The Iron Age in West Penwith - Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith
Cornwall

Ancient Penwith

The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula in Cornwall
ancientpenwith.org
Go to content

Main menu:

The Iron Age in West Penwith

The iron age started around 600 BCE. It marked the beginning of a gradual cultural revival after the decline of megalithic culture around 1500-1200 BCE, 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.

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, and the iron age is defined solely by iron usage, whic was an important but not a fundamental cultural development. The peak of the iron age, from around 400 BCE onwards, was by degrees culturally and economically more developed than the period preceding it.


The winds of Keltia
Inside the fogou at Pendeen Vau
After cultural decline in the bronze age from around 1500 BCE onwards Cornwall and Britain as a whole went through a relative longterm downturn, caused partially by climatic deterioration (wetter, cloudier and cooler), a comparative decline of social and cultural values social and population loss.

This followed the breaking of an enchantment that had prevailed in the early-to-mid bronze age. It was a disappointing collapse of a mindset, a retraction of shared interests and a strengthening of private and local interests, undermining the collective spirit of the Britons.

This was their variant of a worldwide phenomenon encouraging greater competition and territoriality, loss of spirit and collective trust sometimes called the axial age. Ancient certainties became obsolete and new ideas to replace them were as yet unformed - these gradually emerged during the iron age.

In Britain this downturn period 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 1500 BCE represented a major disjunction in British history: at the time it was 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 bronze age.


The iron age begins
Outside the fogou at Pendeen Vau
By about 600 BCE new cultural influences started emerging in Britain. The fall of bronze age culture had significantly affected Cornwall and the western seaboard of Britain, swinging the centre of activity toward today's England. The cultural heartland of western Britain continued to exist, but not as strongly as a source-point as it was before.

Nevertheless, 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, 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, Celtic culture and languages had their roots way back in the bronze age and before.

In most of Britain the iron age lasted from around 600 BCE, the time of the coming of iron technologies, until the Roman period in the first century CE. However, since the Romans didn't penetrate Cornwall when they invaded Britain, and since it became a relatively marginal region during the Roman occupation, the iron age survived later in Cornwall, up to around 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 quite early, grafting onto druidism and giving a new lease of life to an update of the old ways.

The Cornish saints, having a druidic background or influence, brought a cultural revival to Cornwall during the 400s and 500s CE and lasting up to around 1000. The Saxon occupation of England from 450ish onwards drove numbers of Britons west and north to Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde, taking Devon and reaching the river Tamar by 936 - which became the Cornish border.

This is the time of the Arthurian period around 500 which, whatever the veracity of much-debated Arthurian legends, symbolises a crucial transitional period for indigenous British culture and a fightback against the Germanic influx, ultimately to fail and leading to the founding of the nation of England and the end of the old Britain.

So Celtic culture had two heydays, one before the Roman period and the other following it. Back around 500 BCE, Celts had spread across Europe from Britain to Spain to Turkey, with one heartland just north of the Alps and another in the west, in Brittany, Britain and Ireland. Celts weren't one people: they were made up of a number of related societies and loosely related tribes of which the insular Celts of Britain and Ireland were one grouping.

As a result of Roman dominance and the Folk-Wandering period (Völkerwanderung) of the 200s-400s in Europe, in which hordes of people moved around Europe and invading migrants came from the east, a proportion of the Celts moved west, surviving as a distinct culture in Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cumbria and Scotland, Ireland, Brittany and Galicia in NW Spain. This concentrated Celtic culture, leading to a Celtic renaissance during the early-medieval period - often called dark ages, though for the Celts a relatively 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 and ovates. Yet their society was by degrees more materialistic than that of bronze age people. The main remains they left 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 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 surround the iron age Britons and their beliefs, sine they decidedly sought not to immortalise their thoughts and beliefs in script or in stone when they could have done 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 nation, most of the time. Cornwall and Devon were part of an overarching clan called (by the Romans) the Dumnonii. 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 they were regionalised and tribes could at times be competitive. 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 did not directly affect Cornwall, though the occupation did indirectly affect the economy and general security. Dumnonia held together.
Carn Euny iron age village
Carn Euny iron age villageThough 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.

This 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 relatively prosperous in the Celtic world. The Cornish were known to the Greeks through the travel reports of Pytheas, who visited Cornwall around 325 BCE, around Alexander the Great's time. The Penwith population in those times had become quite dense. They left numerous settlements around the peninsula - Chysauster, Carn Euny, Goldherring, Bosullow Trehillis, 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.


Bastions

Though they had defensible encampments on the borders (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 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, these camps and enclosures 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.

They 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 substantially cleared. Hill camps were lived in, especially in summer, while neolithic tor enclosures of earlier times were not.

Some of them were like castles, some like cathedrals and some like manor houses of the iron age. 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 mutual protection 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 eldest-son 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. 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 clans under one or two overarching clans in West Penwith - but that's just a guess. Generally, Penwithians probably stuck together - it's in the nature of the place - and the 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 somewhat from that of the rest of Dumnonia. The people of Penwith are even today 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 trial origins and allegiances, yet they seemed also to act as a uniting, national influence. Artisans often travelled too. So there was a unity and a diversity across Britain.


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 the romanised Brits from the more traditional people living in outlying areas. The Romans took decades to reach Devon, and they didn't reach Cornwall. The nearest Roman town was Exeter. Perhaps the Cornish played some good politics, to avoid arousing the ire and attention of the Romans.

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 occupation, the Penwith tin trade was affected by discoveries of tin in Spain, underccutting 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 | Back to main menu