A Variety of Bumps | barrows, cairns and tumuli - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

Ancient Penwith
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The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
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A Variety of Bumps | barrows, cairns and tumuli

Ancient Sites

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 Scilly and the Lizard too. Some have chambers (or leftovers of them), and most don't. Many of them are nowadays a mere bump in the heather, only some are noticeable. But some are well worth visiting. They are often rather misleadingly called 'chambered tombs' or 'entrance graves'.

They appeared from the mid-neolithic around 3500 BCE onwards, though most are from the late neolithic and bronze age from around 2600 to around 1200 BCE.  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 our main problem.

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, farmers, miners and by the rigours of time.

The third is that archaeologists are often 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 expect them to be if those remains represented a genuine burial. Such remains can have been used instead as sacred relics, or for oracular or even fertility purposes. Urns, cups and other objects, plus layers of earth, sand or ashes are also found, but not universally.

This suggests that many mounds were not built primarily for funerary purposes. In the case of churches in later times, graveyards are a secondary feature, an add-on to churches' primary purpose as 'houses of God', and this is likely also with cairns, barrows or tumuli - or at least a large proportion of them.

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. 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', on which many mainlanders might have been buried, though this idea is disputed, and the commonality of cairnfields on Scilly might simply have been a local habit involving islanders only. 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 that is 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 (mostly one island at that time). The people of Penwith and Scilly would have been genetically and maritally related and, with summertime traffic between the islands and the mainland this diffusion is to be expected. Some of the Penwith chambered cairns pre-date the first permanent colonisation of Scilly, reckoned to be around 2250 BCE.

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. 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 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 quite high enough for comfortable sitting. But then, people in that time were a bit smaller than we, today, and perhaps there was an ascetic side to spiritual practise in those days.

A few cairns, and probably their chambers, were bigger than this - 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 or ashes were buried. And many do not - suggesting that cists, urns and ashes might be secondary issues.

Surviving examples of Scillonian chambered mounds 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 2600 BCE onwards, though arguably some are older. Most have not been properly dated - and there might be a surprise in store, since some might be older than commonly assumed.
Ballowall Barrow, Carn Gloose, looking toward Sennen
An 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.

Its maritime panorama is quite unique, visually connecting it with the Longships rocks - in the bronze age the rocks were far more prominent than today because of lower sea levels. It 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.

Geomantically, the chambers in such cairns are often oriented toward points on the local horizon marking the solstice or other rising and setting points of the sun, or lunar standstills. They seem mainly to have a variety of eastward orientations, and summer solstice orientations are quite common. In doing this their builders 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 as if such cairns operated rather 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 probably be dedicated to different purposes and their orientation would reflect these.

Why build chambered cairns?


Cairns and barrows need much more research. Many of the ideas presented below are speculative and unproven, but they give prehistoric mounds a level of added purpose and significance that is nevertheless plausible.
Brane chambered cairn - with hair-do
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 in order to become sensitised to subtle energy and to move closer to a real sense of meditative timelessness, beyond the cycles of day, night and season and the buzz of human and natural actvity. This long sensory deprivation awakened their mystical, healing and shamanistic capacities, and they would emerge into the light only when deemed sufficiently trained - often after 10-20 years.

Tibetan Lamas were bricked up in retreats in caves or cells for at least three years, to learn non-attachment to 'the ten thousand things' and to experience the inner stillness and formlessness of 'the Void'. Some Lamas disappeared into the mountains for many years, sometimes given up for dead, only to reappear years later.
Truthwall Common chambered cairn, near Tregeseal stone circle
Similar spiritual training is possibly one of the purposes of chambered cairns, though the above-mentioned practices were probably far more extreme than was the case in Cornwall 4,000 and more years ago. It is more likely that people retreated into cairns for a period of days, or for a moon cycle.

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 to be alone for a few days and nights to face themselves and their fears, in order to fetch a vision for personal guidance and empowerment. This would be an initiation in which a person's calling came into focus.

Or perhaps, 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. Or 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 - and while this concerns death, it does not mean these cairns were for funerary purposes. 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 join the ancestors and graduate to become one of them.

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. For conception, conceivably women might spend time in the chamber to be still and 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.

