Stone Circle Complexes
These complexes are as important as stone circles themselves, orbiting around the gravity-centre of the stone circles. They are quite different from each other in shape and character. The complex around the Merry Maidens is very definite with a wide range of features. Around Tregeseal it's also quite definite, but nowadays in a poor state. Around Boscawen-ûn it is comprised mainly of menhirs acting as foresights to be seen from the circle, with a proportion of them astronomically aligned. The Nine Maidens complex is not pronounced but this circle, together with its former sister circle at Mên an Tol, plays a part in an array of sites that seem more terrestrially than astronomically significant. All of these complexes need much more research.
Merry Maidens complex
This once comprised three stone circles and a number of menhirs, including Cornwall's largest (The Pipers), and a number of cairns. It is arrayed mainly along a WSW-ENE axis that is highlighted by the main yellow alignment passing through it, leading from Carn Brea, through St Michael's Mount to Treryn Dinas - a major backbone alignment. This has an azimuth of 54.3° - the rising point of the Sun around early June and mid-July (if indeed it is astronomically oriented).
A sub-axis in the complex follows a short internal alignment from Gûn Rith, through the centre of the Merry Maidens, through a now-fallen menhir and a hedge menhir to the now-disappeared Tregurnow stone circle, with an azimuth of 81.1°.
In the northeast of the complex, the adjacent Pipers menhirs clearly act as a pair. The southwestern Piper seems to handle alignments within the complex (in blue on the map), while the northeast Piper takes alignments from further away. One example is an alignment of Tregurnow stone circle, through the northeast Piper to Boscawen-un stone circle and ending up at Bartinney Castle.
NE Piper menhir
The Pipers are counterweighted on the other side of the Merry Maidens by the twin Boscawen Ros menhirs. The western menhir is aligned with the centre of the Merry Maidens and then the Pipers. Meanwhile, the eastern menhir aligns with the southeastern edge of the stone circle and the Pipers. The headscratcher is, why? What's the purpose of this?
A comprehensive multi-discliplinary survey of the Merry Maidens complex is needed. It is very much affected by the road and hedgerows in the vicinity when, clearly, in the complex's heyday, it would presumably have been some sort of parkland with different visual characteristics and horizon from those of today.
Notable are a number of holed stones (pink on the map). The best estimate is that these were very accurately aligned to obtain exact readings for certain astronomical phenomena. The holes are not large. The chances are that this concerned observation of a star or planet rather than the Sun or Moon, since a narrow aligned series of holes would counteract extinction, when stars disappear when they are close to the horizon (because of the amount of the Earth's atmosphere the light has to get through). However, it would also exploit the virtues of the slight atmospheric magnification that stellar objects have when close to the horizon. It was perhaps an early bronze age scientific precision instrument.
Alignment 123 from the Merry Maidens goes to Carn Lês Boel, then to Knackyboy cairn on the Scilly island of St Martin's, then to a kerbed cairn on Gweal Hill, Bryher. Another interesting alignment had from Tregurnow to Sancreed Beacon, through the Botrea Barrows (a more axial and important site than is usually thought) to Pendeen Watch, a significant cliff sanctuary on the north coast of Penwith.
This complex is more spread out and radial than the Merry Maidens complex, with a gaggle of menhirs a few fields, 600-800m away, from the stone circle, with more further still. Boscawen-ûn is more of a hub than any other stone circle in Penwith: it stands at the very centre of the southern half of the peninsula, with radial alignments reaching out to several of the major cliff sanctuaries - Carn Lês Boel, Treryn Dinas, Cape Cornwall, Gurnard's Head, Maen Castle and St Michael's Mount. Their relative angles need analysis.
It's one of those stone circles where you can spend time alone because it is a little tricky to find - and then, just as you're about to leave, someone else comes along to take over. This is one of those uncanny characteristics of stone circles - they can have a presence and a will of their own. Boscawen-ûn is fondly regarded by many. It was saved from destruction in the 1860s by a perceptive lady in Penzance, Miss Elizabeth Carne, who bought the property and had the circle's enclosing wall built to protect it - one of the first instances of megalithic preservation in British history. God bless Miss Carne and her cotton socks.
Many argue that the stone near the centre of the circle leans accidentally owing to damage, but this is questionable. Although such a stone is quite unusual amongst stone circles in Britain, it looks intentionally placed, and dowsers report the power centre of the circle to lie directly under the top tip of the stone, not at its base.
It feels as if this stone has national significance. It points up the peninsula of the southwest of Britain at an azimuth of 53° in the local-horizon direction of the summer solstice sunrise, as if it stakes down the national energy-field of Britain at one of its corners (perhaps with the Ring of Brogar in the Orkney Islands at the other end). Boscawen-ûn was known in the Welsh Triads as one of the three chief Druid gorsedds or eisteddfod sites of southern Britain (the other two conceivably being at Caerleon and Old Sarum).
Much more study is needed of the various orientations of Boscawen-ûn's surrounding menhirs, and of their original intervisibility in the days before today's agricultural landscape was installed, since they clearly constitute one unified system. Notable also is the orientation of Chapel Carn Brea, visible WNW from the circle, together with a gap or entrance in the circle of stones that seems to open to the hill.
