Key Discoveries - 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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Key Discoveries

Summary of Findings

Here are some key observations arising from the research reported on this site.
These are more fully explained in other parts of the site.

1. Clustering

West Penwith's ancient sites are conglomerated in two main areas, north and south, with a gap between them running along an east-west corridor between St Michael's Mount and Cape Cornwall (roughly the course of the A3071 road), passing through Botrea Barrows.

Map showing ancient site clusters in West PenwithThere are differences between the two halves. The north is an upland area with tors, quoits and more chambered cairns than in the south, while the south is a softer lowland area with far more menhirs.

In the mid-3000s BCE in the neolithic period, most people lived in the uplands in the north. The climate was warmer than now and the lowlands were pretty densely forested. Things happened too in the southern half of the peninsula, but it was properly colonised in the 2000s in the bronze age, later than in the north, the main area of activity in the 3000s.

But there's more. Look at the map here and you'll notice three relatively empty areas. One is in the far southwest, bottom-left on the map around Tol Pedn (Gwennap Head). The other is in the northeast (top-right) near St Ives. Penzance and its vicinity has fewer ancient sites than the rest of Penwith too. It is difficult to tell whether only very few sites were built in these emptier areas, or whether they have been cleared and destroyed.

The eastern geomantic boundary of West Penwith is a nearly north-south alignment of St Michael's Mount, Trencrom Hill and St Ives Head - strangely, these three hills exactly align with each other. There is a distinct thinning of ancient sites east of this boundary, and this gap stretches all the way to Bodmin Moor, which has a similar density of ancient sites to West Penwith - as does Dartmoor in Devon. These three granite uplands were the main centres of megalithic activity in the southwest of Britain.

More on clustering here.

2. Cliff Sanctuaries

The necklace of cliff sanctuaries, usually known as cliff castles, bounding Penwith's coast are far more important than previously understood. If you visit them in the landscape, this importance comes clear: they are special places. Their first use goes back at least to the mid-neolithic around 3700-3600 BCE, though they were probably in use in the mesolithic era before 4500 BCE.
The sites on this map with an asterisk* are possible cliff castles, as yet unrecognised
Map of cliff sanctuaries in West PenwithMost of the man-made remains on cliff sanctuaries - boundary banks and sometimes round huts - are iron age in origin (500 BCE-100 CE), so the cliff sanctuaries are normally ascribed to the iron age. They were indeed in use during the iron age, but this was unlikely to be their first time of use.

The headlands on which cliff sanctuaries stand are prominent, and logically they will have been frequented since the very earliest occupants of the peninsula arrived here. They are inspiring, noticeable, liminal places, good to visit - today too. They're a great place to 'get some space'.

Cliff castles' importance and their first major use in neolithic times are demonstrated by the backbone system of alignments, properly explained here. These alignments formed a framework determining the location of many key ancient sites in Penwith such as Lanyon Quoit, the stone circles and various other sites such as the Botrea Barrows. The stone circles and menhirs were built between 2500 and 2000 BCE, though some sites on the backbone system, such as Lanyon Quoit, were built further back around 3700-3500 BCE during the mid-neolithic.

The cliff sanctuaries are thus very significant. In this research, the number of neolithic sites in West Penwith has been increased through the use of geomantic evidence such as this. Archaeology relies on excavated physical evidence, and most cliff castles have not been seriously examined or excavated, so they do not register with archaeologists as neolithic in origin.

One problem in archaeology is that, if no physical evidence is found, it is presumed that no prehistoric activity took place at the site in question. This is sometimes true, sometimes incorrect, at times even illogical. Ascribing cliff castles to the iron age is one example: yet anyone with a little 'landscape sense' will see that these have been important sites from the very beginning. Geomancy widens the evidential base by looking at things and gathering evidence in another way.

For more on cliff castles or sanctuaries, click here.

3. The Alignment of Ancient Sites

The alignments network shown on the Ancient Penwith map was formed over two millennia. Its foundation was laid down in the mid-neolithic period around 3700 BCE.

How so? Well, Lanyon Quoit, built around that time, was placed at the exact intersection of three long backbone alignments, all involving known neolithic sites (such as St Michael's Mount, Treryn Dinas and Trencrom Hill). Lanyon Quoit would not have been located there without these alignments already having been established. It was placed there to act as a hub.

