Archaeological Ages in Prehistory - Ancient Penwith | Cornwall

West Penwith, Cornwall
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula
Ancient Penwith
Ancient Penwith
The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End Peninsula
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Archaeological Ages in Prehistory

This page introduces the time-periods that interest us when we study ancient sites. Then subsequent pages in this section give more details about each of the archaeological eras - the mesolithic, neolithic, bronze age and iron age.

The Megalithic Era

Penwith woodlandsThe megalithic era spans the neolithic and the bronze ages, during which time the great stone monuments of West Penwith were built.

Many of the principles and traditions of these periods passed over into the iron age and up to medieval times. However, the iron age and medieval periods are not megalithic in the sense of large megaliths being constructed.

The 3000s: the Mid-Neolithic

Regarding megalithic sites, the neolithic, spanning two millennia from 4500-2300ish BCE, started hotting up in West Penwith with the building of the neolithic tor enclosures and the quoits between roughly 3700 and 3200 BCE. It's probable that the people of this time also erected placed stones, propped stones and a number of cairns.
Neolithic long barrow on top of Chapel Carn Brea
Neolithic long barrow, Chapel Carn BreaUp to around 3200 Penwith was densely wooded with small clearings, and the climate was warmer than now. Most people lived in a forested environment that went on and on, and they were rather whelmed by it. Tor hills and cliff sanctuaries therefore became prominent as locations where people could emerge from the woodlands to gain a sense of space and perspective - a sense of the wider world and the dome of the heavens.

Generally, people moved on an annual round of a variety of locales in their area - they were transhumant, moving around their patch in a seasonal cycle. The uplands in the north of the peninsula were generally the best place to be at this time - they were cooler, less humid and clearer of trees and undergrowth.
Neolithic propped stone on Zennor Hill
Neolithic propped stone on Zennor HillThen there was a marked pause between roughly 3200 and 3000 BCE when the climate cooled drastically for about two centuries. This was something called the Piora Oscillation, possibly a volcanically- or meteorically-caused climatic downturn which brought the end of ancient site building for a while. Whatever the cause of the climatic downturn, it caused a pause in the development of megalithic culture in Cornwall.

People were forced downhill and focused on survival. Forest clearance began in earnest, though the stone tools people were using were not easy for large-scale felling. But since they needed wood for building and burning, over the generations clearings would have grown in size. This started creating open spaces in the lower lands of Penwith that had not been there before.

The Earlier 2000s: the Late Neolithic

Things grew warmer in the early 2000s and life started reviving. This led to a transitional period from around 2500 where there are many open questions and new discoveries are being made. It concerns the entry of new ideas and people, the 'beaker influx', and the beginning of the heyday of the megalithic era in the first half of the bronze age.
Late Neolithic Boscregan Cairn, north of Sennen
Late Neolithic Boscregan cairn, CornwallWhat's not clear at present is whether the 'beaker influx' set bronze age megalith-building in motion, or whether indigenous people and ideas had already started it, then to be upstepped and accelerated by the 'beaker influx' - which, amongst other things, brought new ideas, new people and bronze technologies with it.

The neolithic phased into the bronze age around 2500-2300. The late neolithic, from around 2800 to 2500, was really closer to the bronze age that followed than to the early and mid-neolithic that preceded it. What binds the late neolithic of the early 2000s with the mid-neolithic of the 3000s was the use of stone tools. But there had been a massive material and cultural change between these two periods, connected with the climatic downturn mentioned above and the austerity, ecological changes and population decline that came with it.

Currently there is a big debate over the neolithic/bronze age transition around 2500-2200. Recent genetic studies have discovered a 90% change in the genetic makeup of the British around that time. The foregoing orthodoxy was that the beaker influx signified more an influx of ideas than of large numbers of people. But genetic studies show a dramatic change in population makeup, yet there are no signs of forceful invasion or violence.

A new discovery in Sweden of the arrival of plague at that time, presumably wiping out the neolithic population, to be replaced by new incomers from central Europe and ultimately the Ukrainian steppes, provides a viable though as yet unproven hypothesis. This did not happen in central Europe itself, and speculation has it that the more isolated populations of Britain and Scandinavia lacked immunity.

2300-1500: early Bronze Age

The bronze age gradually phased in around 2500-2300, characterised by the adoption of bronze technologies. West Penwith gradually became an exxporter of copper and particularly tin, drawing people, exchange-trade and wealth to it. Megalith building in Penwith increased to a peak between 2500 and 1800 BCE. This was the heyday of the bronze age megalithic period, seeing the construction of stone circles, menhirs, barrows and sacred enclosures until around 1800 BCE. It represented a peak in Britain's cultural history.
Men an Tol, once a stone circle, modified in Victorian times
Men an Tol stone circleThis was a time of increased woodland clearance and the establishment of the open, largely unforested landscape of Cornwall (and Britain and Europe). But Cornwall had different influences to what is now England, further east, which was much affected by central Europe.

