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 in studying 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

The megalithic era spans the neolithic and the bronze ages. 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 in West Penwith with the building of the neolithic tor enclosures and the quoits between 3700 and 3500 BCE, followed by the building of a number of cairns.

Up to around 3200 Penwith was largely wooded with small clearings, warmer than now, and tor hills and cliff sanctuaries were 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 occupation of a variety of locales in their area - transhumance - though the uplands in the north of the peninsula were generally the best place to be at this time.
Boscawen-un stone circleAfter a pause between roughly 3200 and 3000 BCE when the climate cooled drastically, though temporarily for about two centuries, forest clearance began in earnest. It created new open spaces in the lower lands of Penwith. This was something called the Piora Oscillation, a volcanically- or astronomically-caused climatic downturn which brought the end of ancient site building for a while.

The neolithic phased into the bronze age around 2500-2300. So the late neolithic, from around 3000 to 2500, was really more closely associated with the bronze age that followed than with the early and mid-neolithic that preceded it. All that binds the late- to the mid-neolithic, really, is the use of stone tools.

The bronze age phased in around 2500-2300, characterised by the adoption of bronze. Megalith building in Penwith increased to a peak between around 2600 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.

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. So 1200 marks a significant divide - this was the end of the megalithic age. Megalithic culture, peaking around 2000, had started losing momentum by 1800, was stagnating by around 1500 and disappearing by 1200. The stone circles and menhirs remained and were respected, but much of 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 from 1200 onwards, with visible changes in farming and land use, at a time when climate was deteriorating, becoming cooler and wetter, and society was becoming mutually less supportive and more stratified. But it was a time of material advancement even if it marked a 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. 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 as the bronzies - they preferred natural features such as springs, great trees, glades and hilltops. Though writing was available to them, they wrote nothing down.

In Penwith the iron age peaked around 200 to 1 BCE. Then between CE 100 and about 350 Cornwall went through a downturn - the Cornish tin trade slumped, and also the rise of the Roman empire shifted things eastward, making Penwith no longer as focal as it once was. Upcountry the Roman occupation dominated England for 350 years from the 60s CE to CE 410.
St Buryan
St Buryan ChurchThen, after the withdrawal from Britannia 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. During this time it regained some of its centrality.

In the medieval period Cornwall was increasingly affected by Norman and Roman Catholic influences, though it wasn't exactly invaded - it was by degrees infiltrated and incorporated. 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 (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, 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 (tor enclosures, 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 four megalithic cultural phases:
  • 2400ish-2100ish, the second megalithic ascendancy;
  • 2100-1800, the cultural peak;
  • 1800-1500, megalithic culture becomes a settled tradition;
  • 1500-1200, the slow megalithic decline and final fall (in the 1170s - more later on).
1500-800 is what's standardly known as the late bronze age.

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 occurred within one decade in the 1170s BCE. This is not commonly accepted - it is a discovery from my site date-dowsing project in which I have been seeking the start, construction, peak and termination of common use of ancient sites in Penwith.

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, but genetic and archaeological evidence suggest that they were not large in number, though often influential.

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

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