Psychogeography | Mind the Gap - Ancient Penwith

Ancient Penwith
Cornwall

Ancient Penwith

The prehistoric landscape of the Land's End peninsula in Cornwall
ancientpenwith.org
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Psychogeography | Mind the Gap


While the map was being made early in 2015, it was interesting to find that new alignments discovered in the process often had a different character to many existing alignments discovered by other researchers, particularly John Michell. This difference has something to do with a variation of perceptions of the magical landscape.

Many of the new-found alignments tend to be longer-distance – thanks partially to the facility of Google Maps, with their zoomable function. This permitted a view of the terrain that is different from what one would see on taped-together, tea-splattered Ordnance Survey maps spread out across the floor.

Page summary: different criteria produce different alignments, though all of them are valid. This page outlines how study of alignments can help archaeologists understand and date ancient sites, especially in the absence of other evidence.


Seeing
Chapel Carn Brea from Caer Brân
Chapel Carn BreaWhat you discover has a lot to do with what you’re looking for. This applies equally to geomancy and archaeology.

Alignment hunting in Penwith developed out of John Michell’s seminal work around 1970, detailed in his book The Old Stones of Land's End. He ranked stone circles and standing stones highly, paying less attention to hills and headlands. So he found alignments reflecting those criteria.

Meanwhile, in seeking new alignments while making the alignments map featured on this site, hilltops, headlands, stone circles and quoits were examined more carefully than in John Michells time. This led to rather different results. Both approaches are valid and complementary.

In previous decades much thinking in ley-hunting was affected by rancour and scepticism in public debates about alignments in the 1970s and 1980s, causing researchers to tighten their criteria and restrain their imaginations. This argumentation helped to improve accuracy and verifiability of discovered leys, but it also constrained intuition, soured creativity and drove many people off ley-hunting. So progress slowed down by the 1990s.

This meticulousness largely failed to convince sceptics, who flatly refused to take up the challenge offered by geomancy. They made an a priori decision that it cannot work, therefore it doesn't. This rested on an emotional predisposition mixed with intellectual conservatism rather than on rational examination of the actual evidence. So, as far as they were concerned, the matter was closed.

This state of denial remains stuck in a groove today, constraining the findings of both archaeology and geomancy and the interpretation of such findings. Things are now beginning to loosen up as former authorities retire and younger researchers enter the field,  using new technologies that tend to reveal results backing up many of the things geomancers have talked about for so long.


Unmethodology

In researching the alignments map and discovering new alignments, sometimes I made logical assumptions, looking at a site such as Gurnard's Head and experimentally seeking out alignments leading from it. This worked sometimes but not always. The best discoveries were more fortuitous and intuitive, found on an impulse, 'by chance'.

By way of an example, the thought came to me of the topographical similarity of St Michael’s Mount and Cape Cornwall - both conical hills with a seascape backdrop. On a whim I checked whether there was an alignment between them and, lo behold, an alignment did indeed exist, passing straight through the Botrea Barrows, just up the hill behind my house, also passing through nearby Caergwydden Round. This was a bell-clanging discovery.
Botrea Barrows (darker grass patch). Behind, Carn Kenidjack
Botrea BarrowsSuddenly, Botrea Barrows, four old, rather large, nowadays unexciting and flat bronze age platform barrows, took on a new significance that hadn't been visible before. They prove now to be more important and central than they look on the ground today. One major indicator of this is their placing exactly between St Michael's Mount and Cape Cornwall, and also the intersection of a number of backbone alignments at the barrows. They sit on the peak of a watershed ridge separating the two mounts.

Something else revealed itself too. As the map and the alignment system of Penwith unfolded, it became clear that there are two different zones or clusters of ancient sites in Penwith, one in the uplands of the north and one in the lowlands of the south - more about that here.

