Around 2500 BCE, give or take a century or two, around the end of the neolithic, something happened. Society and culture went through a shift, due either to incoming ideas and people, especially from Brittany and NW Iberia, or to an indigenous upswing. It could be both, but clues elsewhere in Britain suggest that the indigenous upswing started first.
This shift led to the building of the standing stones and stone circles, the best-known of the ancient sites of West Penwith, and to the zenith of megalithic civilisation on the Atlantic rim of Europe, in which West Penwith was a key node.
Here are two pages on menhirs. This page covers some of the geomantic principles involved and the overall bronze age megalithic zenith, and the next page gives more specific details about the menhirs of West Penwith.
Trelew menhir near St Buryan
The idea of the classic menhir did not come until the late neolithic around 2500 BCE at the beginning of the heyday of the megalithic period. Most archaeologists would put the stone circle and menhir-building upswing in Penwith to be around 2200, plus/minus a century, but the author's feeling is that it began earlier, around 2600. Stone circles such as Avebury, the Ring of Brogar and Callanish were begun around 2900, and for this trend to take 700 years to reach West Penwith, by 2200, is not highly plausible.
The idea derived from the earlier practice of placing stones and digging oriented rocks vertically into the ground, in the mid-neolithic around 3500 or in the late-neolithic around 2600 - as outlined on the previous page. But it grew from there, drawing on influences from elsewhere and also introducing some local Penwithian quirks and styles.
The age of menhir-building
In the late neolithic, from perhaps the 2600s BCE onwards, interest in building more sites grew stronger. The indigenous style up to this point was to build cairns, barrows, and placed and oriented stones. But a new style and mentality was developing. The ideas and motivation for building megaliths shifted.
Men Scryfa - a bronze age menhir inscribed during the iron age
Quoits, cairns and placed stones had been built at special places such as the tops of hills (such as the summit cairns on Chapel Carn Brea or Sancreed Beacon), or places where there was subtle energy (such as the coastal Boscregan Cairns), or significant astronomical alignments were present (as at Chûn Quoit), or there was something special about their landscape setting (such as at Mulfra Quoit).
These were places where underground blind springs, intersections of water veins or intersections of water veins with energy leys were present. It is unusual that an ancient site is placed where it is for single reasons only, and other factors come into play - particularly related to astronomical and visible landscape factors.
These places had special atmospheres. People felt good there. Getting into deeper states and experiencing changes of mood and spirit was easier - and it's precisely this that draws people to ancient sites today. They are places where changing consciousness and shifting level is easier.
The Blind Fiddler menhir
The early builders of ancient sacred sites in neolithic Cornwall built them where they did without needing very sophisticated reasons - they did it because it simply felt right to do so. They had either learned the skills of dowsing or they were natural sensitives, or both.
But now, locational considerations became more sophisticated, particularly with the deliberate alignment of sites and the creation of whole complexes of sites, especially around stone circles. This was a product of evolving ideas in megalithic science, mathematics, astronomy and geomancy.
But first, let's examine the matter of subtle energy and what dowsers detect. This is important - it concerns the fundamental motivation for going to all the trouble to build ancient sites, and the big taboo that archaeologists unfortunately will not countenance.
It all centres around blind springs(called 'water domes' in USA). These are upward-moving seepages or flows of primary water - the by-product of chemical reactions deep within the earth, carrying nutrients and conducting geomagnetic and subtle energy upwards. Blind springs are crucial in deciding the geographical location of many ancient sites. They are sources of underground primary water distribution, and major ancient sites are always located on top of them.
Primary water has no hydrological connection with secondary water, which is derived from the rainfall cycle, seeping down into the soil from the rain. Pressurised and pushed up from below, primary water rises through fissures, cracks and porous rocks, in small seepages, flows and sometimes underground streams. When such water hits an impervious layer of rock underground, or the fissure narrows, the rising water is compressed and it seeks roughly horizontal routes.
The primary water spreading out through cracks and porous areas in roughly horizontal seepages forms what, on the surface, appear to dowsers as sinuous subtle energy water lines, radiating out from blind springs, weaving hither and thither and emanating dowsable energy radiations.
As the primary water nears the surface it mixes with secondary groundwater in the soil and surface rocks, though occasionally it emerges as a spring, though primary water springs are rare.One well-known example of a primary water spring is the Chalice Well in Glastonbury.
