The Neolithic in West Penwith - Ancient Penwith

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The Neolithic in West Penwith

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 occupation of the hilltop tors and the ambitious building of the quoits.
Neolithic 4500-2300ish BCE

The neolithic revolution, gaining ground in Cornwall from around 4000 BCE, involved influxes of people and ideas, adoption of horticulture and husbandry, and settlement in more rooted territories, though people still moved around seasonally. 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, not least because they had not yet learned how to maintain soil fertility.

Horticultural and herding products were at first an add-on to wild-sourced diets - patches of land on the seasonal round would be weeded and gardened to encourage chosen species. Then things developed into transhumant farming - moving seasonally between residences for different purposes. Wooden settlement places and dwellings were established at these residences.

Toward the mid-neolithic around 3500 BCE genune farming was developing. People still used hoes rather than ploughs, clearing rocks from chosen bits of land and establishing field systems, doing land, plant and livestock improvement and building permanent dwellings such as log cabins.

This was the warmest period, with people living in the uplands in summer, concentrating in the northern hills of Penwith. Penwith was a convenient-sized little world, a day or more's trek from one end to the other.

Though these people's lifestyles were simple by our standards, this wasn't because they were simple-minded. They already understood the movemets of the heavens and were beginning to erect large stone structures. 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, leaving traces for three further millennia until the late middle ages.

The neolithic heyday

There was another wave of immigration around 3500 BCE. These were the people who built the chambered cairns and quoits. Society was tribal but incrementally it was becoming stratified: those investing knowledge, skills and effort in capital improvements, or the descendants of outstanding individuals, or the holders of knowledge or stature became the new elites.

Yet still, the inhabitants of West Penwith were intermarried and related, and there was a clan communality to it. Wealth and power were held by the leaderships, but this was clan wealth and power 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.

Attitudinally they were beginning to impact more on nature, building and moving things around and developing an increasing urge to make a mark, mould reality and leave remains for posterity.

Regional travel and exchange were common in summer, using sea-going paddle-powered boats to sail to France and up the Irish Sea, the Severn Sea and 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 3200 BCE. Of all the challenges surmounted in Cornwall during the megalithic era, quoits involved the most advanced engineering effort of all - raising a heavy capstone onto stone uprights higher than a man. This involved serious planning, preparation and execution.

So from an engineering viewpoint, the most complex structures came first, with the quoits, and later menhirs and stone circles were simpler and less strenuous. But 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 and protected it. 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, memory-sticks, and representations of the genetic inheritance of the people.

The ancestors were alive in a parallel world. Living people were their ancestors' progeny, 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. This involved developing specialist skills and knowledge to help deal with life's changes and challenges. 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. Trees, rocks and weather systems were seen as beings and sacredness lay within all things.

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 nevertheless accrued a certain sense of human distinctiveness. They had developed a need to define at least some dedicated human space 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 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 wooded normality, with a panoramic view, and 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. The tors were first used around 3800 BCE, and then they were enclosed with stone banks later on. 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 neccessity. Advanced thought was clearly present too, 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.

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 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. Dowsers see them as earth-energy devices where an up-welling energy-stream is capped and sent out 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. Or perhaps in the neolithic cosmology, people felt the earth needed infusing with light or the landscape needed infusing with underworld influences, or both.

In Penwith quoits exist only 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.

Impressive in their engineering, quoits were built in the neolithic centuries around 3500 BCE. Sperris Quoit has been 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.

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 most likely not built primarily for funerary purposes (as also in the case of churches with their graveyards, built as 'houses of God' rather than primarily for burial). 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, to become sensitive to subtle energy and timelessness. 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. 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 for tools and valuables.

Then there were the ancestors, whose enduring remains are their bones or ashes. Such remains are probably there not so much for burial as for neolithic people to commune with, seeking guidance and protection through ancestral bones - like the relics of saints in medieval times - 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, to capture the essence of light or to draw light into the underworld, as if such cairns 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 usually high enough to sit inside. Some have encircling kerbs of stones to contain the outside edges, or stones outside the entrance to frame the view from inside. Often 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 move in a likely direction concerning their true use 5,500-4,000 years ago.
The later neolithic

As more land was cleared toward the end of the neolithic, 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, emerging a century or two after the shock of a climatic intermission, the Piora Oscillation around 3200 to roughly 2900 BCE, bringing a period of cold, stormy, wet weather, harvest failures and gruelling weather (). Worldwide, major changes took place around this time - it was the beginning of dynastic Egypt, the start of the Mayan calendar, and ater 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 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 feeel close to the heart of things.

Other important neolithic sites in Penwith were St Michael's Mount, 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. There are but small amounts of evidence for this, but then, if you were hanging out in Penwith at the time, these would be the hills and headlands that you would notice. 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 term 'neolithic' relates to the use of stone tools only, not to society and culture. The neolithic continued to about 2500 BCE, followed by a 300ish year neolithic/bronze age transition, during which period metal technologies were adopted in Cornwall.

But the new momentum had actually started just after 3000 BCE, following the Piora Oscillation and continuing to a zenith around 2200-1800 before going into terminal decline around 1500 and collapsing around 1200 BCE.

This could be called the mid-megalithic era, from 3000 to about 2300, while the later megalithic era lasted from 2200ish to 1500ish. The earlier megalithic era spanned the 3000s 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 investment of energy 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 invest enormous energy in 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 late neolithic, many ancient sites remained in their natural form or perhaps were occupied by wooden structures now long disappeared or replaced by later structures. But in the late neolithic and the bronze ages they were being marked out and enhanced in an enduring fashion through the building of megalithic structures of stone and earth.

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