Menhirs and Stones - Ancient Penwith

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Menhirs and Stones

This second page on menhirs gives more details about specific kinds of menhirs and stones in West Penwith. We look at astronomical alignments, double menhirs, the Kemyel stones, placed and propped stones, holed and aligned stones.

Astronomical alignments
Trelew menhir (St Buryan church behind)
Some menhirs mark out astronomical alignments lining up with the rising or the setting point of the sun, the stations of the moon or perhaps with some stars. This is yet to be comprehensively studied in Penwith.

A century ago the antiquarian Sir Norman Lockyer found a classic case when he was examining the Boscawen-ûn stone circle.

Alignment 30, marked blue on the map below, goes from Boscawen-ûn stone circle (top left on the map below), passing through three menhirs at Chyangwens, Trelew and Toldavas, before proceeding onwards to Castallack menhir above Lamorna.

The Toldavas alignment

Castallack seems to act as the energy-relay for the Kemyel-Swingate group of menhirs (more lower down). The alignment, as seen from Boscawen-ûn, marks the sun's rising point at Samhain in early November and Imbolc/Candlemas in early February. These are the two cross-quarter festivals on either side of the winter solstice, marking the end and the beginning of the years' growth cycle.

There are many astronomical orientations in Penwith, involving quoits, chambered cairns, menhirs, stone circles and landscape features, but they have thus far been patchily studied. Some go back to neolithic times: the winter solstice sun sets in a noticeable notch in Carn Kenidjack, as seen from Chûn Quoit, implying that the quoit was located there partially to catch that alignment.
Boscawen menhir, near Boscawen-ûn
Water and subtle energy are related to each other but are not the same. They have various qualities and strengths and are also impacted by what humans do - quarrying, digging, building, laying down wires and pipes, and so on. Different dowsers pick up different patterns and aspects of energy. But one thing they agree on: energy concentrates at ancient sites, and there seem to be no ancient sites lacking clear, dowsable signs of such energy-concentration.

Without understanding underground and overground energy-lines, it is not really possible to understand the reason why the ancients went to so much trouble to heave around stones and earth and to do what they did. Since archaeologists generally do not recognise megalithic subtle energy systems to be valid or possible, they generally downplay the importance of menhirs and stone circles. Yet the vital ingredient giving menhirs and stone circles their reason for being is earth energy.

Menhir geomantics

There are two distinct groupings of menhirs in Penwith. One is in the southeastern quadrant of the peninsula, surrounding Boscawen-ûn and the Merry Maidens, and the other is in the upland area of the north, arnd the Nine Maidens. There are exceptions, with odd menhirs scattered around, such as at Kelynack near St Just, Beersheba near Trencrom Hill and a few menhirs around Sennen.

A menhir is a very definite, precise type of ancient site, specifically pinpointing locations with no equivocation, like an arrow straight from heaven. Around one third of a longstone is buried in the earth. In ancient times they were central places.

For astronomical purposes, menhirs are more likely to act as foresights than backsights - that is, as locations to look toward rather than to take a sighting from. Mounds, hills and stone circles are generally better as backsights.
The Pipers - part of the Merry Maidens complex
Some menhirs in the southern half of Penwith are double menhirs - paired stones, usually between 10 and 150 metres apart. Their mutual orientation is important - their orientations are shown on the alignments map with green lines and, if you zoom in and click on the green orientation-line, its azimuth is given in the popup.

With alignments that head for double menhirs, it is often the case that one of the menhirs takes major, longer-distance alignments and the other takes very localised ones. They seem to act as a polarity.

These double menhirs are unique in Cornwall to southern West Penwith - otherwise, they are also found in Wales. Clearly there was an innovative megalith-builder in Penwith who set off a double menhir trend. There are seven double menhirs, at Redhouse, Chyenhal, Drift, the Faughan Stones, the Pipers, Bunker's Hill and Boscawen Ros.

The Kemyel-Swingate menhirsThen there is the Kemyel-Swingate complex. No one knows what this is. It is a pattern of menhirs on a plateau at Kemyel on the northeastern side of the Lamorna valley - again, robbed of context by more recent field boundaries.

This is clearly a subsystem built for a purpose, made up of menhirs only. They are aligned in three-point alignments, of which two pairs are near-parallel - though clearly not intended to be precisely parallel.

What was this complex? Perhaps it was experimental or educational, or it had a specialised function we might never guess. The orientations of pairs of stones (green lines) could be astronomical, but the three-point alignments (violet lines) don't look astronomical. This complex needs a mathematician's attention!

Castallack menhir offers a tantalising clue: it seems to act as a junction box for the whole complex, with an astronomical alignment coming in from Boscawen-ûn and a long alignment coming from Gurnard's Head in the north of the peninsula, passing on the way through the eastern stone of the Chyenhal double menhir. There are clear hints of a geomantic system here.

Placed stones
Boscregan Cairns
Boscregan CairnsThen there are deliberately placed stones. These are simply big stones of various sizes and shapes, some of them now fallen, that have been deliberately placed at certain energy-spots. Since Penwith is a very rocky place, this isn't out of keeping, but there are many different kinds of megalithic placed stones.

