West Penwith is dense with ancient sites. They aren't as dramatic as some sites elsewhere, such as Stonehenge, Avebury, Callanish or Carnac, yet they're lovable and today they are much loved, set in a landscape still alive with a magic atmosphere.
Boscawen-ûn stone circle
They are cared for by CASPN, the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network, a local volunteer-run group which has agreed with the relevant authorities to look after them. In 2018 the Lottery-funded Penwith Landscape Partnership has also joined this work.
This section of the website goes into some detail about the different types of sites in Penwith. It is not a systematic guide - the best and most comprehensive guides are:
The Ancient Sites in West Penwith, Cheryl Straffon, Meyn Mamvro, 1992-2015.
Cornovia - the ancient sites of Cornwall and Scilly, Craig Weatherhill, Halsgrove, 2009.
Belerion - the ancient sites of Land's End, Craig Weatherhill, Alison Hodge pubs, 1981-89, out of print.
Factors encouraging the high density of sites in West Penwith are:
prehistoric maritime travel along the European Atlantic coast (making Penwith quite central);
wealth in gold, copper and particularly tin (generating prosperity and attracting visitors from far afield);
the special magic of the place (giving spiritual and creative impetus);
perhaps the crystalline nature of its rocks (amplifying earth energy) and,
the notable capacity of the Cornish for digging and fashioning rocks, heaving them around and building with them.
Perhaps there were also certain inspired characters over the generations who set megalithic projects in motion, developing ideas, technologies and the leadership to do it.
Archaeologically the periods of ancient times that interest us are the neolithic (roughly 4500-2500 BCE), the bronze age (2500-800 BCE) and the iron age (800 BCE to CE 200). These periods are based on artefacts and metals used in them - they do not reflect changes in society or the ideas or spiritual impulses of the time.
St Euny's Well near Carn Euny
Treen entrance mound - bronze age - near Morvah
Types of ancient sites
in West Penwith
Hills and headlands
Great trees, groves and dells (now long gone)
Tor enclosures and carns (rock outcrops)
Quoits (cromlechs or dolmens)
Mounds, cairns and tumuli
Springs and wells
Stone circles, menhirs (standing stones) and other placed stones
Hill camps and enclosures - hillforts
Inscribed stones (Roman period and Celtic)
Early Christian crosses, chapels and churches
To these should be added various kinds of settlements, roundhuts and courtyard houses, together with trackways, fords, bridges, farms and field systems.
1. Ancient sites don't exist in isolation. They are part of a larger system. They are positioned according to a variety of factors, including alignments, intervisibility, underground water, energy-lines, geology, the rising and setting points of sun and moon and the site's visual setting in the landscape.
2. If a site is dated to a certain period, this might not have been its first use. A proportion of West Penwith sites are incorrectly dated because their use can in many cases have started before construction was started there.
3. West Penwith is more of an integrated system of ancient sites than has previously been known.
Above: Tregeseal stone circle
Prehistory wasn't a continual evolution of society from a low point in early times to a high point in our day. Rather, there was a rapid ascendancy of a remarkable and advanced ancient culture around 3700 BCE which, after a lull around 3200-2900 (probably climatically caused), reached a zenith around 2200-1800 BCE.
This was followed by a decline around 1500 and the end of the megalithic period around 1200 BCE. After about 1500 there was no building of new megalithic sites, and around the 1180sBCE(according to date-dowsing) their use ended. There followed a more material late bronze age culture, characterised by more capital-intensive farming, village life, the emergence of weaponry, increased social stratification and loosened clan relationships. This morphed into the iron age or Celtic culture, which lifted off around 600 BCE.
The iron age culture was less developed in some, but not all, respects than the earlier megalithic culture of the bronze age, though it had its glories. Around 2000 BCE, the megalithic period in Cornwall thrived at the same time as Dynastic Egypt and the Minoans in Crete. A prominent Atlantic coast culture stretched across Britain, Ireland and Brittany, as far as Portugal in the south and southern Scandinavia in the north.
In the pages that follow we shall be examining the different kinds of ancient site in West Penwith, roughly in order of their age.