Standing Stones: how and why?
Here are two pages on menhirs. This first page covers some of the geomantic principles involved and the overall bronze age megalithic zenith. The next page gives more details about the menhirs of West Penwith.
For more, see Ian McNeil Cooke's work on menhirs.
On this page: The Age of Menhir Building - Underground Water - About Standing Stones - The Bronze Age - Geomancy - Megalithic Locational Science - Rubbing Posts and Recent Times - Megalithic Engineering
Around 2500-2200 BCE, during the neolithic/bronze age transition, sometimes called the copper age, big changes started taking place. Society and culture went through a shift with the arrival of the 'Beaker package', a mixture of incoming ideas and people and a cultural change.
In Cornwall's case they came especially from Brittany and Iberia, but in Eastern Britain they came from central Europe and originally the Ukrainian steppes - different peoples bringing similar cultural influences. However, earlier in history, the mid-European grouping had been influenced by the Iberian grouping who (as far as we understand), migrated north, with some going to Europe and some to Britain and Ireland. These Beaker-culture people were Indo-Europeans who later became what we call the Celts. The Celts were more of a culture than a people, and very varied amongst themselves - just as, today, 'Americans' come from a wide variety of origins.
This Beaker influx, so named after a characteristic bell-shaped beaker or pot that acts as a characteristic archaeological marker of that culture, stimulated an upswing. Use of metals came in, together with changes in ideas, society and economy (even social alcohol drinking), and megalithic culture entered a new phase.
There are signs that the upswing had roots in indigenous as well as incoming influences: the building of the menhirs and stone circles was possibly initiated by late-neolithic indigenous people. The influx of ideas and people wasn't an invasion - more a grafting. Perhaps Britain was seen as an attractive place to migrate to.
Trelew menhir near St Buryan
The idea of the classic menhir did not come until the gradual end of the neolithic around 2500 BCE. Many archaeologists would put the stone circle and menhir-building upswing in Penwith to be around 2200, plus/minus a century - that is, after the Beaker influx - but the author's feeling is that it could have begun earlier, around 2500, then to be augmented by new incoming ideas. A wave of building took place across Britain and Ireland: Penwith, a key maritime node, would not have been isolated from this.
The idea derived from the earlier practice of placing stones, propping them and digging oriented rocks into the ground, in the mid- or late-neolithic - as outlined on the previous page. But it grew from there.
The age of menhir-building
Menhir means a long (or high) stone. From the 2500s BCE, interest in building more sites grew stronger and more sophisticated. A new style, motivation and mentality was developing.
Mên Scryfa - probably a bronze age menhir, later inscribed in the iron age
Formerly, 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),
- places where there was subtle energy (such as the coastal Boscregan Cairns),
- or where significant astronomical alignments were present (Chûn Quoit),
- or there was something special about their landscape setting (Mulfra Quoit).
These were places where underground blind springs, intersections of water veins or intersections of water veins with overground energy leys were present.
These places had special atmospheres. People felt good there. Getting into deeper states and experiencing changes of mood and spirit were easier - and this also draws people to ancient sites today. They are magnetic, captivating places, with a way of gobbling up our worries and bringing a smile to our face.
The Blind Fiddler menhir
The earlier builders of sites in neolithic Cornwall built them where they did simply because it felt right to do so. Presumably they knew the skills of dowsing or they were natural sensitives, or both. Nevertheless, they located Lanyon Quoit exactly on an exact alignment between St Michael's Mount and Pendeen Watch, so some serious thinking was going on too.
But for later builders in the copper and bronze ages, locational considerations became more sophisticated and thought out, particularly with more complex alignments of sites and the creation of whole complexes, constellations of sites around stone circles. This was a product of evolving ideas in megalithic science, mathematics, astronomy and geomancy.
In the case of menhirs, megalith builders demonstrated a capacity to create and amplify energy centres. Many of the menhirs in the southern half of Penwith are in relatively unremarkable positions in the landscape, but they are located on the basis of alignments to other sites.
But first, let's examine the matter of subtle energy and what dowsers detect. This concerns a fundamental motivating factor that drove the building of the ancient sites. The people of the neolithic and bronze ages knew something we do not.