Map of the backbone alignments in West PenwithAs evidenced by Lanyon Quoit's location, the backbone alignments were established around the same time. The backbones signify a burst of genius and big thinking at the time. The idea might have been brought from elsewhere, or there might have been people in Penwith who started the idea.

The backbones were staked out between hilltop neolithic tor sites and cliff castles. In mid-neolithic times around 3700-3500 BCE, these were the main centres of activity in the peninsula. They were places where people could get out of or above the forest - this is important when you live in an enclosed, wooded world. Man-made sites such as Lanyon Quoit and the stone circles were subsequently placed in alignment with cliff castles and neolithic tors.

So these backbone alignments were a big idea. They formed a neolithic substructure onto which the more complex bronze age alignments system, involving stone circles, menhirs and barrows, was later grafted. Most bronze age sites, built over a thousand years later around 2500-1800 BCE, were placed on an ever more complex array of local alignments (marked on the Penwith alignments map in red).

What changed was this: in the neolithic, most sites seem to have been located intuitively in the landscape. Intuition is a way of garnering knowledge and information that isn't easy to find intellectually and, even in our own times, great scientific discoveries are often made intuitively. Intuition finds solutions and answers that are not easily available to the thinking mind.

The location of Chûn Quoit on the slope below Chûn Castle makes little sense, yet it was placed on top of an upwelling subtle energy vortex of a blind spring and positioned so that, as seen from the quoit, the summer solstice sun set neatly behind a nick in the outline of Carn Kenidjack a mile away. There was sophisticated thinking behind this. It wasn't just random fancy or the aesthetic sensibilities of an installation artist that made the ancients locate their sites where they did.

Bronze age geomancers applied a more sophisticated science, locating sites such as menhirs not solely because of the significance the place itself, but because they networked well with other places. Bronze-agers created a more integrated, logical system - though it was their logic, not ours. Sites were located for carefully calculated reasons, with a mathematical, geometric, astronomical or subtle-energy logic to many of them. The neolithic was more like poetry, more intuitive, while the bronze age was more like prose, more formulaic and designed.

Over the more than two millennia of the megalithic era, a complex web of alignments evolved. This system gives clues about the purpose of many sites. They were all related spatially to each other, in complex ways, yet following certain rules. Their landscape setting, as well as the sky above and the earth below, were significant as well.

4. The Piora Oscillation

Here's an idea for your consideration. It is possible that the impetus for constructing the extensive system of ancient sites in the 2000s arose from a very human response to something called the Piora Oscillation, which occurred in the 2-3 centuries following 3200 BCE. This was a sudden climatic downturn, caused by an influx of dust into the atmosphere from a big volcanic explosion or a meteorite strike, cooling global temperatures and shifting the world's weather patterns.

It was probably a big setback for people in the area, driving people down from the hills, locking them into survival mode and causing them to stop building monuments for a few centuries. Perhaps people were much reduced in their situation and times were hard. There is a notable gap in the archaeological record around 3200-3000 BCE or longer. Many archaeologists recognise this downturn without looking for its likely cause.

The second megalithic period started around 2800 as things slowly warmed up again. While the bronze age was not as equable as the neolithic, it was better than our climate today, with more continental high pressure weather and fewer jetstream-driven rainy, windy, low-pressure Atlantic depressions. This second megalithic period progressed through the centuries following 2800, with a peak around 2500-1800.

(I myself date Penwith's stone circles to the 2600s, though archaeologists prefer 2200-1900s BCE. Dating such sites archaeologically is tricky unless reliable organic samples can be found for use in radiocarbon dating, and such samples can have been deposited long after the building of a site.)

Arguably the Piora crisis gave rise to an urge to engage in a kind of corrective geo-engineering. The people of the time didn't know it might have been triggered by a distant volcano or meteor strike. Perhaps ancient people's interpretation of Piora, once things warmed up again, made them say 'never again' and 'we must do more'.  Those trying times could have started with some years of famine, cold and hardship. It could thus have given rise to an environmentalist impetus to address what had happened by using a kind of geoengineering technology. This is but a hypothesis, but it is nevertheless interesting and conceivable.

5. Why Build Sacred Sites?

The ancients sought to improve their fortunes, which they saw to be tied up with the fluctuations of nature and the wider universe. They did their best to create encouraging conditions in nature - to 'please the gods', even though it is unlikely they had the concept of 'gods' that later peoples developed in the 'axial age' around 1000 BCE. To them, 'gods' were forces in nature and the universe, experiential and immanent rather than conceptual and transcendent, as became the case in the axial age - the period when many of the world's religions took shape.