Boscawen menhir, near Boscawen-ûn
A blind spring can be quite deep down, but those under stone circles and certain other sites come higher up - for example, the author finds the blind spring under Men an Tol to be 110-120ft under the surface. To dowsers it registers on the surface as a subtle energy centre or vortex from which sinuous radial energy-currents, or water lines, radiate. Some dowsers register these as subtle energy spirals emanating outward from a central spot.
This creates a considerable energy field or power centre upon which major sites such as stone circles and quoits were built. One of the several purposes of stone circles and quoits seems to be to enhance, entrain, focus and fix such energy-fields. An energy or power centre is often defined by dowsers as a blind spring with at least one dowsable energy-ley crossing it.
Sometimes two water lines cross each other, each at different levels or strata in the rock, and an energy-vortex forms at ground level over the crossing point. Such a vortex usually has an upward, downward or alternating directionality to it, pulsing in tune with the cycles of the Moon, Sun and the interacting energy-fields of the planets of the solar system. This periodicity has not been fully and systematically studied in geomantic terms (it's an enormous task), so we don't know for sure what its patterns and variations truly are. But it happens, observably.
One of the Pipers menhirs near the Merry Maidens
The upward or downward movement of such a vortex either fluctuates or reverses on roughly the sixth day after new or full moon, just before the waxing or waning halfmoons.
The peak of upward motion is in the two days before fullmoon, and the peak of downward motion is at the old moon, in the two days before new moon.
If at a particular site the vortical flow fluctuates but does not alternate, it nevertheless fluctuates in intensity and character of flow, according to the same timings. Everything liquid on Earth is subject to tidal flows that are lunar and solar related.
At these vortex locations neolithic and bronze age people built mounds and quoits, or they placed stones, and probably they also planted special trees, now long gone. (The Algonquin people of New England planted 'talking trees' on such spots, training the tree branches into unusual shapes - they were trees that spoke, or places where you can more easily 'get the message'.)
Bosiliack menhir - now part of a hedge
The ancients also found that there are overground straight energy-leys connecting these vortices. Why they do this, we do not know. So a sacred site would involve a blind spring or an underground water-line intersection, either of which generates a vortex which, above ground, acts like a pulsing whorl of subtle energy.
Overground energy-leys would streak in straight and also sinuous lines between these vortices, and the remarkable thing neolithic people found was that such vortices could line up with each other, sometimes over quite long distances. They built megalithic structures on these special places.
By the early stages of the bronze age transition around 2500 BCE, people had become quite skilled at subtle energy engineering. They had learned that you can not only enhance and channel subtle energies but also create, change and transmit them too, when conditions allowed, by a mixture of engineering and focused thought, setting up patterns that weren't there previously, or that were weaker or different in character.
If you build a megalithic structure correctly and at the right place, especially if it is plugged into the existing natural network by alignment, or if it is located on an energy-ley, it will often draw energy to it or it will make an existing energy-trickle at that place into a flow. By inserting a standing stone there, you can create or amplify a vortex.
Someone in the past thought up the idea that standing stones or menhirs would be the best way to pin down, fix, channel or enhance these vortical flows. They would connect heaven with earth through the agency of the menhir, and this connection would then fluctuate more easily and in harmony with astronomical cycles. Menhirs served as conductors or transceivers. They could also act as horizontal relays connecting with other megalithic structures, either or both underground or overground.
Menhirs were rather masculine objects, like Hindu lingams. They were intended to fecundate the earth, the feminine. The 'sperm' was cosmic energy from above, interacting with Earth's energy-field below, the 'egg'. A menhir was a kind of interface facilitator, a connection-enhancer between earth and heaven.
Energy follows the path of least resistance, so by inserting an energy-conductor into an energy-vortex, a concentrated and amplified energy-field was created in a particular spot. Many dowsers find a seven-turn energy-vortex around menhirs, with five turns above the surface and two below.
Mounds (cairns, barrows and tumuli), both chambered and solid, were more feminine - breast or womb-like - contrasting menhirs in function. Their nature and purpose complements that of a menhir. Menhirs are never found located on mounds - they would cancel each other out.
Menhirs create or amplify power points, making a definite statement and acting as acupuncture needles in the earth - an observation first made by dowser Tom Graves in the 1970s. They are conductors, usually with crystalline content in the rock, connecting a feminine or yin underground polarity with masculine or yang overground and cosmic energies.
