Neolithic West Penwith - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
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Neolithic West Penwith

Prehistoric Ages
The neolithic saw a major upgrade of life in Cornwall called the neolithic revolution, around 4000 BCE. It also saw the beginning of the megalithic age around 3700 BCE, with the modification of the hilltop tors, the ambitious building of the quoits and the early development of such things as placed stones and possibly some cairns.

The Neolithic 4500-2300ish BCE

The neolithic revolution, gaining momentum in Cornwall around 4000 BCE, involved influxes of people and ideas, adoption of horticulture, herding and husbandry, and settlement in more rooted territories as population was growing, though people still moved seasonally around their patch. They were transiting from being nomadic to transhumant (following a seasonal round around a limited area). Log dwellings were established as winter residences, and they would use tipis, bivouacs and caves too. Sometimes, in summer, they would simply sleep out around a fire.

Creation of woodland clearings increased, and new tool technologies and social dynamics developed. Patches of forest were cut or burned, though they often re-grew within decades once people moved on - a necessity because the neolithics had not yet learned how to maintain soil fertility.

Being primarily food and resource gatherers and not wishing to construct permanent dwellings and villages, this suited them well. They would time their movements to coincide with the fruiting of trees, the sprouting of mushrooms or the swarming of pilchards. At the quarters and cross-quarters of the year and at fullmoons, they would gather in special places at tors, headlands or ancient great trees now long gone.

Horticultural and herding products were an add-on to wild-sourced diets - patches of land on the seasonal round would be weeded, tended and gardened to encourage chosen species. Later, this developed into transhumant horticulture - moving seasonally between residences for different purposes.

Toward the mid-neolithic around 3500 BCE genuine farming was developing, probably brought in by new people originating from Iberia and Brittany. They used hoes and ards, a primitive plough, clearing rocks from chosen patches of land and establishing small field systems, carrying out land, plant and livestock improvement and building dwellings such as log cabins for winter residence, while using tipis and bivouacs when doing their rounds in summer. Greenstone axes and tools from Mount's Bay have been found as far away as in Essex and Yorkshire - the now-submerged Gear Rock, offshore from the Jubilee Pool in Penzance, was one of these stone factories in those times.

At this time Ireland and the west of Britain formed the centre of activity in these isles, with Penwith becoming something of a focal point in the maritime traffic connecting them - St Ives and Mount's Bay would have been the main landing places in Penwith. This was the warmest period of ancient times, with people living in the uplands in summer, concentrating in the northern hills of Penwith. Penwith was a convenient-sized little world, with just two days' trek from one end to the other.

Though these people's lifestyles were simple, this wasn't because they were simple-minded. They understood the movements of the heavens and by the 3600s were beginning to erect large stone structures in the form of quoits. In building quoits they were able to raise capstones many tons in weight above human height. Paradoxically, though very early sites, the quoits were the most advanced form of engineering of the whole megalithic age.

Such constructions were metaphysically motivated, and it was in this time that the principles of the megalithic age were established - principles of astronomy and geomancy that were to characterise the next two millennia up to 1500 BCE, continuing in varying forms for three further millennia until the late middle ages - church and catheral building rested on similar principles.

The neolithic heyday

There was another wave of immigration around 3500 BCE. Archaeologists reckon these were the people who built the early chambered cairns. Society was tribal though incrementally it was becoming somewhat stratified: those with knowledge, skills and initiative or the descendants of outstanding individuals became the new elites.

Still, the inhabitants of West Penwith were all intermarried and related, and there was a clan communality and mutuality to life in those days. Wealth and power were held by the leaderships, but this was clan wealth and power thast they held and not subject to the abuses of power we later became so familiar with.

Wealth took the form of land, animal pedigrees and seed stocks, tools, boats, ornaments, dwellings and comforts such as furs, decorated items, woven and felted woollens or even nuggets of gold picked up from the land and fashioned. Ancestry and gene stock were forms of wealth and privilege too, as were knowledge or spiritual status.

Humans began changing the face of the land: clearings and trackways developed, and constructed sacred sites were built in the form of tor enclosures, quoits and chambered cairns. People were investing energy in capital improvements. But the biggest energy-investments were in what we now would call 'sacred sites' - thouh the neolithics saw no significant difference between sacredness and practicality and the way that we do.

Attitudinally they were beginning to impact more on nature, building and moving things around and developing an increasing urge to make a mark, to mould reality and leave remains for posterity. They still felt rather like guests in a big nature-dominated world though.