Ancient people felt very much influenced by the earth and skies, dependent on nature and its cycles. They had not by then developed the land-improvement, fertilisation, drainage, stock-rearing and other farming techniques that came later. Their beliefs represented a sympathetic magic or natural faith engaging with the hidden forces within nature and the skies - shamanistic beliefs. Yet they were well enough organised to do considerable engineering works and knowledgeable enough to incorporate astronomy and mathematics into these works.

They were semi-nomadic horticulturalists, hunters, fishers and gatherers, following an annual round of movement around their home territories, without engaging in the big-capital farming methods that late bronze and iron age, post-megalithic, people did after 1200 BCE.

The megalith-builders lived relatively simply, materially speaking. Their construction work went into ancient sites, not into villages and farmland. People like Tibetans, Tuareg, Bedouin and many native Americans were similar, advanced culturally and relatively simple materially.

Ancient Penwithians impacted constructively on the landscape, minimally and in a naturalesque fashion. This can be seen by the landscape placing of ancient sites - many with remarkable locations with noticeable views. They saw these sites in functional terms, as capital investments to help improve their lives - yet there was an artistry, love and magical side to it too.

Site design was technically sophisticated and construction was hard and time-consuming. Some stones were carried some distance - they chose stones carefully and with clear intent. Stone circles and menhirs are not the kind of thing you would build on a whim - they involved hard work, carried out for definite reasons which must have been seen as practical and economic.

6. Neolithic and Bronze Age Dating

Carn Kenidjack, a neolithic tor
In mid-neolithic times around 3500 BCE, the main population concentration in West Penwith was in the northern highlands. The whole population might well have numbered just a thousand or two - sparse by later standards. Much of lowland Penwith was covered in forest with small clearings, and the climate warm and equable (rather like Bordeaux in SW France today).

People lived higher up, where there were fewer flies, wolves and bears, less mud, fewer brambles, clearer air and views, and trees that were easier to thin out, with a 'top of the world' feeling overlooking the wildwoods.

Carn  Galva, Zennor Hill, Carn Kenidjack, Chûn Castle, Trencrom Hill and St  Michael's Mount, rising above the woods, were the main centres of human activity.  (The Mount was then an outcrop rising above a now-buried forest lying under today's Marazion beach.)

Later, after about 2600 BCE, the southern half of West Penwith grew in importance, and forest clearance increased. During the cold Piora Oscillation people had lived and sheltered in the lower-lying woods. Boscawen-ûn (pr. boscaw-noon), the Merry Maidens complex and the many menhirs in the south were built around 2500-2200 BCE.

The Merry Maidens stone circleThe neolithic and bronze ages are so named because of the stone or bronze materials used in tools of the time. This interests archaeologists, but ancient sites had a different evolution and timing, unrelated to tool technologies, so using these time-periods isn't entirely helpful when looking at ancient sites. They are more useful when looking at villages, farming and material conditions.

Megalithically, the big divide seems to be 3200-2900, during the climatic downturn of the Piora Oscillation. Life became difficult, with likely crop-failures and famine until people adapted and conditions eventually eased. Megalith-building paused - they probably didn't have time for that, since survival had become far more challenging.

Ancient sites built before and after this time are quite different. Before Piora we have quoits, propped stones, tors, cliff castles and carns (outcrops). After Piora we have chambered cairns, menhirs, barrows, stone circles and a number of round enclosures (often misidentified as hillforts, but they were ceremonial and geomantic - examples being at Caer Brân, Bartinney Castle and Castle-an-Dinas).

Following Piora there was a gradual cultural ascendancy through the late neolithic to the bronze age - the cusp of these two archaeological ages was around 2500-2300 BCE. However, the growth period from the end of Piora around 2900 to the zenith of the bronze age in 2200-1800 can be taken as one period spanning these ages.

This period of ascendancy was followed by a time of decline and diminishing megalith building up to around 1500, though the sites continued in use until a final collapse around 1200 BCE. The sites remained and were respected after 1200 - rather like the emptying churches of today's largely secular Britain - but the megalithic mindset seems suddenly to have come to an end.
Chûn Quoit
Chun QuoitThe bronze age, commonly taken to last from around 2300 to 800ish BCE, is thus out of sync by about 600 years with the post-Piora megalithic phase between 2900 and 1200.