So there are two major subtle energy orientations involved with menhirs: horizontal fields, lines and spirals, both underground and above ground, spreading out across the landscape, and vertical vortical fields moving between deeper levels in the earth and the heavens above.
The Bronze Age
The arrival of the menhirs represented a marked cultural shift, suggesting a little less harmonising with the earth and a little more engineering and alteration of it. Incoming ideas and people brought elements of this shift, but there are signs that many megalithic principles were indigenous and that incomers were not the prime movers of this shift.
Boswens menhir and Dry Carn air traffic control beacon
In the bronze age, humans were becoming more adept at moving things around, arranging and fixing things, and they clearly felt driven to do so. By now they had a system of thinking to give logic to their geomancy.
This change demonstrated a significant and incremental spiritual-cultural shift away from the more matrifocal, gatherer-hunter-horticultural societies of former times. Society was becoming by degrees more stratified, specialised and advanced. As forests were incrementally cleared, people began to think in terms of 'our land' and human-made environments grew, changing people's perceptions of their place in the world. As population grew, bringing a socially richer society, megalith-building grew in scale and sophistication - in a sense a little less intuitively and a little more intellectually driven.
Megalithic culture extended from Portugal to southern Scandinavia, and Britain was divided into two main zones, western and eastern (not southern and northern):
the Atlantic and Irish Sea area, involving Ireland and the west and north of Britain, for which West Cornwall served as a hub linking the Irish Sea region with Brittany and Spain,
the east and south of Britain, connected much more to the heart of mainland Europe.
Boscawen Ros menhir, near the Merry Maidens
Neolithic people in Cornwall had largely been transhumant horticulturalists, herder-hunters and gatherers following an annual round, moving to places on their respective patches that were most appropriate to the season. Bronze age people on the other hand were more sedentary farmers for whom maintaining and enhancing the fertility of the land and improving it was a bigger issue.
They went to great lengths to do so, sectioning it off, clearing rocks and developing fertilising and improvement techniques - this became serious in the late bronze age at the end of the megalithic period around 1200 BCE, but it began earlier around 2500. They also developed early forms of mining (streaming for tin and copper) and good boats for marine transport - boats that could withstand journeys across the Bay of Biscay, across the Celtic Sea or around the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands. They still practiced the old ways, adapting them to changing times, but things had shifted.
Back to Menhirs
Menhirs are common throughout West Penwith, there being fiftyish still in existence - the original number might have been 70-80 (at a guess). They were erected during the bronze agebetween 2500 and 1800 BCE.
Probably their erection came in flurries of activity, inspired by the druidic leadership, intellectual schools of thought and periodic upturns of social enthusiasm for engaging in the work that was involved.
It wasn't just a matter of putting up a stone. There was considerable science, surveying, quarrying, transporting and landscaping involved. Positioning them correctly was an advanced, carefully-calculated skill. Megalith-building had by now developed into a major enterprise, with the establishment of a large number of ancient sites being established in a relatively organised system.
Penwith was one area of many across Britain and Ireland that were developing - an economic upswing did happen, but this was a cultural upswing. In megalithic sites, bronze age people invested much energy, intentionally building enduring monuments, many of which still stand today, 4,000 years later.
No stone exists in isolation. This was no less than a whole-landscape transformation over a period of centuries. By 2000 BCE up to half of West Penwith was cleared of trees and a new landscape was created, with a new psycho-geography. It was a little cooler and wetter than in the 3000s, though still more equable than today. The hilltops and cliffs were not as good to live on as they were in the 3000s - people had headed downhill, clearing the forest, using the wood for fires and construction (most houses were wooden cabins).
Looking at the alignments map of Penwith, its alignments look rather random and chaotic, but there is a system to it. It had clear intent and ideas behind it. We don't know what those bronze age ideas were, but we can see the evidence they left. The system was based on existing natural energy centres used in the neolithic, and new ones created and connected with the old ones by alignment and landscape positioning. This was done with menhirs, stone circles and increasing numbers of barrows and cairns.
Carfury menhir with St Michael's Mount and Cudden Point behind
Different menhirs had different purposes, yet the core principle behind them all was the same: they were built to facilitate and channel cyclic, vertically-oriented energy-flunctuations between the ground and the sky, acting as conductors vertically and as nodes in a landscape network horizontally.