Regional travel and exchange were common in summer, using sea-going paddle-powered and sailing boats like coracles, canoes and curraghs to sail to France and up the Irish Sea, the Severn Sea (Bristol Channel) and the English Channel. Knowledge elites developed - shamans, wisewomen, healers, keepers of histories, artisans and builders. Advanced thinking on time and tide, medicine, mathematics, place-knowledge, husbandry and engineering was evolving rapidly.
Chûn Quoit
Chun QuoitThere's something strange in this, shown by the building of the quoits between 3700 and 3500 BCE. Of all the challenges surmounted in Cornwall during the whole two-millennia megalithic era, quoits involved the most advanced engineering effort of all - raising a heavy capstone onto stone uprights. This involved serious planning, preparation, execution and social collaboration.

So from an engineering viewpoint, the most complex structures came first, with the quoits, and the later menhirs and stone circles were from an engineering viewpoint less strenuous, even though many more in number. In terms of complex knowledge, the stone circles and menhirs of the bronze age display far more advanced theoretical thinking.

Spiritus mundi

These people perceived an afterlife, feeling that the ancestors held the tribe safe, stable and protected. The bones of the deceased, at least of revered ones, were stripped of flesh with stone knives and by sky-burial (skeletons picked by scavenging birds), then they were used in ceremonies and probably stored in chambered cairns.

This wasn't morbid or sentimental but an expression of a sense of posterity and continuity. Bones and rocks symbolised enduring verities, suggesting another reality, 'the unborn and the undying' - the stillness beyond time, growth and decay. The lineage and soul of the tribe were thus strengthened and ensured. These bones were the tribal archives, the memory-sticks and relics of the genetic inheritance of the people.

The ancestors were alive in a parallel world. Living people were their ancestors' descendants, carrying their genes, family patterns and identity. The life of the tribe was a joint effort between humans, nature and the world beyond.

People saw themselves as an integral part of nature and its periodicities, totally affected by it. Trees, rocks and weather systems were seen as intelligent beings and sacredness lay within all things. But they were also developing specialist skills and knowledge to help deal with life's changes and challenges and accumulating a slowly growing mastery over their lives.

Their intuitive and dowsing abilities were used in the location, orientation and design of early sacred sites, though they also thought this through quite carefully, since they sited at least some quoits so that the sun at solstice or the moon at lumar maximum could be seen rising or setting over prominent marker-points on the horizon. The principle of orientation and alignment of sacred sites was established in the neolithic, around the time of the building of the quoits and tor enclosures.

Life was at times tough, sometimes blessed, and they sought to find out how and why life went as it did and how to make the best of it.

They also were accruing a sense of human distinctiveness. They had developed a need to define dedicated human spaces in the engulfing vastness of nature by establishing special places and centres of activity or sacredness - human places. They were beginning tentatively to alter nature and change the face of the land. But not much yet.

The magic circle

Around 3700 BCE and after, the neolithics enclosed some of their hilltop sites with stone and rock walls and banks - these were the tor enclosures, such as those at Carn Brea, Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill, Carn Kenidjack and St Michael's Mount.

They drew a line around their space to distinguish inside from outside, higher from lower and human space from nature, to consecrate the hilltop enclosures and perhaps also to keep wild animals out and children in.

These banks will have acted as a sort of 'magic circle' around each of the hills. Tor enclosures were sacred places, outside and above the wooded normality below, and with a panoramic view. The sky-spirits, the ancestors and stars were close by.
Tor Enclosures

Like Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor, West Penwith is overlooked by a number of granite tors. Tor enclosures were the first major constructed sacred sites in the peninsula. The best known is at Carn Brea, outside yet visible from West Penwith. In Penwith there were Carn Galva, Carn Kenidjack, Trencrom Hill and St Michael's Mount.
Carn Kenidjack
The tors started out as well-visited hilltops standing above the forest cover, enabling a god's-eye view over the otherwise ubiquitous forest. Landscape panoramas were important to the neolithics' sanity and sense of geography. The tors were meeting and ceremonial places close to the spirits and the stellar worlds.

They were not permanent living places, though in summer and at special times people probably stayed there or nearby. The tors were first used around 3800 BCE, and then they were enclosed with stone banks later on around 3700. At first they were probably open-access, though when enclosing walls were built, arguably a selectivity was creeping in which, by the late neolithic, symptomised a more stratified society. The tor enclosures might later on have been reserved for druids, initiates or invitees only. But everyone probably went there at special times, or for rites of passage or educational purposes - not least, star-gazing.

These people lived materially simple lives, yet their knowledge wasn't rudimentary. An understanding of astronomy, the patterns and cycles of nature, natural medicine, crafts, artisanry, husbandry and horticulture was a necessity. Advanced thought was clearly present, hinted at by the design of quoits and chambered cairns.

