The Quoits of Penwith
Chûn Quoit - pretty much intact
Quoits, elsewhere called cromlechs or dolmens, are mysterious structures. Variations of them are found across the whole of Eurasia.
They are often described as 'tombs', part-covered by a mound of earth that has somehow eroded away, revealing the stones underneath. This idea is very questionable, a leftover from 18th and 19th Century antiquarians who could not help but see burial tombs in quoits and chambered cairns, and it remains a prevailing idea.
Antiquarians interpreted the presence of a few bones or an urn of ashes to mean 'burial' when it is more likely that such remains signify shamanistic practices connected with tribal ancestors or a meditative quest for inner connection with what Buddhists would call 'the unborn and undying', the realm beyond time and form. Bones and ashes, in this context, symbolise impermanence and 'the beyond'. Antiquarians did similar with 'hill forts' and 'cliff castles', which they believed to be defensive in purpose, in line with the militaristic ideas and values of their time.
It is unlikely that the quoits were covered with earth since none of them are half-eroded and there is little plausible sign of where the eroded materials went to. There are theories about farmers removing the soil, but these smack of fitting evidence around a theory. Chambered cairns and tumuli don't generally erode like that, so why should quoits? No, they were most probably built more or less as they look today, when intact. However, many of them indeed are built on top of or close to a slight mound, and this is where this idea started.
Looking inside Chûn Quoit
One further issue is that, if quoits were mostly buried in soil, they would need stonework to fill the gaps between the vertical stones holding up the quoit to stop the soil falling inwards, and there is little sign of such stonework.
Quoits are often linked with funerary rites - something that is only probably half-true. Sky-burials on top of the capstone and other death rituals might have taken place, but this probably wasn't the primary purpose of quoits. In a sky-burial, a corpse is left to scavenging birds to pick apart, leaving just the bones, on the basis that such a practice aids a departing soul in leaving its body and ascending to higher realms - and raptors and crows might also have been seen as sacred birds or protectors worthy of offerings.
The official diagnosis for Chûn Quoit, from the Cornwall Council Historic Environment Service (here) says: No artefacts or human remains have been found at Chûn Quoit, and finds generally from these kinds of monuments are almost unknown in Cornwall due to the acidity of the moorland soils. Comparison with similar monuments elsewhere suggest that they functioned as repositories for safeguarding ancestral remains. There is some evidence - from Neolithic tombs in Wessex for example - that bones were periodically removed and returned or re-arranged. The bones may have featured in ceremonies associated with an ancestor cult; communities at this time were becoming increasingly settled and stable and such rites are thought to represent the attempt to establish hereditary ‘ownership’ of a territory and to develop a communal or tribal identity.
Mulfra Quoit, with fallen capstone
The purpose of quoits
Quoits have a large, heavy capstone placed on top of several approximately vertical stones, usually with a gap at one end of the enclosed chamber, and a solid blocking stone at the other end from the main gap.
Here we come to ideas that many archaeologists find difficult. Many dowsers see quoits and dolmens as earth-energy devices whereby an up-welling vortical energy-stream emerging from a blind spring or water dome deep in the earth is capped. This energy is then bent to the horizontal and sent out across the land, in a specific direction.
Alternatively an energy-line in the landscape is captured by the quoit, sending its flow downwards into the earth, perhaps to fertilise or energise the earth, or to ground the energy-stream that is captured, for earth-acupuncture reasons, or simply, for some reason, to end the energy-line there.
Mulfra Quoit, with St Michael's Mount and Cudden Point behind
This energy-exchange between subterranean and surface realms can also alternate upwards and downwards with the seasons or the phases and other cycles of the moon - this needs studying over a period of time to see whether this is correct and how it works.
The engineering involved in transporting and raising the capstone, tons in weight, means that quoits were certainly built neither for fickle nor fanciful purposes. Quoits and dolmens, though they precede the building of standing stones and stone circles by more than a millennium, are from an engineering viewpoint the most advanced ancient remains of the whole megalithic period - except perhaps for some of the biggest stone circles such as Stonehenge, with its elevated trilithons, or enormous mounds such as Silbury Hill.
So there was clearly an important perceived function to quoits, justifying such effort in construction. The archaeological theory that they are simply denuded graves doesn't really stack up.
Quoits were probably multi-purpose and, while their purpose remains an open question, the energy-training hypothesis outlined above is the most plausible, considering the engineering issues involved. Conceivably they were used as concentrated energy-chambers inside which illnesses could be treated, seeds could be upgraded, sacred items and medicines could be empowered or spiritual initiations or solitary retreats could take place. It is not clear whether they were built for humans to spend time inside, or whether they served more as repositories or energy-chambers.
Perhaps in the neolithic cosmology, people felt the earth needed infusing with light or the landscape needed infusing with underworld influences, and the quoits represented a technology whereby such an energy-exchange was made possible.
With the scanty archaeological evidence that we have, it is important to entertain a range of interpretative options, and quoits present a classic case in point. Quoits would not have needed to be as high as they are for burial purposes, and the size of their capstones suggests a function that is different from the roofing capstones on chambered cairns.
