Oaks, Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies - 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
Go to content

Oaks, Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies

Iron Age Penwith

The iron age started around 800-600 BCE. It marked the beginning of a gradual cultural revival after the decline of megalithic culture in the late bronze age, and it represents what we commonly think of as the Celtic period - though the Celts were simply a continuation of former indigenous cultures with some European influences and migrants added. And they were not one people, but rather a loose pan-European cultural confederacy.

The whole period from 1200ish BCE to the Roman invasion should really be counted as one age - it involved roughly the same people doing roughly the same things, though of course changes and developments took place over the centuries.

The iron age is defined by iron usage, an important technological enabler but not a fundamental cultural development. The peak of the iron age, from around 300 BCE  to around Year 1, was by degrees culturally and economically more developed than the late bronze age period.

The Winds of Keltia

Inside the fogou at Pendeen Vau, looking towards the entrance
Following the end of the megalithic period around 1200 BCE, there was in the late bronze age a half millennium of relative cultural decline accompanied by material upswing. Climatic deterioration made the weather wetter, cloudier and cooler, more like today. There was social change, population loss, increasingly capital-intense sedentary farming and growth of permanent villages, and with it a comparative decline of social and cultural values - weaponry, growing social stratification and the marking out of property were the order of the day.

This followed the breaking of an enchantment that had prevailed in the middle bronze age. It was a disappointing collapse of a mindset, a retraction of shared interests and a strengthening of private and elite interests, undermining the collective spirit of the Britons. Out of it emerged a new Britain, more forest-cleared, more farmed and with a different worldview.

This was the British variant of a worldwide phenomenon sometimes called the axial age, where humanity entered into times of greater competition, turbulence and territoriality, and with it went a certain loss of spirit, mutuality and collective trust. Ancient certainties became obsolete and new ideas to replace them were as yet unformed - these gradually emerged during the iron age.

Yet throughout this period a network of people existed who held elements of the ancient traditions - the Druids, Ovates and Bards. Yet something in the later megalithic period around the 1500s BCE, had caused people gradually to let the old ways lapse, eventually to abandon them. The iron age druids held the nation and social standards together, but things had changed. Instead of megalithic temples and shrines, they chose natural sites as their holy places, having little wish to build monuments as former people had done or to write down their traditions as other people were doing in other parts of the world.

In Britain this cultural downturn period from the 1200s is called the late bronze age, but this reckoning of ages is not based on social-cultural factors but on metal technologies. The period following 1200 BCE represented a disjunction in British history: a time of tragedy and loss, followed by a time of cultural tick-over at a lower level to that of the peak of the iron age.

The iron age begins

Outside the fogou at Pendeen Vau
By about 600 BCE new cultural influences started emerging in Britain. The decline of bronze age culture had significantly affected Cornwall and the western seaboard of Britain, swinging the centre of activity toward today's England. The former Atlantic coast cultural heartland continued to exist, but not as strongly as before.

New cultural traits, headed up by chiefs, druids and artists, and prompted by new technologies such as the use of iron, the potter's wheel, and new agricultural and building methods, started gaining traction. Innovation and energy arose indigenously and influxes of ideas and small numbers of people also came in - periodic shiploads of migrants bringing skills, ideas and knowledge. Though we regard this as the Celtic period, Celts didn't really exist as one people - they were a culture and language grouping made up of many tribes and peoples, with roots in the bronze age, coming to fruition in the iron age.

In most of Britain the iron age lasted from around 800 BCE, the time of the coming of iron technologies, until the Roman period in the first century CE. Since the Romans didn't penetrate Cornwall, and since it became a relatively marginal region during the Roman occupation, a version of the iron age survived in Cornwall through to CE 400.
Inside Chûn Castle
Cornwall went through a relatively quiet period during the Roman occupation, though in the later Roman period from roughly CE 250 onward something new was arising - the early Celtic Christian culture. Christianity entered the Celtic lands early, grafting onto druidism and giving a new lease of life to the old ways.

The early-medieval Cornish saints, themselves infuenced by druidism, brought a cultural revival to Cornwall during the 400s and 500s CE and lasting up to around 1000. Many of them came from elsewhere, finding a receptive home in Cornwall, and following vows that involved leaving the past behind them. The Saxon occupation of England from 450ish onwards drove large numbers of Britons west and north to Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde. They took a long time to come west, initially taking East Devon and eventually, after 400 years in what became England, they reached the river Tamar by 936 - which became the Cornish border.

This is the time of the Arthurian period around CE 500 which, whatever the veracity of the Arthurian legends, symbolises a crucial transitional period for British culture and a fightback against the Germanic influx. The Arthurian legends might well have been a leftover of a more ancient body of myth and spiritual teachings from the early iron age, which found new relevance during the decline of the British and the rise of the Saxons. This was captured and romanticised by the Normans after CE 1000. This cultural struggle ultimately failed, leading eventually to the founding of the nation of England and the end of the old, more or less unified Britain.