After the Piora Oscillation, lasting 200-300 years from 3200 BCE, population and forest clearance increased and building ancient sites in new, formerly wooded places followed. Stone circles became the centre of attention in the bronze age. The tors remained as places of initiation or retreat, but they lost their importance and focality.

It is often thought that Carn Brea, occupied for 300 years, came to a violent end with fighting and burning, but this is inconclusive since its walls and water sources were inadequate for defence. It might instead have burned accidentally or could have undergone a ritual burning for cleansing or closedown (like the demolition of a building).


Quoits (dolmens) are mysterious structures, found across Eurasia. Customarily they are regarded as chambered mounds that have eroded away, revealing the stones underneath. This is unlikely since none are half-eroded, and other mounds don't erode like that. This notion arose probably because archaeologists couldn't figure out what they were really built for, resorting instead to funerary reasons, for want of anything else.
Zennor Quoit - a fallen shadow of its former self
Quoits are usually connected with funerary rites, but this is probably only half-true. That is, sky-burials and death rituals might have happened there, but this probably wasn't their primary purpose. Quoits have a large capstone placed on top of vertical stones, usually with a gap at one end and a blocking stone at the other. Some dowsers see them as earth-energy devices where an up-welling energy-stream is capped and sent out horizontally across the land. Perhaps it was a kind of esoteric oilwell for enhancing land-fertility or fortunes.

Quoits were probably multi-purpose, and they remain an open question. Conceivably they were used as energy-chambers where illnesses could be treated, seeds could be upgraded and spiritual empowerments could take place. They might have been places to go to die, or places of magic and initiation. They might have acted like a Faraday Cage, for enhanced psychic communication. Or perhaps in the neolithic cosmology, people felt the earth needed infusing with light or the landscape needed infusing with underworld influences.

In Penwith quoits exist in the northern upland half of the peninsula. They are all linked by alignments with sites of a similar age. Most are just three-point alignments, and they have a locational relationship with tors or hills. Most of the quoits are nowadays ruined except for Chûn Quoit. Lanyon Quoit was reconstructed badly in the 19th C, and it no longer resembles its original form.

There is a chance some of them were intentionally decommissioned by removing one vertical stone and tilting the capstone off the top, perhaps around 1200 BCE - Mulfra, Zennor and West Lanyon Quoits being possible examples. Why? Because, if they are some sort of energy-generator, which is possible, then a power-source that is not maintained could be dangerous (rather like a nuclear station or an oilwell today).

Impressive in their engineering, quoits were built in the neolithic centuries around 370-3500 BCE. Sperris Quoit has been archaeologically dated to 3600-3300 and Zennor Quoit to 3300-3000 BCE, both of them being near to each other and also aligned with Lanyon Quoit. I would guess that they were both built at roughly the same time though.

See also: Quoits

Chambered cairns

Archaeologists believe these to be burial tombs. Yes, bone and cremation remains have been found at some, but these cairns were not built primarily for funerary purposes (as also in the case of churches). Chambered cairns were built for initiatory, geomantic and multiple purposes.
The view from inside the cairn at Treen near Morvah
Trainee Kogi Mamas (shamans in Colombia) lived underground for years, in training to become sensitive to subtle energy and timelessness through sensory deprivation. Tibetan Lamas were bricked up in caves to learn non-attachment and experience the stillness of the void. It is likely that chambered cairns had similar functions, if only as retreat places for rites of passage, spiritual training or times of quiet.

Cairns might also have been places to die in peace, where there is energy available to assist in conscious transitioning into eath. Or perhaps they were for menstruation or critical moments of pregnancy. Another use can be the empowerment of seeds (as with the 1970s parascience experiments with pyramids) or as a way of blessing tools and valuables.

Then there were the ancestors, whose enduring remains are their bones or ashes. Such remains were probably left there not so much for burial as for neolithic people to commune with, seeking guidance and protection through ancestral bones, or as oracular devices.

Geomantically, chambered cairns are deliberately oriented toward points on the local horizon. Many are oriented to the solstice or other rising and setting points of the sun, or to lunar standstills, presumably to capture the essence of light or to draw light into the underworld, as if such cairns perhaps operated as batteries or transformers. Different mounds would be dedicated to different purposes and their orientation would reflect these purposes.

Chambered cairns are built of vertical stones with capstones placed on top to make a chamber, then covered with soil. The chambers are sometimes high enough to sit inside, sometiems perhaps better for lying in. Some have encircling kerbs of stones to contain the outside edges, or stones outside the entrance to frame the view from inside. Sometimes the sun will rise on the horizon at the left-hand wall of the entrance, as seen from inside, lighting up the chamber as it moves up and rightwards, or it would set at the right-hand wall.