They seem to act similarly to standing stones, but in most cases their verticality isn't emphasised - as you can see from the stone on the right at the Boscregan Cairns (being inspected by participants at the Pathways to the Past weekend in 2015).

One mysterious stone is King Arthur's Table near Sennen. It isn't clear whether or not it is in its true location. Purpose unexplained.

Carn Lês Boel
Carn Les Boel entrance rockThe propped stone at the entrance to Carn Lês Boel is quite unique, both as a stone propped on small stones to raise it slightly off the ground and also in its hulking shape. It's quite huggable - and if people think you're crazy for doing it, it might well be their problem. It had a partner stone, now lying half-buried on its side, and they acted as a gateway.

Up the coast at Boscregan Cairns, meanwhile, a well-placed propped stone (picture above) sits on its side, nicely bevelled into the hill and in an excellent location for viewing the Isles of Scilly, sited on a crag overlooking the sea.

The Four Parishes Stone
Four Parishes StoneThere is a variety of stones in the area around Carn Galva, Bodrifty and Lanyon and West Lanyon Quoits, mostly boundary stones. One wonders which came first - the stones or the boundaries.

The most notable of these is the fallen Four Parishes Stone not far from the Nine Maidens stone circle - literally the meeting point of four old parishes. North of New Mill is the Bishop's Head and Foot stone.

Merry Maidens hedge stone
Merry Maidens hedge stoneIn the south of Penwith there are markstones that don't mark boundaries, but they are aligned and act like menhirs - except they are placed rocks, often in the middle of fields. They are marked as red diamonds on the alignment map.

South of St Buryan there are several markstones, at Sparnon, Selena Markstone, Treen and Chapel Curno.

There are also hedge stones (see left) - big rocks built into hedges (walls) and behaving like menhirs, regarding underground water and alignments. The stone on the left is close to the Merry Maidens stone circle and part of the complex surrounding it.

Greeb oriented stone
Then there are oriented stones, which are roughly oblong, thigh-height flattish stones set on their end and oriented to certain sites. Two at Greeb, Land's End, are oriented toward the Longships Rocks. One, in a small valley between Cribba Head and Treryn Dinas, is oriented at the Dinas itself. Another, at Carn Vellan near Trewellard is oriented to the Brisons and Watch Croft. A small one is near Porth Loe at Gwennap Head, oriented on the end of Carn Lês Boel. Another is inland at Bosiliack.

There are probably more of these to be discovered. They are too low to be rubbing stones, too 'of a kind' to be natural, and they're distinctly oriented. There is a possibility that they are a very early kind of erected stone, perhaps from the neolithic period.

Holed Stones
Merry Maidens holed stone
There are two collections of holed stones in Penwith, one in the Merry Maidens stone circle complex and the other in the Tregeseal complex - and nowhere else. They are all located in a straight line (though some have fallen or been moved).

At the Merry Maidens they are, according to Cheryll Straffon in her Ancient Sites in West Penwith, oriented toward midwinter moonrise at the lunar maximum every 18.6 years, while the Tregeseal stones, which had fallen and then been badly re-erected, might have pointed toward the tip of Boswens menhir - possibly an astronomical alignment (this has been estimated, not checked).

Presumably, these stones were very precisely aligned so that the holes, only inches in diameter, let light through to give a very precise reading for calendrical purposes. Unfortunately, the rigours of time have taken their toll on these stones. The heavenly bodies have also slightly moved since megalithic times, making such accurate astronomical sightlines inaccurate.

Men an TolThen we have that famous holed stone at Mên an Tol, which is utterly unique and very difficult to interpret, not least because the stone formation of two stones on either side of the holed stone was created in recent centuries only, having no megalithic significance at all.

The site was originally a stone circle (some of its stones are still there if you look around), but where or how the holed stone fitted into this, no one knows - and there are no other holed stones of this kind anywhere to compare it with. So, little can be said about this stone, even though it is so well-known and iconic. Tradition has it that climbing through it heals various diseases. It's a really nice stone and well worth a pilgrimage!

Carn Cravah, above Nanjizal Bay
Before we go, one further kind of stone or rock needs mentioning - the carns. These are natural rock outcrops, hulks or tors, also offshore rocks, that weren't erected or placed, but they have energy and prominence, and ancient sites are at times aligned to them.

The southern Bojewans Carn, east of Boscawen-ûn, for example, is quite a significant alignment intersection, as is Carn Cravah, on the north side of Nanjizal Bay. It is on a crossing-point of two alignments, one (116) from the Runnel Stone to Carn Lês Boel and Maen Castle, and the other (85) from Wolf Rock to Chapel Carn Brea, Bartinney Castle and the Boskednan south cairn next at Nine Maidens stone circle.

Two quoits, the Giant's Grave and West Lanyon Quoit, are aligned on Boswarva Carn. Also, a likeable carn sits immediately south of the Tregeseal stone circle. These carns, involved in settings or alignments to sites of various ages both neolithic and bronze age, seem to have been perennial markers of 'placeness' to the ancient people of Penwith.

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