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 quietitude 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 matter, improving the mindfulness with which ancient people moved intuitively in a somewhat hazardous world running according to nature's rules.

Repositories

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, it is conceivable that such remains 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 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 atmosphere created inside such a space that alters the nature and vitality of seeds, food or items.

Thus, tools, valuables and sacred objects could conceivably 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 are stored inside. The space inside chambered cairns, charged with negative ions and concentrated subtle energies from underground, possesses an energetic yet timeless stillness.
Inside Treen South, looking out
It'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 for, to provide quietened, intensified spaces for the purpose of going deeper or higher. Many are located over blind springs or the intersections of underground water lines: this energy-emanation from below gets concentrated inside a 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.

Astronomy

Sancreed Beacon, a degraded chambered cairn
Sancreed BeaconIt is unlikely that chambered cairns were built 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, or a well-positioned backsight for viewing the horizon would be better. But observation or witnessing in a more magical-ceremonial sense is more likely.

It is conceivable that 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 visible horizon's shape and elevation). In those days, when life-expectancy was about 40-45 years, 18.6 years marked one human generation, so lunar maxima and minima would be a significant longer-term measure of time.

It was more 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.

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 have been 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 BreaMany mounds had no chambers. A number of these without chambers contain bones, urns, stones or other items, and many do not - though these are not necessarily indicate that these cairns' main purpose was burial, since such artefacts can be buried for blessing or empowerment of the site.

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

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. Put another way, 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.

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 mounds 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. A more complex structure than a mound is not needed for this, since the complexity is provided by distant features in the visible landscape.
One of many cairns that today look inconsequential - this one near Bodrifty
To people living largely outdoors with no artificial light, there is an innate natural unity between events as observed in the heavens and events on earth. The pattern of daily life was determined by light and darkness far more than now (since we have electric light and urban environments) - fullmoons allowed outdoor activity at night while newmoons constrained activity with darkness, and people's moods and daily habits were affected too. The light hemicycle, a week each side of the fullmoon, was a time for outward activity at night, while the dark hemicycle was more indrawn and ruminative, a time for stories told around the evening fire or for drifting off while 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 and the weather - knowing this meant one knew the times that were good for planting, harvesting, intercepting shoals of fish or felling timber.

In a more banal way, barrows could also serve simply as good places to sit and rest - late-neolithic park benches. After all, these people did a lot of walking, and barrows would 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 above Sennen
Those who omit earth energies from their calculations miss a very big trick. One of the consequences of this is that the matter of earth energies is under-researched, because of this denial.
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Many tumuli, barrows and cairns sit atop water domes (blind springs) which produce energy upflows or vortices, or they are located at intersections of underground water veins or geological faults. Such conditions produce subtle atmospheres or energy-conditions that permit extraordinary phenomena such as timewarps, healings or altered states. This is summed up as the 'spirit of place' or genius loci.

In this way of seeing things, 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. 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 what he called the 'law of levity', equal and opposite to the law of gravity.

One theory has it that at least some barrows might have been built in the fashion of Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulators, constructed with alternating layers of organic matter (turf, compost or rich soil) and inorganic matter (stones, sand or gravel) in order to accumulate subtle energy. In time the organic matter will have incorporated into the inorganic, meaning that this alternation of layers is less visible today.

The purpose would be for the generation 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 raison d'etre of many barrows is lost.
One of the big platform barrows on Botrea Hill
Further 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 fluctations 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 plataeu 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 Bran, 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 Bran 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 West Penwith.

This energy-working component could be the main reason for the construction of many or most mounds. Such a statement easily qualifies as classic, inadmissible hocus-pocus to some readers, yet it makes more sense than the current prevailing idea of burial. This said, it could still be appropriate to bury the dead at such places, since people would want the best for the dead in the afterlife - just as they are laid to rest in churchyards or their ashes are spread at special places today.
Bosiliack Barrow
The 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 could be buried as offerings for the beings of 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 4,000-6,000 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. So there is much more work to be done in finding their original purposes. There are so many of them that they deserve this, especially since nowadays we have non-intrusive means of investigating them, ranging from geophysical detectors to pendulums.

Map of Ancient Penwith:
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