It all centres around blind springs ('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 charged geomagnetic and subtle energy upwards. Blind springs are crucial in determining the location of major ancient sites, always located on top of them.
Primary water has no hydrological connection with secondary water that is derived from the rainfall cycle. Rainfall falls to earth, soaks into the soil and is released through streams or the evapotranspiration of plants, to be recycled into the atmosphere or the sea.
But primary water, pressurised and pushed up from below, and not so voluminous, rises through fissures, cracks and porous rocks, in small seepages, flows and underground streams. When it hits an impervious layer of rock, or the fissure narrows or becomes less porous, the rising water is compressed, then to seek other, more horizontal routes.
The primary water spreading out through cracks and porous areas 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. A blind spring creates an energy-vortex at the surface, and straight overground energy-lines (or energy leys) connect them.
Boscawen menhir, near Boscawen-ûn
A blind spring can be quite deep down, but those under stone circles and certain other sites seem to come higher up. For example, the author finds the blind spring under Mên 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 an 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 is to enhance, harness, focus and fix such energy-fields.
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. These have less energy-intensity than and a different character to blind springs, but the ancients were interested in them nonetheless. Such a vortex usually has an upward, downward or alternating directionality to it, pulsing in tune with the cycles and configurations of the moon, sun and planets of the solar system. This periodicity has not been fully and systematically studied (an enormous task), so we don't know for sure what its patterns and cycles are, or how much they vary from site to site. But it happens, observably.
One of the Pipers menhirs near the Merry Maidens
Generally, the upward or downward movement of such a vortex seems to fluctuate or reverse on roughly the sixth day after new or full moon, just before the waxing or waning halfmoons (according to dowser Tom Graves).
The maximum upward motion is in the two days before fullmoon, and the maximum downward motion is in the two days before new moon. This is emphasised at eclipses - lunar eclipses are super-fullmoons and solar eclipses are super-newmoons where the lining up of sun, earth and moon are more exact than at normal new and full moons.
At both of these kinds of vortex locations neolithic and bronze age people built mounds and quoits, or they placed stones, and probably also planted special trees, now long gone. The Algonquin people of New England planted 'talking trees' on such spots, training tree branches into unusual shapes - these were trees that spoke, places where you could 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. So a sacred site would involve a blind spring or a 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 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.
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'. So a menhir was an 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 is created, facilitating that earth-sky connection. Many dowsers find a seven-turn energy-vortex around menhirs, with four or five turns above the surface and three or two below. To some extent, a menhir is analogous to a lightning conductor, drawing subtle energy to it from the sky and grounding it in the earth, though it also differs inasmuch as it draws up energy from the ground to transmit it to the heavens, in an alternatingly cyclic manner.
Mounds were more feminine, whether they were chambered cairns, or solid barrows and tumuli - contrasting menhirs in function. Their nature and purpose complements that of a menhir - they were the yin complement to the yang of menhirs. Menhirs are not found to be located on mounds - they would cancel each other out. But they can be near menhirs - examples being the two large cairns at either side of the Nine Maidens stone circle, or the menhir and cairn atop Watch Croft (Penwith's highest hill).
Menhirs create or amplify power points, acting like acupuncture needles in the earth. Two subtle energy orientations are involved with menhirs: horizontal fields, in the form of lines and spirals, both underground and above ground, spreading out across the landscape; and vertical fields moving between deeper levels in the earth and the heavens above.
Menhirs are common throughout West Penwith, there being fiftyish still in existence - the original number might have been double that (see a study on this here). They were erected during the bronze age between 2500 and 1800 BCE, many of them probably earlier on, in flurries of activity inspired by the proto-druidic leadership and by periodic upturns of social enthusiasm for engaging in the hard 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. The quarrying and transportation were the most demanding and time-consuming of these (more about this below). Positioning the stones was an advanced, carefully-calculated skill. Megalith-building developed into a major enterprise, with the establishment of a growing number of ancient sites in a relatively organised system.
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, man-made landscape with a new psycho-geography had been created. It was a little cooler and wetter than in the 3000s, though warmer and more equable than today.
The hilltops and cliffs were not as good to live on as in the 3000s - people had headed downhill, clearing more forest, using the wood for fires and construction. Most houses were wooden family cabins or communal halls since wood was plentiful - only later did stone-and-thatch round huts appear, after the megalithic age ended and wood was less abundant.