Dowsers identify the pattern of flow as spiral, heliacal or vortical around a menhir. The crystalline particles in the rock give stones their energy-conductive function, or they enhance it. Penwith granite, from which most local menhirs were made, is densely crystalline, made of feldspar, quartz (20ish per cent), mica and metals. All nicely conductive.
They could also be regarded as storing information or memory, and sometimes, when we're in the right state, we might hear the stones 'talk' - ideas and impressions come up spontaneously. Some might regard this as hocus-pocus, but just sit down at a site, stay there, give it time and, when you're leaving, compare the state you are in with your state before arrival, and review the progression of your thoughts and feelings as you were there. In this way, the stones talk. And old Xhosa saying goes: listen more closely to things than to people.
Menhirs are found at the intersection of underground water-related lines and overground energy-leys. They represent a secondary layer of the geomantic system of West Penwith. Together with stone circles, they mark the heyday in the centuries around 2000 BCE of the megalithic era, which lasted from 4000 to 1500 BCE.
However, take note: from an engineering viewpoint, the most complex structures built in this long era were the quoits, with tor enclosures the earliest megalthic structures of all, both built around 3700-3200 BCE - long before the menhirs and stone circles.
The Seal Stone, Higher Bosistow
It is difficult to know whether the water-related lines were there first or whether they gravitated there after a stone was erected, or how much of which was the case - it is probably a mixture of both. This will vary from stone to stone, but there is a good chance that water-related energies mostly pre-existed the menhirs yet were amplified and even moved slightly by erection of the menhir. In future we need to do a dowsing survey of selected sites in Penwith to check these details.
Menhirs were set up to create or amplify such energy-spots or to fix and qualitatively enhance them. Many seem to be relay stones, with alignments or energy-leys passing through them, while some seem to be junction stones where energy-leys and alignments join, and others are terminal stones where an energy-ley or alignment stops.
Remember: ancient site alignments are not the same as energy-leys. There is some overlap between them - how much, we do not yet know. (See here for more details.)
Energy-leys have a directional flow while alignments do not. Alignments aren't tangible lines, though they are drawn on maps as lines to indicate an alignment. Aligned stones seem to co-vibrate, non-locally and independently, yet in some way synchronised along the alignment while having no measurable connection or detectable flow.
That is, they are tapping into the same deep underground energy-source, to the same heavens and probably to the same human thought-forms and setting of intent. Each site was set up in relation to other sites, during the bronze age. But menhirs connect energetically across the landscape along energy-leys and sinuous water-related lines, in certain patterns that can be dowsed. It is not the case that every menhir was connected to every other menhir - there are clear signs of a patterned circuitry at work, and we have only scratched the surface of understanding it.
Geomantic locational factors
Menhirs were erected where they were put for a variety of reasons, and the importance of each differs from stone to stone. Various of these factors will be present or absent in the case of different menhirs.
visual landscape setting - there is a characteristic artistry to this, in terms of what you can see from any site, and how it is seen from other sites or standpoints. There is an intuitive elegance to the way many menhirs are located in the landscape;
intervisibility, or the capacity to see other ancient sites from a menhir, and vice versa, creating a visual-psychic relationship between them;
underground water and its associated subtle energies - many menhirs are sited on top of intersections of underground water flows (these flows are at different levels) or other water-related energy-points;
overground energy-lines and their patterns and distribution - menhirs are often located at crossing points or at terminals (where an energy-line turns down into the earth or up into space), or they are relays on one line only;
alignments of ancient sites - whatever the true reason, ancient sites of the bronze age were aligned with each other in patterns suggesting intricate relationships between sites. However, these are not energy-lines and neither are they detectable in the field. In many cases it is clear that a menhir is so located because of alignments it is marking or staking down;
astronomical factors: some sites are involved with astronomical alignments to mark the rising and setting points of the sun, moon and perhaps stars. What proportion of menhirs are involved with this is not known, but it could be 10-20% (a guesstimate)
genuis loci or spirit of place. This is a subjective judgement, but each ancient site has a feeling to it, a presence or a spirit (at least in the case of those sites that are in happier current circumstances). In our exorcised, rationalised and rather violated world, there is little room for sensitivity to the feeling or hidden character of a place but, when you visit an ancient site and relax there, allowing yourself to float off and freewheel, it isn't too difficult to sense that you have met something or someone, or something has dropped into your psyche that wasn't there before.