Cornwall was a major node in a megalithic culture stretching along Europe's Atlantic coast from Portugal to Scandinavia, centred in Western Britain, Ireland and Brittany. As a source of tin, a high-value resource, Cornwall became focal and prosperous.

Though the bronze age continued until around 800 BCE, enormous social and cultural changes arrived during the late bronze age around 1200 BCE. 1200 marks a significant divide - this was the final end of the megalithic age. Megalithic culture, peaking around 2000, started losing vibrancy and momentum by 1500 and disappeared by 1200. Stone circles and menhirs remained and were respected, but the life and enchantment had gone out of them in the view of late bronze age people.

Increased territoriality, competitiveness and materialism took over in the late bronze age, with visible changes in farming and land use, at a time when climate was deteriorating, becoming cooler and wetter, and society was becoming more stratified, centred around chieftains and warriors, more territorial and sedentary and more materially advanced. But also it was a time of cultural decline.

Geomantic Traditions Continue

Chysauster iron age settlement
ChysausterThen came the iron age or Celtic period between around 800 BCE and, in Cornwall, CE 200 (earlier upcountry in England because of the Roman invasion). Iron age people were roughly the same people as before, but society and culture had changed radically. The building of ancient sites changed too: hilltop camps (hillforts), rounds (lowland enclosures), settlements, fogous, cliff castles 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. Iron age people were nature-lovers in a different way to bronze age people. They weren't great temple builders or geoengineering nerds like the bronzies - they preferred natural features such as springs, trees, glades and hilltops. Writing was available to them, yet they wrote nothing down.

In Penwith the iron age peaked around 200 BCE to around CE 100. Between CE 100 and about 350 Cornwall went through a downturn - the Cornish tin trade slumped, much because of discovery of tin deposits in Spain, which later became exhausted by 400. The Roman occupation had shifted the centre of gravity of Britain eastward, marginalising Penwith - the Romans dominated England for 350 years from the 60s CE to CE 410. They did not take Cornwall, but Cornwall was influenced by Romanitas and by romanised British people, trade, economic and cultural influences.
St Buryan
St Buryan ChurchAfter the withdrawal from Britannia of Rome, during the so-called dark age or the early medieval period that followed from the 400s to the 900s, Cornwall went through a time of independence, joined to Devon in the kingdom of Dumnonia.

This was the time of early Christian saints, the Celtic Christian church and a relative cultural and economic revival. The Saxons, forerunners of the English, came as far as Exeter in Devon in the 500s, but it was only in the 900s that they expanded to the river Tamar, Cornwall's current boundary. During the post-Roman period Cornwall became a distinct land in its own right, regaining some of its centrality in the Celtic fringe of Europe. But it was now separated from Wales and they developed as separate cultures.

In the medieval period  from around CE 900 onwards Cornwall was increasingly affected by Norman and Roman Catholic influences, though it wasn't invaded - instead it was infiltrated and incorporated in small steps. 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.

The early Celtic church was by now overwhelmed by the Catholic church, the church of the Saxons and Normans. Even so, many principles of geometry, proportion and mathematics from ancient times lived on amongst the church-builders, the masons, up to the 1300s.

Ages and Transitions

The archaeological ages (neolithic, bronze, iron) do not represent social, spiritual and cultural periods - they are based instead on material artefacts and the stone or metals used in tools. This was important inasmuch as developing material technologies increased people's capabilities and they did affect society, but major changes of culture and viewpoint happened at other times from these.

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.

The neolithic divides into four phases:
  • 4500-3800ish, pre-megalithic;
  • 3800-3200, megalithic development (tor enclosures, quoits and some cairns);
  • 3200-2900ish, a climatic downturn with depressing effect; and
  • 2900ish-2400ish, the late neolithic and the prelude to the second megalithic ascendancy.

The bronze age has four megalithic cultural phases:
  • 2400ish-2100ish, the bronze age megalithic ascendancy;
  • 2100-1800, the bronze age cultural zenith;
  • 1800-1500, megalithic culture becomes a settled tradition;
  • 1500-1200, megalithic cultural decline and final fall.

1500-800 is known as the late bronze age. The megalithic period was over.

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 (500ish years),
  • the later megalithic, 2600ish-1500ish (1,100ish years).

On the next page we begin the prehistoric saga of West Penwith with the mesolithic or middle stone age (8000-4500 BCE).

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