So Celtic culture had two heydays, one before the Roman period and the other following it. Back around 500 BCE, Celtic culture had spread across Europe from Britain and Ireland to Spain to Turkey, with one heartland just north of the Alps (the Halstatt and La Têne cultures) and another in the Atlantic west, in Brittany, Britain and Ireland. Celts were a number of similar societies and loosely related tribes across Europe of which the insular Celts of Britain and the Gaels of Ireland were two major sub-groups.

As a result of Romanitas and the Folk-Wandering period (Völkerwanderung) of the 200s-400s in Europe, hordes of people moved around Europe and invading migrants coming from the east caused the Celts to move west, surviving as a distinct culture in Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia in NW Spain. 800 years before, the Celts had covered much of Europe. This concentration in the West led to a Celtic renaissance in the early-medieval period, often called the dark ages - though for the Celts it was a light-filled age.

Iron age society

Carn Euny iron age village
Carn EunyIron age people had a developed spiritual life, with a magical-mystical aspect to it and a class of druids, ovates and bards leading it, together with chiefs, some of whom were druids. Yet their society was by degrees more materialistic than that of bronze age people. Today there is a certain romance to the Celts, who are seen as somewhat more spiritual than we, but to the Celts, the same was true in regard to their forebears, the people of the bronze age. The main remains iron age people left in West Penwith were houses and settlements, hill camps, holy wells, inscribed stones, fogous and cliff sanctuaries.

They had less of an urge than their predecessors to build sacred sites and enduring structures. Perhaps the shadow or myths of the long-gone bronze age made them avoid grandiose projects. They tended to revere natural sites - holy wells, groves, hilltops and other special places. Their deities resided in nature, the underworld and the heavens, and there was a definite intentional naturalism to their faith.

Arts, poetry and philosophy were important, yet nothing was written down, only memorised and passed down through whispered lineages. As a result many questions today surround iron age Britons and their beliefs, since they decidedly sought not to immortalise their thoughts and beliefs in script or in stone, even though they had the means to do so. Much of their building was quite functional, in the way of dwellings, enclosures, bridges and field hedges (Cornish for walls). They did seem to like nooks and crannies: springs, fords, streams, valleys, glades and groves, rocks, trees and magic spots.

All the same, the megalithic remains of their predecessors lay around them and were respected and made use of. The main locations in Penwith that were modified or built over at this time were hilltops and cliff sanctuaries.

Celtic Britons were fine potters, smiths, craftspeople, weavers, dog-trainers, livestock breeders, traders, mariners and farmers. The culture of the pre-Roman Celts in Britain peaked around 300-100 BCE.

Britain was made up of tribal confederacies - it was a culture but not a formalised nation. Cornwall and Devon were part of a mega-clan called (by the Romans) the Dumnonii - from which comes 'Devon'. Later, the Saxons called the Dumnonii the 'Welsh of the Peninsula', or Carnwalis (a carn being a headland and wales meaning 'outsiders' to the Saxons).

A cultural elite of druids, ovates (judges and advisers) and bards (poets and musicians) held the clans together, maintaining a noteworthy system of laws, customs and beliefs that gave rights and justice to all people, and to both genders.

Yet the Britons were regionalised and tribes could at times be competitive - the island British have always had an independent and separatist streak to them. This brought their eventual downfall at the hands of the invading Romans, who divided them against each other to gain a foothold in Britain, with some skulduggery involved - this was a precursor to the later British imperial principle of 'divide and rule'.

The Roman occupation did not directly affect Cornwall, reaching only as far as Exeter, though it did indirectly affect the economy and general security. Romanitas was not just an imperial setup, it was an economic and business system, a common market with pan-European laws, official language, defence and lifestyle, and it impacted further than the lands it ruled. Nevertheless, Dumnonia held together, and iron age society lived on in the southwest.
Carn Euny iron age village
Carn Euny iron age villageBack to the iron age. Though iron was much better and stronger for tools, blades, ploughs, nails and everyday items, it didn't have the gold-like shine of bronze, which continued to be used in decorative crafts, adornments and anything made to look nice.

The survival of bronze meant there was still a market in tin, and the people of Penwith thus did well in the iron age, supplying a valuable resource. Though it was a barter economy, the high value of tin meant that Penwithians led a decent life materially, trading tin widely with people across Europe, as ingots or as crafts and products.

They were a relatively prosperous clan in the Celtic world. The Cornish were known to the Greeks through the travel reports of Pytheas, who visited Cornwall around 325 BCE, in Alexander the Great's time - the Greeks were then very cosmopolitan and interested in the wider world. The Penwith population in those times had become quite dense. They left numerous settlements around the peninsula - Chysauster, Carn Euny, Goldherring, Bosullow Trehyllis, Bosiliack, Nanjulian and many more. Many of these settlements are still visible, though most nowadays are piles of stones, best seen in winter when the bracken isn't up. Many of them have a good atmosphere, and you can get a glimmer of the feeling of their inhabitants' lives if you allow yourself to sit still and float off when visiting them.