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. This has today become forceful bulldozing and dynamiting with little regard for nature's needs or response, but in the bronze age it was not assertive or destructive engineering of this kind, and neither was it as drastic and overwhelming. Rather, it sought to augment and support natural energy-flows in land, sky and the human realm.
Boswens menhir and Dry Carn air traffic control beacon
In the bronze age, humans were becoming increasingly adept at moving things around, arranging and fixing things, and they clearly felt driven to do so. By now they had an advanced system of thinking to give logic to their geomancy.
Population grew somewhat, bringing a socially richer, more variegated society, and megalith-building grew in scale and sophistication - a little less intuitively and a little more intellectually driven.
Megalithic culture extended from Portugal to southern Scandinavia. Britain was divided culturally into two main zones, western and eastern:
- 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 with Brittany and Spain,
- the east and southeast of Britain, connected much more to the heart of mainland Europe.
Note that this was not a north-south divide - this came later with the Saxon and Norman invasions and the carving of England out of a more or less united Britain.
Boscawen Ros menhir, near the Merry Maidens
Neolithic people in Cornwall had largely been transhumant horticulturalists, herder-hunters and wild-food gatherers following an annual round, moving to different places on their respective patches that were most appropriate to the season.
Bronze age people on the other hand were by degrees more sedentary farmers for whom maintaining and enhancing the fertility of the land and improving it was a growing issue. They still had large kinship structures (thus they had not entered the realm of private property) and they had summer and winter lands and settlements that they moved between.
They went to greater lengths to work the land, clearing rocks, developing small garden-fields, and they were improving techniques in fertilisation, land management, seed improvement and husbandry. This became more serious in the late bronze age at the end of the megalithic period around 1200 BCE, but it began earlier around 2500. They developed early forms of mining (streaming for tin, copper and gold) and good boats to withstand journeys across the Bay of Biscay, across the Celtic Sea and up to the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands. They still practiced the old ways, adapting them to changing times, but things had also shifted.
Looking at the alignments map of Penwith, its alignments look random and chaotic but there is a system to it. This geomantic system had clear intent and ideas behind it. We don't know what those ideas were, but we can see imprints of them in the evidence bronze age people left. The system was based on the existing energy centres used in the neolithic, while new ones created and connected with the old ones by using 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, vertical energy-fluctuations between the ground and the sky, acting as vertical conductors and nodes in a horizontal landscape network of aligned points.
Dowsers identify the pattern of flow as spiral, heliacal or vortical around a menhir. The crystalline particles in the rock give stones much of their subtle energy-conductive function, or they enhance it. Penwith granite, from which most local menhirs were made, is 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 can come up spontaneously. Just sit down at a site, stay there, give it time and, after leaving, compare the state you are in with your state before arrival. In this way, the stones talk. An old Xhosa saying goes: listen more closely to things than to people.
Menhirs are found at the intersection of underground water lines and overground energy-leys. They represent a secondary layer of the geomantic system of West Penwith - the primary layer being stone circles, quoits, and certain hilltops and cliff castles. From an engineering viewpoint, the most complex structures built in the long megalithic era were the quoits, the earliest megalithic structures of all, built around 3700-3300 BCE - a whole millennium before the building of 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. This will vary from stone to stone, but there is a good chance that water-related energies mostly pre-existed the menhirs, yet they were amplified or even moved slightly by erection of the menhir. In future we need to do a dowsing survey of selected sites in Penwith to examine these details.
Menhirs were set up to create or amplify such energy-spots or to fix and qualitatively enhance them. The Seal Stone (SW 3653 2338) shown here at Higher Bosistow, looking like a seal, is close to seal caves at Carn Barra, and its shape is most likely not accidental.
Many menhirs seem to be relay stones, with alignments or energy-leys passing through them, while others seem to be junction stones where energy-leys and alignments join, and yet others are terminal stones where an energy-ley or an alignment stops.
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, detectable flow while alignments do not. Alignments aren't tangible lines, though they are drawn on maps as lines to indicate an alignment. Stones on an alignment seem to co-vibrate, non-locally and independently, yet in some way synchronised with each other while having no measurable connection or detectable flow between them.
