guide.

Barrows and Tumuli

Cairns atop Chapel Carn Brea
Chapel Carn Brea, West PenwithMany mounds had no chambers - these are usually called barrows or tumuli. A number of these contain bones, urns, stones or other items, and many do not. Their presence doesn't necessarily indicate that barrows' primary purpose was burial, since such artefacts can be buried for blessing or for empowerment of the site.

This returns us to the idea that barrows served as nature shrines and also in a geomantic context, located as many of them are over the intersections at different levels of underground streams and seepages. This creates a vortex or bubble of subtle energy emanating from the earth, which can be concentrated, fixed, buffered or stored in the mound.

Some archaeologists suggest that barrows, if containing funereal remains, were for protection and demarcation of a tribe's territory. This is a very viable possibility, though many barrows are located in places that do not feel like the edges of territories. This can be a form of empowerment and improvement of the land - dressing it up. But this 'property management' function could be just one of many possible purposes for barrows - they were most likely multi-functional, not single-purpose.

In some cases barrows would mark special ground and territorial centres or focus-points - not so much edges. Some can also serve as viewpoints - specific locations from which to see other sites or landscape vistas. Some can have multiple lines of sight, as seen from where they stand.

Some might be backsights - precise positions from which, at certain times of year, the sun could be seen rising or setting over a certain feature on the horizon. They would be places to stand or sit to witness a cyclical heavenly phenomenon. A more complex structure than a mound is not needed for this, since the complexity is provided by distant features in the visible landscape.

Many barrows and tumuli lie on alignments or on intersections of alignments, and thus they were part of the integrated alignment system of Penwith, as seen on the alignments map. They were not randomly located: they played an integral part in a larger megalithic geography, in the overall geoengineering project that was carried out in Belerion, in West Penwith.

One interesting fact about alignments that we cannot fathom is that, in some cases, alignments pass through the centre of barrows and cairns, and in other cases they tangent their edges.

One of many cairns that today look inconsequential - this one near Bodrifty
Cairns in West Penwith
To people living largely outdoors with no artificial light, there is an innate natural unity between events observed in the heavens and events on earth. The pattern of daily life was determined by light and darkness far more than now (since today we have electric light and urban lifestyles). Fullmoons allowed outdoor activity at night while newmoons turned people's moods and night-time habits inward - people would go to bed earlier. The light half-cycle of the moon, a week each side of the fullmoon, was a time for outward nighttime activity, while the dark hemicycle was indrawn and ruminative, a time for stories told around the fire or for drifting off wrapped in furs on a bed of mosses and sheepskins.

Heavenly observation was all-important, part of the educational and initiatory practices of the time. While the sun determines the seasons, the new and fullmoons always brought changes in the patterns of nature, weather, wind and rain - knowing this meant that one knew the times that were good for planting, harvesting, intercepting shoals of fish, felling timber or fixing the roof.

In a more banal way, barrows could also serve simply as good places to sit and rest - late-neolithic park benches. After all, people did a lot of walking, and barrows could serve as stopping or orientation places. Some mounds also started their lives in woodland glades and clearings.

Working with Energy

Worse for wear - a former chambered cairn at Mayon Cliff, Sennen
Mayon Cliff chambered cairnThose who omit earth energies from their calculations miss a very big trick. One of the consequences is that the matter of earth energies is wilfully under-researched.

Some tumuli, barrows and cairns sit atop water domes (blind springs) which produce energy up-flows or vortices, and most are located at intersections of underground water veins or over geological faults. Such conditions produce subtle atmospheres or energy-conditions that permit extraordinary phenomena such as time-warps, healings, insights or altered states, magnetic anomalies and an uncanny perception of centrality, of hereness and nowness. This is summed up as the 'spirit of place' or genius loci that is present at any ancient site

In this way of seeing things, the building of a mound would be to cap, contain, concentrate or entrain these energy-patterns, or to act as storage batteries or as buffers for smoothing energy fluctuations. Here we enter the realms of borderland science, as propounded by thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich with his 'orgone energy' or Viktor Schauberger with his research on biomagnetism and the 'law of levity', equal and opposite to the law of gravity.

One theory has it that many barrows were built in the fashion of Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulators, with alternating layers of organic matter (turf, compost or soil) and inorganic matter (stones, sand or gravel) in order to accumulate subtle energy. It is certainly the case in Penwith that many mounds have stones resting on or embedded in them, and some are also built over rock outcrops. Perhaps this was why chambered cairns have stone chambers and external kerbs. Where layers of gravel or pebbles were used, time will have incorporated and mixed them so that this alternation of layers is less visible today.

The purpose would be for the generation or accumulation of what Reich called 'orgone', akin to what 'water wizard' Viktor Schauberger regarded as the levitational force, or what 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, a likely key raison d'etre of many barrows is lost.

One of the big platform barrows on Botrea Hill
Platform barrows on Botrea HillFurther purposes 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. This would operate by smoothing out or storing the up-down vortical fluctuations of energy at water-line intersections and blind springs.

The platform-like barrows at Botrea Hill are easy to imagine as stages on which to enact ceremonies, sacred dances or the ancient equivalent of mummers' plays. Sitting on top of a rounded plateau with a remarkable all-round view, these platform barrows would be an inspiring location for spectacles, the skirl of bagpipes or the rhythmic sounding of drums. Just over the valley was Caer Brân, which on this website is suggested to be the possible parliament and moot site for the whole of West Penwith. If this is correct, then Caer Brân and Botrea Barrows, in sight of each other, would probably have served as a pair of sites, working together - places for convocations and get-togethers for the people of the tribes of Belerion.

This energy-working component is likely to be the main reason for the construction of most mounds. Some readers might judge this to be insufficiently supported by evidence, or inadmissible as evidence, yet it makes more sense than the current prevailing idea of burial. It would also explain why burials took place at some barrows and tumuli - just as corpses were laid to rest in churchyards or the ashes of our loved ones are spread at special places today.
Bosiliack Barrow
Bosiliack BarrowThe urns found at such sites don't always contain ashes, though it is often assumed that they did. They might also have contained liquids such as herbal decoctions, alcoholic distillations or psycho-active substances that perhaps were charged or matured with benign qualities by being buried. Or they were offerings to the beings of the subtle realms and the otherworld.

While we do not know what really went on in the thoughts and beliefs of neolithic and bronze age people - and this might have varied a lot over the centuries - the above conjectures nevertheless give us hints about the purpose and true use of these sites 4,000 years ago.

Cairns, tumuli and barrows have been under-researched, and those that have been excavated and probed have lacked examination with a wide-spectrum archaeological approach. To some extent, antiquarians and archaeologists have found the evidence they have been looking for. So there is much more work to be done in finding the original purposes of cairns, barrows and tumuli. There are so many of them that they deserve attention, especially since nowadays we have non-intrusive means of investigation, ranging from geophysical detectors to pendulums.

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