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 much loved, set in a landscape still alive with a magic atmosphere.
Factors encouraging the high density of sites in West Penwith were:
maritime travel along the European Atlantic coast (making Penwith quite central);
wealth in gold, tin and copper (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 100/200). 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 and Celtic)
Early Christian crosses, chapels and churches
To these should be added various kinds of settlements, huts and houses built and occupied in different periods, together with trackways, fords, bridges, harbours, mines and quarries, farms and field systems.
1. It's important not just to look at ancient sites in isolation. They exist in a wider setting, as part of a larger system of sites. They are positioned according to a variety of factors, including alignment to other sites, location in relation to landscape features, to underground water, overground energy-lines, geology, the rising and setting points of sun and moon and the site's visual setting in the landscape around it.
2. If a site is dated to a certain period, this might not have been its first use. It might have been used long before constructions were erected or artefacts left. Modern geophysical investigation and date-dowsing can overcome this to some extent, but a proportion of West Penwith sites are incorrectly dated because their use can in many cases have started before engineering work, which gives a basis for dating, was carried out there.
3. Research outlined on this site shows that West Penwith is more of an integrated system of ancient sites than has previously been known
Above: Tregeseal stone circle
The following pages outline the different kinds of ancient sites we find in West Penwith and the social-cultural conditions they reflected.
Prehistory wasn't a continual evolution of society from a low point in early times to a high point in our day. Rather, it shows the ascendancy of a remarkable and advanced ancient culture around 3700 BCE, reaching a zenith around 2200-1800 BCE. This was followed bya decline and fall around 1500-1200 BCE, then a cultural downturn until iron age Celtic culture lifted off around 600 BCE. After about 1500 there was little building of new sites, and around the 1180s BCE their use ended.
The iron age culture was less developed in some, but not all, respects than the earlier megalithic culture of the bronze age. During the bronze age in Cornwall, extant at the same time as Dynastic Egypt and the Minoans in Crete, Britain, Ireland and Brittany constituted a prominent regional civilisation.
In the pages that follow we shall be examining the different kinds of ancient site in West Penwith,