The Ages of Prehistory and History - 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 and History

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 ages.

The megalithic age

The megalithic era spans the neolithic and the bronze ages, while many of the principles and traditions of these periods passed over into the Celtic/iron age period and up to the medieval period - though these last two are not megalithic in the sense of large megaliths being used in construction.

The neolithic, spanning two millennia from 4500-2300ish BCE, started hotting up megalithically with the building of the quoits between 3700 and 3300 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, though the uplands in the north of the peninsula were best.
After a pause between roughly 3200 and 1900 BCE when the climate cooled drastically though temporarily, forest clearance began in earnest. It incrementally 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 800 years of extensive construction of stone circles, menhirs, barrows and sacred enclosures until around 1500 BCE.

Though the bronze age continued until around 800 BCE, enormous social and cultural changes, arguably a deterioration from the traditional megalithic viewpoint, set in during the late bronze age from around 1200 BCE. Increased territoriality, competitiveness and materialism took over, at a time when climate was deteriorating 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. When the building of ancient sites was not so prolific, hilltop camps (hillforts), rounds (lowland enclosures), settlements, fogous, cliff sanctuaries (again) and holy wells became important.

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

Between CE 100 and about 350 Cornwall went through a downturn. Upcountry the Roman occupation took place for 350 years from the 60s CE up to CE 410. During the so-called dark age that followed 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. During this time much church-building took place on former ancient sites at St Buryan, Ludgvan, Pen Sans, Paul, St Erth, 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 the capabilities of people increased, 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.

The ages overlap and transitions between them were not sudden and definite - they were incremental, their characteristics emerging in adaptive or innovatory jumps, 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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