Since we don't know the ancients' thoughts, we cannot know whether other factors came into play, such as myths and histories or matters of feeling. Menhirs each seem to have three or four of the above factors applying to them, and the beauty of them is that they are not at all uniform, each carrying a uniqueness and character of its own.
A rubbing stone at Bosiliack - not a menhir
In Penwith, not all menhir-like stones are bronze age menhirs. Cornish people have worked with stone for millennia and, in relatively recent centuries, plenty of gateposts and cattle rubbing stones have been set up by farmers, looking like menhirs.
Generally, a rubbing stone is little higher than a cow, while many menhirs are higher. The main check for a genuine menhir is to dowse it objectively and to see whether it is on a blind spring or water-line intersection, perhaps with an above-ground energy ley or two, and also whether it is aligned with other sites (check the alignments map). If these are lacking or weak, the chances are that it's not a menhir. In the area around Lanyon Quoit there is a rubbing post in many fields - and the one in the picture, at Bosiliack, is not far away. However, the stone further away behind it is a genuine oriented stone.
Some menhirs have been moved by farmers, especially since the advent of tractors. Some have been moved and incorporated as gateposts, or re-erected in a convenient place, as if moving them made no difference. Other menhirs have been destroyed, whether from thoughtlessness, for convenience or ill intent.Their original sites are usually found through examining antiquarians' records, the testimony of old people, field investigation, field names, archaeological judgement and dowsing.
Then there's the question of landscape setting. The pattern of fields and man-made features, mostly built long after the bronze age, distorts our perception of menhirs - they have lost their setting and centrality. Some are located in hedges (walls), while others sit in the middle of fields that arrived in the landscape a millennium or more after the menhirs were erected.
Menhirs have been decontextualised by land-use changes. We do not know what original landscapes they once stood in, though some guesswork is possible. When you visit menhirs and other ancient sites, try to dissolve the walls and fields to visualise a menhir's original landscape situation. It is difficult to know what role trees played in the visual landscape surrounding each standing stone, but it is likely that most menhirs had vistas kept open around them.
The engineering aspect
Gûn Rith - part of the Merry Maidens complex
Most menhirs come from the vicinity where they are found, though some have been transported a few miles and a few much longer distances. This will not have been easy, especially with bigger stones. It involved manual labour, teamwork, logistics, science and background support.
Experiments were conducted in the 1990s by a modern stone circle builder, the late Ivan Mcbeth, in which it was demonstrated that multi-ton stones could be moved some distance by a combination of engineering - ropes, rollers and sleds - and synergistic group team work - meditation, singing, sharing and other kinds of group energy-raising.
This inner activity focused the team and also, it was hoped, infused the physical structure of the rock in such a way that feats of stone-moving became more possible. The secret lies in careful preparation, and raising the spirits of the group around the stone. Then it would move more easily when strength and skill were applied. Indeed it was proven that such feats were virtually impossible without such practices - we just weren't strong enough.
There were times when it felt that the rock was lighter and more obliging - but only when the group was on form, working well and synergistically. This experiment was sponsored by the late musician Joe Strummer at his home in the Quantock Hills of Somerset, and he received a substantial stone circle on his land in return.
When it worked, the feeling of moving a stone was remarkable and physical progress was significant. When it didn't work it was difficult, annoying, time-consuming and dangerous. So the group's collective discipline, focus and mood was critical. Actions had to be carefully planned, holes dug and the route prepared but, once everything was in place and the group was inwardly ready, progress could be surprisingly easy. It took training, trial-and-error and a lot of time. Eventually running out of time, a few of the stones were finally put in place by machine.
Nevertheless, it was proven that a stone of 3-5 tons could be moved by 8-10 people and tipped straight into its socket. If we did it correctly, it fell correctly into its socket. Here is at least a partial answer to the question of how megaliths were built. It might be the case that the ancients had more advanced skills too.
In the bronze age would involve a team of perhaps fifteen people, living together for a summer, during which time it might be possible to erect 1-3 stones. The biggest challenge is its transportation. We did it by truck with rocks chosen from a quarry - the quarrymen were quite enthusiastic about it!
This method had been discovered in the 1980s in connection with getting buses and trucks out of mud, in the days of the rock festivals and camps of the time. Anyone who has struggled to get a car out of sand or mud will know that a calm, patient, calculated and resolute approach is what gets it out. Without this, it's despair.