Some cairns would have served as sighting places for landscape or astronomical purposes. Others marked alignment intersections and underground water power centres. No cairns existed in isolation - they were all part of an evolving integrated geomantic system, as seen on the alignments map of West Penwith.

We do not know what was in the minds of neolithic peoples when they built them, but the above conjectures are likely hints of their true use 5,500-4,000 years ago.
The later neolithic

As more land was cleared toward the end of the neolithic in the first half of the 2000s, people's space-perception changed and the tor enclosures became less important as social meeting places. New principles and ideas came into play. The neolithics had oriented their chambered cairns to the rising or setting of the sun at solstices and other key times, but the megalith-builders of the transition between the neolithic and bronze age took things much further.

They developed advanced mathematics (such as knowledge of the phi ratio and the golden mean), astronomy (eclipse prediction, knowing the size of the earth and understanding the precession of the equinoxes), and developing new skills such as the forging and crafting of metals, navigation for long sea journeys, healing and an enhanced agricultural and community life.

This represented a great leap forward, the culmination of long evelopments following the Piora Oscillation around 3200 to roughly 2900 BCE, bringing a period of cold, stormy, wet weather, harvest failures and gruelling times (more here). Worldwide, major changes took place around this time - it was the beginning of dynastic Egypt, the start of the Mayan calendar, and after this downturn things started lifting off in China, India, Mesopotamia and Mexico.

The heart of the world
CASPN caring for a neolithic chambered mound at Treen
Treen neolithic chambered moundLandscape features and energy-centres will have been important to neolithic people simply because they represented here-ness, being at the heart of things. This is demonstrated by the use of Trencrom Hill, Carn Galva, Carn Kenidjack and Carn Brea as hilltop tor enclosures - they were the central places of the time.

This notion of 'here' was important: wherever they were, neolithic people stood at the centre of their universe. They didn't have the same objectivised sense of 'there' or 'everywhere' that we have, thanks to our pictures, maps, TVs and rapid travel.

So the tor enclosures, quoits and mounds were 'super-heres', gravity-centres from which neolithics' perceived reality-fields radiated. If you stop and sit quietly at an ancient site you can feel this - in a mysterious way, you can feel close to the heart of things.

The important neolithic sites in Penwith were St Michael's Mount, Carn Galva, Carn Kenijack, Treryn Dinas, Carn Lês Boel, Gurnard's Head, Maen Castle, St Ives' Head and Cape Cornwall, together with Chûn Castle, Zennor Hill, Chapel Carn Brea, Sancreed Beacon and Lesingey Round. If you were hanging out in Penwith at the time, these would be the hills and headlands you would notice and love. They were the special places of the peninsula.

In the case of Chûn Castle, its proximity to Chûn Quoit makes it an obvious neolithic contender - even though subsequent occupation in the bronze and iron ages obliterated most earlier signs of use of this panorama-rich hill. But neolithic remains are there, under the mainly iron age remains.
Treryn Dinas
Treryn Dinas near PorthcurnoIn the case of the cliff sanctuaries, as prominent seaboard features they will have been valued by the neolithics not only for their sense of space and enchantment, but also because the early Cornish were fishers, sealers and whalers, egg-collectors and mariners. The sea speaks, and the neolithics listened. When the pilchard shoals or the whales came, they were out in their boats with their harpoons.

These headland interfaces between land and sea, and land and sky, were boundaries between the worlds - threshold places where the worlds met and the veils were thin.

The period after 3000 BCE was very different from the time before it. By rights it should be counted as a different age. The neolithic continued to about 2500 BCE, followed by a 200ish year neolithic/bronze age transition. But the real change and watershed, regarding society an the megalithic culture, took place around 3000 BCE.

A new momentum started just after 3000 BCE, following the Piora Oscillation and continuing to a zenith around 2200 before eventually going into terminal decline around 1500 and collapsing around 1200 BCE.

It took until around 3000 BCE for people to develop an urge to alter the face of the landscape in enduring ways - and it was hard work, consuming much energy-investment for reasons they clearly saw to be practically advantageous. They already had domestic, farming and social issues to sort out, and they also chose to put enormous energy into activities such as quoit and cairn building that modern people would consider surplus to need. But ancient people saw it as highly necessary.

Before the mid-neolithic and the builing of the quoits and cairns, many ancient sites remained in their natural form or perhaps they were occupied by wooden structures now long disappeared or replaced by later structures. But from the mid-neolithic onwards, sacred sites were marked out and enhanced in an enduring fashion through the building of megalithic structures of stone and earth.

Map of Ancient Penwith:
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