So we can identify two megalithic periods, the first of 500ish years in the mid-neolithic, roughly between 3700 and 3200, and the second of 1700ish years, between roughly 2900 and 1200, from the late neolithic to the end of the mid-bronze age.

At the peak of this second period around 2200-1800, Megalithic Britain was one of the world's leading cultures, along with places such as Minoan Crete, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Harappa (Pakistan), north China and Mexico.

There was clearly a carry-over of knowledge from the earlier to the later megalithic phase, as evidenced in the similarity of patterns in the location of ancient sites. But what people in the second phase built was more calculated and sophisticated - more mathematical and astronomical - even though the principles they used derived from the first megalithic phase.

7. Quantum Entanglement

Alignments don't operate like wires or pipes that transmit energy. The energy-lines that dowsers and sensitives pick up in the landscape do transmit energy, but energy-lines are different from alignments. As yet no dowsers have comprehensively mapped the energy-lines in Penwith, so we cannot yet find out the extent to which alignments and energy-lines coincide - at a guess it might be 20-30%. But an energy-line is like a 'pipe', with observable energy-flows that are directional or alternating over time in connection with the season and the phases of the moon.
Chûn Quoit as seen from Boswens menhir
Chun Quoit as seen from Boswens menhirNot so with alignments. These conform more closely with what Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance', otherwise known in physics as non-local quantum entanglement.

That is, two separate entities can resonate with each other simultaneously even when far apart, with no connecting medium between them. Similar things happen to them at the same time, even if distant from each other. They have an inherent co-resonance while having no medium of connection.

This was first observed in physics with particles resulting from smashing the atom, which would shoot off in different directions and dimensions, subsequently behaving similarly to each other even if not connected. A further analogy is that of human twins parted at birth and growing up separately without even knowing they have a twin - yet their lives take on similar turns of events and they share characteristics with each other.

It's as if aligning specific ancient sites tunes them to each other so that they co-resonate with each other at a distance. Penwith's ancient sites were evolved as an integral system, but within it there was a detailed set of relationships between specific sites that does not apply to other sites.

Whether or not there was a master-plan to this when a site was established, that site was, in effect, plugged into a complex resonant network. Except that, with alignments, this was done without a medium of connection such as an energy-line. It follows from this that alignments and dowsable energy-lines signify different energy-frequencies and relationships, and they should not be confused.

8. An Advanced Culture

This raises questions about the surveying methods ancient people used. They could accurately establish aligned sites over a significant distance without satellite photos or theodolites. Possibly they had a kind of 'intuitive GPS' capacity where they could identify a location exactly aligned with other locations, without the surveying techniques we are nowadays familiar with. This sounds far-fetched, but then, in megalithic research there are many such instances and, just because to our current way of thinking it is far-fetched, it does not mean that it lacks reality.

All this implies a level of prehistoric thinking and social organisation that was far more advanced than we customarily understand. People were culturally sophisticated without necessarily being 'advanced' materially. Up to about 1500 BCE, when the megalith-building period dwindled, the people of Penwith seemed content to live a relatively simple, self-sufficient life - this is observed in archaeological remains from that time.

They lived for part of the year in simple wood, wattle and thatch dwellings in family hamlets, moving around their territory on an annual round, and seemingly choosing not to engage with some of the innovative technologies that were becoming available at the time in other places. Penwithians weren't early adopters of bronze smelting and crafting like the Bretons or the Irish, though they exported unwrought tin to both places after about 2200 BCE. Yet they invested enormous effort in their ancient sites.

Bronze items were imported from places like Brittany and Ireland, while tin and copper were exported to those places for some centuries. Bronze smelting and craftwork were adopted in Penwith around 1800 BCE, as the megalithic zenith drew toward a close. Adoption of bronze forging in Cornwall coincided with the slow decline of the megalithic age - it might even have been a cause of it.

Bronze enabled an increasingly 'maximiser' or growth-based economy to arise, and a fundamental shift of cultural attitude came with it. Using bronze, people could fell trees, fashion items, dig the earth, amass wealth and adorn themselves stylishly. They could stamp their mark on the world as dominators of nature more than as participants in it. They started to make weapons. This brought with it a psycho-social shift which might have contributed to the decline of the megalithic period around 1500-1200 BCE. Hardly any new sacred sites were built after 1500 BCE - mainly we see settlements and field systems instead - signs of a more materially-oriented age.
Men Scryfa with Carn Galva behind
Men Scryfa with Carn Galva behindPenwithians' ancient sites were quite simple and undramatic compared with the big, impressive megalithic sites of Stonehenge, Avebury, Carnac and the Boyne valley sites in Ireland. Even compared with sites in the Orkneys and Hebrides in Scotland, such as the Ring of Brodgar and Callanish, Penwith's megaliths were modest.