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 also connect energetically across the landscape along energy-leys and sinuous water lines, in 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.
Megalithic locational science
Early in the bronze age transition, perhaps by around 2400 BCE, people had become skilled at subtle energy engineering. They had learned that you can enhance and channel subtle energies and 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, it will often draw energy to it or it will make an existing energy-trickle into a flow. By inserting a standing stone there, you can create or amplify an energy-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 horizontally with other megalithic structures, either or both underground or overground.
Menhirs were erected for a variety of reasons, and the importance of each reason differs from stone to stone. Various of these factors are present or absent in the case of different menhirs.
- alignments of ancient sites - ancient sites of the bronze age were aligned with each other in patterns suggesting intricate relationships between sites. 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;
- 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-leys and their patterns and distribution - menhirs are usually 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;
- 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% (a guesstimate)
- 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, and how it fits in the landscape. There is an intuitive elegance to the way many menhirs are located;
- intervisibility, or the capacity to see other ancient sites from a menhir, and vice versa, creating a visual-psychic relationship between them;
- genius loci or spirit of place. This is a subjective judgement: each ancient site has a feeling to it, a presence or a spirit (at least in the case of those sites that are currently in happier circumstances and still 'alive'). 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 how much 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 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 recent centuries, plenty of gateposts and cattle rubbing stones have been set up by farmers, looking like menhirs - but they aren't.
Generally, a rubbing stone is roughly the height of a cow, while most menhirs are higher or, occasionally, lower. The main check for a genuine menhir is to dowse it, checking whether it is on a blind spring or water-line intersection, perhaps with an above-ground energy ley, and 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 stone in many fields - the one in the picture is at Bosiliack, 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 incorporated as gateposts, or re-erected in a (to farmers) convenient place, as if moving them made no difference to their properties. Other menhirs have been destroyed, whether from thoughtlessness, for convenience or with malintent. 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 megalithic period, distorts our perception of menhirs - they have lost the setting and centrality they once had. Some are located in hedges (walls), while others sit in the middle of fields that were built a millennium or more after the menhirs were erected.
Menhirs have been decontextualised by land-use changes throughout history. We do not know what the original landscapes they once stood in looked like, 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.
Gûn Rith (pr Goon Reeth) - part of the Merry Maidens complex
Most menhirs in Penwith come from within Penwith, though some have been transported longer distances. This transportation, even if only for half a mile, will not have been easy, especially with bigger stones. It involved manual labour, teamwork, logistics, science, background support and a paranormal twist.
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 teamwork - 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 and focused on it. 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 - it moved well and things happened as intended, but only at times when the group was working well together and synergistically. This experiment was carried out during the building of a stone circle in memory of the late musician Joe Strummer at his home in the Quantock Hills, Somerset, and a substantial stone circle appeared as a result.
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 - though thankfully we sustained no injuries. The group's collective discipline, focus and mood were critical - the Yaqui Indian sorcerer Don Juan called this impeccability. Actions had to be carefully planned, holes dug and the route and log-rollers prepared but, once everything was in place, a second process started of preparing the group for the main operation. This involved chanting, meditation, energy-raising, discussion and... drinking tea.
When the group was ready, the operation moved quite quickly. An enormous several-ton stone was moved 200 metres and slotted into place, manually. It was proven that a stone of 3-5 tons could be moved by 8-10 people and tipped straight into its socket. Here is a partial answer to the question of how megaliths were built - though it was probably the case that the ancients had greater skills, experience and aptitude than we. Eventually, being volunteers, we ran out of time, and the remaining stones were put in place by machine - an Anthropocene JCB.
In the bronze age it might involve a team of perhaps 10-15 fit people, living together for a summer, during which time it might be possible to quarry, transport and erect 3-5 stones. This would be done over a few years. The biggest challenge was quarrying and transportation. We did it by truck with rocks chosen from a roadstone quarry - the quarrymen were quite enthusiastic about this particular order, and visited when the stone circle was complete.
The method had been discovered in the 1980s in connection with getting buses and trucks out of mud, in the early days of rock festivals and camps. We tried horses, tractors and people, and the bus would not move. Then we stopped, took a rest, came back together and sang together, starting up a rocking motion of the bus, and it was out and away. This concerns synergy. The sum is far greater than its parts.