Though they had defensible encampments on the borders of Penwith (such as on Trencrom and Tregonning Hills), on some inland hills (such as Chûn Castle and Castle an Dinas) and at some cliff sites (such as at Treryn Dinas, St Ives Head and St Michael's Mount), Penwithians were generally at peace amongst themselves, quite interbred and all members of one overarching clan or federation of clans. But having valuables derived from tin wealth meant they could have been raided at times.
Bosigran Castle
Bosigran Castle, a cliff sanctuaryEven so, camps, enclosures and cliff sanctuaries were not primarily defensive. They existed because these were special places, commanding fine views and atmospheres, endowing a feeling of greatness and mastery, situated above the landscape or overlooking the sea. Dramatic places for a heroic age where greatness and nobility mattered. Well, at least to some: most people were crofters and artisans who just got on with life and who were more concerned about the weather.

Camps, enclosures and cliff sanctuaries were landscape assets, places of strength and centrality. The main things to defend were family pride, treasures and property. But, when times of duress did come, these places were defended - such as during the 70-year Roman invasion, descriptions from which time led to the Victorian concept of 'hillforts' and the customary overemphasis on military purposes.

Forest was cleared not only for agriculture but also for firewood, construction and tin-smelting, so hill camps or 'hillforts' did not have quite the same spiritual significance in a forested context as the neolithic tor enclosures of former times. Penwith was more wooded than today, though it was all the same substantially cleared. Hill camps were lived in, especially in summer, while neolithic tor enclosures of earlier times had not been lived in (they were holy places).

Some hill camps were like castles, some like cathedrals and some like manor houses. Unlike manors of the middle ages, clan aristocracies of the iron age were part of the people, drawn from them and related to them, and there was a certain mutuality of protection and support going on. The nobility of medieval times 1,500 years later were Norman occupiers and the placemen of kings, parachuted in to control and tax the locals.

The Celtic kings and chiefs, some of them being women, were selected from eligible candidates by the druids, ovates, chiefs and elders, and they were accountable through mechanisms of law and custom to those below them. Norman and English lords of later times gained power by force, bequest or inheritance, losing it only when the king decided.

Ordinary people lived in farms and crofts around the clan territory, and everything on its lands was the clan's property or stewardship, though individual rights and understandings held true too. If one family was growing, it would be allocated new lands - it was a local economy of mutual support, skill-sharing and resource-pooling. The legal code of the ovates was rooted in the religious code of the druids, and individuals had rights and duties within a civilised framework.

There will have been good and bad years, and calm and unsettled times over the centuries. There might have been ten or twelve tribes under an overarching clan in West Penwith - but this is uncertain since nothing was recorded and artefacts dissolve over the centuries. Generally, Penwithians stuck together - it's in the nature of the place - and the major problems tended to come from upcountry, or perhaps sometimes from Ireland or elsewhere.

Cornish society and culture

Chysauster iron age village
Chysauster iron age villageThe people of this time lived in roundhouses and courtyard houses, engaging in trade and business, riding horses, farming and living in a more complex society than their predecessors.

Over many centuries Penwith had had significant contact with Ireland, Scotland, France and beyond. Yet it was also in a world of its own, with a local culture offset from that of the rest of Dumnonia. The people of Penwith are even today by degrees genetically distinct from those of the rest of Cornwall.

The druids, ovates and bards utilised many of the existing ancient sites in the area, carrying into the new time the influence of ancient customs, but iron age society was different from that of the bronze age. As custodians of religion, law, custom and music, they had their tribal origins and allegiances, yet they seemed also to act as a uniting, pan-tribal, national influence. Artisans often travelled too. So there was a unity and a diversity across Britain.

The Encroachment of Rome

Chûn Castle, from near Boswens menhir
Chun CastleIn what is now England, the iron age came to a premature close with the arrival of the Romans in southeast England from CE 43 onwards. Resistance to the Romans lasted decades, but Romanitas was a culture and an economic and military system, permeating society and within a century, dividing romanised Brits from the more traditional Britons living in outlying areas.

The Romans didn't reach Cornwall: perhaps the Cornish played some good politics, to avoid arousing the ire and attention of the Romans. And for sure they enjoyed some of the products that were available, and the business opportunities too.

So Cornwall was only marginally affected by Romanitas. It nevertheless adjusted to it during the long 350-year occupation, absorbing some of its ways and being incorporated by degrees into the cosmopolitan Roman economy and system. The better off tended to be more romanised while ordinary country-dwellers kept the old ways. In Roman times Cornwall was peripheral.

Early in the Roman time, the Penwith tin trade was affected by discoveries of tin in Spain, undercutting Cornwall and supplying more easily the Mediterranean heart of the empire. Cornwall went into a downturn, becoming a backwater. There might have been hard times.

In the later Roman period the Spanish sources dried up, the value of tin rose and Cornwall underwent an economic and cultural revival, prompted partly by trade revival and partly by Christian-based modernising influences.

A grafting of Christian and Celtic ways created a unique Cornish culture lasting 500ish years, linked closely with Wales and Ireland, before it was weakened by the Catholic church and by influences brought mainly by the Saxons, as they pushed into Devon in the 700s. Thereafter, the ascendant English culture was to prove problematic for the Cornish. But that's another story.

Back to content