Meanwhile, in chambered cairns, the interior stonework generally fits together to seal the chamber, while in quoits such tight fits are not visible - suggesting that quoits were built not for earth to be piled up on the sides or covering the stonework but to be left open. Quoits do not look as if they are made to be covered.
The Location of Quoits
In West Penwith, quoits exist only in the northern upland half of the peninsula, with Grumbla Quoit - not conclusively identified as a quoit - placed a distance away from the others.
All quoits are mutually linked by three-point alignments involving two quoits and one extra site, often of similar age.
Some quoits have a visible locational relationship with nearby tors or hills - St Michael's Mount is noticeable from Mulfra Quoit, Carn Kenidjack from Chûn Quoit and Carn Galva from Lanyon Quoit. Meanwhile others do not - Zennor and Sperris Quoits stand on a plateau on Zennor Hill without dramatic panoramas, and Bosporthennis and Grumbla Quoits sit on slopes under prominent hills (Carn Galva and Bartinney Castle, respectively), the hills not being visible from the quoit.
[Note: Bosporthennis is pronounced Bosphrennis.]
Some of them are located in odd places. Chûn Quoit is on the side of a hill, and Zennor, Sperris, West Lanyon and Bosporthennis Quoits are a bit hidden away, though Mulfra and Lanyon Quoits have fine vistas. At the time of their building, Zennor and Sperris Quoits were situated on a plateau that was then home to quite a few people, and far less bleak than today.
Lanyon Quoit, judging by the major backbone alignments going through it, is geomantically a key site in Penwith, a node for three major backbone alignments connecting stone circles, tor enclosures and cliff castles. By dint of its location and the backbone alignments running through it, it stands in a class of its own.
Ravages of Time
Some sites labelled as quoits are not conclusively so - being ruined, it's difficult to tell clearly whether or not they indeed were quoits. These include Grumbla Quoit and Giant's Grave. (Grumbla Quoit is accepted as a quoit since the name 'Grumbla' means 'dolmen'. Today it is an unremarkable ruined pile of stones.) Judging by their seeming lack of alignment connection with the other quoits, Grumbla Quoit and Giant's Grave might have been something else. Other damaged quoits such as Bosporthennis, Sperris and West Lanyon Quoits are linked to other quoits by quoit alignments, which tends to verify them as quoits.
Most quoits are nowadays ruined or altered except for Chûn Quoit, which is in fine form. Mulfra and Zennor Quoits are well worth visiting, though the others are sadly poor reflections of their former selves, nowadays a bewilderingly unimpressive rock-pile.
It is possible that, except in the case of Chûn Quoit, and perhaps others that are now too ruined to tell, the quoits have been intentionally decommissioned. That is, the capstone has been lifted off and leaned on the side, and at least one vertical stone has been completely removed from the site - presumably to make re-erection more complex.
This looks deliberate - otherwise, the capstone might have been taken away, broken up, or just chucked somewhere else. If, for whatever reason, many of the quoits indeed were decommissioned, then perhaps the removed vertical stone was taken away to make sure that anyone rebuilding the quoit in a future time knew exactly what they were doing, in order to reconstitute the quoit's purpose as an energy-chamber.
If one accepts that they had some sort of earth energy-related purpose, then presumably the people who decommissioned them saw them as unwise or dangerous to be left unattended or uncared for, as the heart and soul of the megalithic period waned away.
Lanyon Quoit was inaccurately reconstructed in relatively recent times by a zealous antiquarian, Captain Giddy, in 1824, after it had been felled in a violent storm. Apparently the capstone fell off in the storm, shattering one or two of the uprights. The quoit no longer resembles its original height, design and proportions, though it is accessible to visitors and the location is still quite alive, and it is positioned correctly.
The sad remains of Sperris Quoit - Zennor Quoit is in the distance
Impressive in their engineering, the quoits were built in the mid-3000s BCE. Sperris Quoit has been dated archaeologically to 3600-3300 and Zennor Quoit to 3300-3000 BCE, both being near to each other and also aligned with Lanyon Quoit. For some reason, this is the only case where three quoits are aligned with each other.
However, this dating, based mainly on artefacts and deposits found in and around them, dates these depositions, not the quoits themselves - the assumption being that the deposits were laid down around the time of construction of the quoit. The author feels that the quoits could have been built within a few generations around the 3700s-3600s - a bit earlier than the official date.
West Lanyon Quoit, ruined
West Lanyon Quoit, like nearby Lanyon Quoit, is a node for multiple ancient site alignments. However, Lanyon Quoit has a lot of long-distance backbone alignments, whereas West Lanyon has many local alignments extending only within the Penwith highlands. They seem to act as a pair or a polarity, and their respective purposes seem to be slightly different from each other.
The quoit question remains open, unhelped by the quoits' ruined state. Yet alignment geomancy gives more clues. For more on quoit alignments, click here.
The quoits are indeed impressive and well worth a visit. They are indeed energetic places. The best to visit are Chûn (fully intact), Lanyon (easily accessible) and Mulfra Quoit (quite intact, in a good position). When you go, stay a while and hang out - let the feeling of the place seep in.