Iron age society
Carn Euny iron age village
Iron 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
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.
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.
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.
Even 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.