The Ages of Prehistory - Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith

The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula in Cornwall
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The Ages of Prehistory

This page introduces the time-periods that interest us, and then subsequent pages in this section of the site give more details about each of the archaeological eras.

The megalithic era

The megalithic era spans the neolithic and the bronze ages, and many of the principles and traditions of these periods passed over into the iron age and up to medieval times. However, these last two are not megalithic in the sense of large megaliths being constructed.

The neolithic, spanning two millennia from 4500-2300ish BCE, started hotting up megalithically with the building of the quoits between 3700 and 3500 BCE, together with the 'Scillonian' chambered cairns. Up to around 3200 Penwith was largely wooded with small clearings, and hilltops (neolithic tor enclosures) and cliff sanctuaries were prominent as locations where people could emerge from the woodlands to gain a sense of space and perspective. Generally, people moved on an annual round of occupation of a variety of locales in their area, though the uplands in the north of the peninsula were best at this time.
After a pause between roughly 3200 and 3000 BCE when the climate cooled drastically though temporarily, forest clearance began in earnest. It created new open spaces in the lower lands of Penwith.

The neolithic phased into the bronze age around 2500-2300. The megalithic heyday of the bronze age led to about 600 years of construction of stone circles, menhirs, barrows and sacred enclosures until around 1800 BCE.

Though the bronze age continued until around 800 BCE, enormous social and cultural changes set in during the late bronze age from around 1200 BCE. Increased territoriality, competitiveness and materialism took over, with visible changes in arming and land use, at a time when climate was deteriorating, becoming cooler and wetter, and society was becoming less mutually supportive and more stratified.

Geomantic traditions continue
Chysauster iron age settlement
Then came the iron age or Celtic period between roughly 800 BCE and, in Cornwall, CE 100-200. These were roughly the same people as before, but society and culture changed radically. The building of ancient sites changed: hilltop camps (erroneously called hillforts), rounds (lowland enclosures), settlements, fogous, cliff castles (again) and holy wells became important.

Though well rooted in all that had happened beforehand, the Celtic/iron age period brought a cultural upswing from around 500 BCE onward - around the same time as the rise of classical Greece.

Between CE 100 and about 350 Cornwall went through a downturn. Upcountry the Roman occupation dominated England for 350 years from the 60s CE to CE 410. Then, after the withdrawal of Rome, during the so-called dark age or early medieval period that followed from the 400s to the 900s, Cornwall went through a time of chiefdoms, early Christian saints, the Celtic Christian church and relative cultural revival together with other Celtic regions, holding off the Saxons at the river Tamar.
St Buryan
In the medieval period Cornwall was increasingly affected by Norman and Roman Catholic influences, though it wasn't exactly invaded - it was infiltrated. During this time church-building took place on former ancient sites in Penwith at St Buryan, Ludgvan, Pen Sans, Paul, Madron, Sancreed, St Erth, St Ives, Hayle and St Just.

Ages and transitions

The archaeological ages do not represent social, spiritual and cultural periods - they are based instead on material artefacts and the stone or metals used in them. This was important inasmuch as material technologies increased people's capabilities, but major changes of culture and viewpoint happened at other times.

For social-cultural periods we could break down both the neolithic and bronze ages into at least three periods each, more accurately reflecting changes in ideas, worldviews, society and cultural norms.

So the neolithic divides into four phases: 4500-3800ish, pre-megalithic; 3800-3200, megalithic (tors, quoits and chambered cairns); 3200-3000, the Piora Oscillation downturn; and 2900ish-2400ish, the second megalithic ascendancy (stone circles, menhirs and barrows), crossing into the early bronze age.

The bronze age has three phases: the second megalithic zenith, 2400ish-2000ish; 2000-1500, the slow megalithic decline; and 1500-800, the megalithic fall and rise of a new 'axial' culture.

But actually it's better, from a megalithic viewpoint, to scrap the neolithic and bronze ages and to divide the whole megalithic period from 3700-1200 into two main phases, the early megalithic, 3700-3200, and the later megalithic, 2900-1200, with an ascendancy, zenith and decline and fall to the later period.

The ages overlap and transitions between them were not necessarily sudden and definite, except perhaps for the final end of the megalithic period, which seems to have occured within one decade in the 1170s BCE (this is not commonly accepted - it is a discovery from my site date dowsing project). They were mostly incremental transitions, their characteristics perhaps emerging in adaptive or innovatory jumps in certain generations, adding together to make bigger overall changes. Periodic immigrations of new people helped.

On the next page we start at the beginning with the mesolithic or middle stone age (8000-4500 BCE).

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