Yet, by examining the complex alignment patterns shown on the Map of Ancient Sites and Alignments in West Penwith, it is clear that much complex consideration and calculation went on. The thinking behind megalithic construction in Penwith was sophisticated.

Penwith has a greater density of ancient sites than anywhere in Britain, yet they have a thoughtful subtlety to their design and location, and their individual uniquenesses are noteworthy. The ancients did not have a standardised approach to megalith-building, yet common principles apply across the isles of Britain and in Portugal, Galicia (NW Spain), Brittany, Ireland and southern Scandinavia.

Penwith's four surviving stone circles each had a unique and different purpose, judging by their design, setting and their surrounding complexes of standing stones and mounds - each have 19 standing stones but they are not uniform. They weren't just local tribes' stone circles - they were clearly part of something bigger and more organised. Although they conformed to a system of thinking and architecture, they were all unique - people didn't think in standardised, uniform, derivative terms as we nowadays do.

The 'quantum entanglement' of Penwith's sites shows that Penwithians were thinking big. The best and, to me, only really plausible hypothesis for this is that they were engaging in a kind of geo-engineering - an attempt to participate proactively in the fluctuating energies of their terrestrial, climatic and astronomical environment, presumably with a view to improving their lives and the world around them.

'Turning the wheel of time' (as the Tibetans call it) was a key ingredient in their spiritual life - since the placing and orientation of many ancient sites highlighted the solstices, equinoxes and the motions of the Moon (lunar maxima and minima). Yet building these sites was obviously seen to be a fruitful thing to do, otherwise they would not have done the extensive engineering work they did, as if to pin down and stake out time in the dimension of physical space.

9. Prehistoric Geoengineering

Mulfra Quoit with St Michael's Mount behind
Mulfra Quoit with St Michael's Mount behindThe primary reason for building the ancient sites of West Penwith seems to have been to harness, enhance and shape subtle energy and to work with the nature of time.

Not just tick-tock, mechanical time, but an elastic, perceptual kind of time, making time move faster or slower, deeper or shallower in our lives. The ancients were astronomers and also astrologers, interested in interpreting the movement of time and season and how to pitch their responses to it.

There seems to be no other viable way of explaining the existence, characteristics and distribution of the wide variety of stone circles, cairns, menhirs and other ancient sites of West Penwith. No one seems to have a better answer. Archaeologists customarily deal with this by avoiding it or denouncing it as hocus-pocus. But ancient sites from China to Egypt to Britain to Mexico all variously embodied this - they all independently sought a similar understanding.

The aim seems to have been to connect and harmonise the fluctuations of the heavens with those of nature on Earth. This suggests an ancient western kind of Taoism, seeking to bring heaven, earth and humanity into harmony, a few millennia before the Chinese sage Lao Tzu expressed similar ideas in his Tao Te Ching.

Yet it probably had practical outcomes in terms of climate regulation, fertilising the land, agricultural practice, maritime journeys, genetic upgrading of seeds, improving the lives of people and penetrating the intelligence within nature. This kind of geoengineering entrained the energy-patterns in nature, seeking to tweak and funnel them according to the principles of the time.

Perhaps we need to learn more about this today. This website seeks to make some progress in researching how this works, from the patchy evidence we have. It's an attempt to figure out what went on in the minds of neolithic and bronze age people, since there is a growing practical relevance to this today. Our advanced technologies, with adestructive and unsustainable effect on the world, eat up its natural capital and ecosystem services.

Meanwhile the technology of the megalith-builders increased natural capital and sustainability and, since today we are in dire straits climatically, environmentally and in the nature of our civilisation, perhaps we need to give our ancestors' efforts more attention. To quote the native American teacher Twylah Nitsch, we seek not to emulate the ancients - we seek what they sought.

Archaeology and geomancy aren't just fascinating subjects, but they could contribute something vital to the future. They could help us figure out nature-friendly technologies and patterns of operation that reinforce our world environment, balance our planetary climatic system and make our lives more meaningful.
This Nutshell section serves as a summary introduction to the contents of this site. Further details are covered across the site - follow the links on the left.

To contact the site's researcher and author, Palden Jenkins, click here.

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