The rock outcrop to Boscawen-ûn's
northwest, Creeg Tol, is quite energetic, providing a panorama of the circle - it lies on th above-mentioned alignment from Tregurnow stone circle to Boscawen-ûn and then to Bartinney Castle, a hilltop ceremonial place. Both Bartinney and Chapel Carn Brea were beacon sites, visible from the Scillies.
might plausibly host a number of rock carvings
on its central stone, representing two axe-heads or feet, and another higher up. This is important since carvings on menhirs and stone circles are rare. The possible alignment of the elliptical shape of the circle to the lunar maxima and of the near-central stone to the summer solstice rising point indicates an intentional marrying of the two megalithic calendars, solar and lunar, and a positioning and shaping of the circle to integrate these into the structure of its design.
This complex is different again, though it has some parallels to the Merry Maidens complex, inasmuch as its long axis runs roughly WSW-ENE, it is linked by backbone alignment to Carn Brea and it has had three stone circles and at least four holed stones in former times.
But it is different since Tregeseal is dominated and cradled by Carn Kenidjack, and its main peripheral features are cairns and tumuli rather than menhirs. Just to the SSE of the surviving circle is an interesting rock outcrop with a spring, not usually recognised as an active part of the site, but quite energetic, acting as a viewpoint overlooking the circles and slightly counterweighting them in relation to Carn Kenidjack, the Hooting or Howling Tor.
The holed stones were presumably aligned (they had fallen down and were re-erected by a farmer), possibly pointing at or towards the more distant Boswens menhir. The holes were mostly quite small (3in or 8cm). Presumably they were for astronomical observation.
Tregeseal. The destroyed central circle was in the ploughed field to the right
Inside the circle six intersecting underground streams meet (at different levels) and it has been found that natural radiation inside the circle is lower than outside it.
A number of round barrows lie to the ENE of the circle and close to the holed stones, mostly in a poor state. One of them is kerbed and the other has a stone chamber. Another chambered cairn is southwest of the stone circle. Menhirs are not part of this complex, except for Boswens menhir, visible up on the hill to the ENE, which is connected by alignment to the southwestern chambered cairn, the surviving circle and West Lanyon Quoit.
But the main feature of the site is Carn Kenidjack, the Hooting Tor, so named because of sound phenomena that are reputed to arise during storms. It is also a hauntingly mysterious tor, used as a sacred hill in neolithic times. Two natural simulacra (rocks looking like beings) are present on the carn (see right).
Carn Kenidjack hovers over Tregeseal stone circle, holding the circle in its lap. An interesting alignment runs from Carn Kenidjack, through the now-destroyed central circle to a cairn close to Carn Lês Boel many miles away.
This area of Truthwall Common is rich with legends of the Otherworld: fairy folk, demons and devils. One story tells of how a local miner chanced upon a Fairy Feast at the circle and was bound in gossamer thread and left there all night; another tells of an encounter with the Devil himself on Carn Kenidjack, which dominates the horizon from the circle; and yet another tells of Pee Tregear who was piskey-led here and encountered the little folk. All these stories may be memories of the ancestors and spirits of the dead, for this whole area was formerly covered with prehistoric barrows, burial mounds and megalithic monuments.
Nine Maidens complex
The Nine Maidens is on a rounded north-south ridge passing south from Carn Galva, and overshadowed by it. From the circle Carn Galva looks like a rounded pyramid. Carn Galva was originally, in the neolithic era, a tor rising up out of the trees and a very central place but, during the bronze age, considerable woodland clearance took place, denuding the ridge on which the Nine Maidens stand.
The ridge would have been sweeter and less bleak and peaty in the bronze age, a warmer and more equable time than now, and then also unaffected by tin-mining at the nearby Ding Dong mine.
There are probably far more cairns and barrows around the stone circle than now are visible in the tufty heather. Close-in, the complex follows the ridge from a few cairns to the south to a standing stone in the north-west and then, further still, at Boskednan Cairn, there is a group of barrows which, although robbed, nevertheless have quite a strong feeling. Following the track down toward Mên an Tol, there is the felled Four Parishes stone, a boundary marker rather like a menhir.
Mên Scryfa from the Nine Maidens
Further down the hill are Mên Scryfa, a rare inscribed stone taken to be from the Romano-British period but very much like a menhir, and then Mên an Tol, formerly a second stone circle but now much reduced. Its current format was set in Victorian times. The two stone circles were clearly a pair and complementary.
Overlooking the whole area is Carn Galva, chief mountan of Penwith, even though the neighbouring hill, Watch Croft, is actually highest in Penwith. It's not just a visual impression but an example of the way that earth energy and a bold shape in Carn Galva can modify our perception to make this lower hill look higher or more impressive than Watch Croft. Carn Galva is a neolithic tor hill, in the neolithic one of Penwith's most important sites.
Watch Croft from Mên Scryfa. Right, a trig point, left, the menhir
Watch Croft has one or two barrows on its summit and, rather mysteriously, a little way down the hill is a menhir in a seemingly inconspicuous place. It's natural to wonder why precisely it is there. However, there is a good reason: as seen from just below the Nine Maidens, close to Mên Scryfa, it stands out on the horizon. Why this should be, we do not know, but it is clearly intentional.
It is regrettable that more of the stone circles are not alive and present in the Penwth landscape today. We know little about the disappeared circles. Even today there are ongoing battles to keep the existing circles in good health, with threats particularly from mobile phone masts, cattle grazing and offical land management policies and detectorists.
Carn Galva from the Nine Maidens
Sad to say, even the authorities cannot fully be relied on to understand or protect Penwith's ancient sites, easily tempted as they are by short-termist, narrow and vested interests.
These are not just historic monuments. They are technological devices with a value and significance that is gradually becoming more visible to us as our own ideas change and we confront the enormous question of sustainability, balancing the world's climate and ecosystem and correcting humanity's relationship with them. The stone circles and other megalithic sites give clues as to how this might be done.