Interestingly, Botrea Barrows serve as a sort of hinge or axle connecting these two major clusters of ancient sites, which have a gap between them in the valley lying between Botrea Barrows and Caer Brân (the valley today leads down to the Drift reservoir). The alignment between St Michael's Mount and Cape Cornwall, alignment 77, slices between these two clusters, marking a divide between them.

John Michell wouldn't have found this alignment because he didn't give attention to cliff sanctuaries. It awaited someone with an interest in them to come along and see things in a different way.


Caer Brân

Looking just over the valley from Botrea, the thought also came to mind that Caer Brân, also arguably on the hinge, might have been a gathering and meeting place, a neutral space and a kind of parliament place for the people of the two sectors of Penwith.

Caer BranIts roundness is uncanny. Its location doesn’t make a lot of defensive sense, even though it is often designated a 'hillfort', the default interpretation for such enclosed sites - to some etent regardless of the evidence and landscape context of the site. Perhaps trading and social interaction might have gone on at Caer Brân instead of defensive activities.

There is a feeling at Caer Brân of its being a sealed-off space inside its ring of banks, insulated from the surrounding landscape. When you stand on the southern bank, the panorama is spectacular, but inside the quasi-henge the landscape disappears from view. The focus inside Caer Brân moves inwards and upwards, making it a likely magical or ceremonial space, intentionally sealed off, even though it is in a panoramic location.

The banks operate perhaps like the principle of a Faraday cage, filtering out energy-noise from the wider landscape environment. Or it might be what Tom Graves, the dowser, identified as a 'cyclotron' - a way of generating an energy-spin and quantum shift in magical rites or actions taking place at Caer Brân. It's the interiority of the site, its visual isolation and its upward connection with the heavens that seem to be important. It's good for special rites, out of this world.

There is also an ancient trackway between Botrea Barrows and Caer Brân, visible from the ancient settlement at Botrea, suggesting that they are possibly connected in purpose, and that they shared some sort of ceremonial or assembly purpose. There is no convincing evidence to prove this, yet their location and design - platform barrows acting like stages and a quasi-henge acting as a container - suggest this and serve as a plausible interpretation of these sites.


Dating

The additional ancient site on alignment 77 is Caergwydden Round, an iron age round built as far as we know roughly between 300 BCE and CE 100. Yet the alignment on which it sits is at least 2,000 or more years older. This is suggested by the bronze age dating of Botrea Barrows and the even more ancient origins of the Cape and the Mount, both of which were key points to the earlier neolithic Penwithians, simply because of their topographic and rather mythic prominence.

So does this mean that Caergwydden Round was located where it is in the iron age because of the pre-existing alignment? Or does it mean that it is older than iron age, perhaps coeval with the bronze age Botrea Barrows, later modified into a round during the iron age?

Geomantic evidence - alignment 77 - would suggest Caergwydden Round is possibly two millennia older than currently thought, though archaeology would question this unless physical evidence is found to verify such a dating.

A similar dating issue applies to Chûn Castle, except here archaeologists do suspect it is older than iron age. It is very close to Chûn Quoit, its banks being tangented by alignments linking much older sites, and its outstanding panoramic position implying much more ancient origins than iron age. It is one of the few sites in the north of the peninsula where Mount's Bay in the south can be seen. It was a prominent stronghold in the iron age, involved in the tin trade, but its position suggests its use is older. Craig Weatherhill, in his survey of the site, identified neolithic enclosure banks slightly NW of the main iron age enclosure, also pointing out that the iron age enclosure was moved slightly to align with other neighburing sites.

This raises an important side issue. In many cases, it is likely that many ancient sites around Penwith were perceived as special places long before anything was built on them. Or they were likely to have been wooden and degradable constructions, undetectable today by archaeological means. Or perhaps they were just recognised as special places, with no constructions. In dating these sites archaeologically, we can date only constructions or deposited artefacts, not first use. Geomancy widens the evidential range, allowing inference of a sometimes greater antiquity to a site.

Sometimes commonsense has to come into the equation. Chûn Castle is a prominent hill, and logically it is likely to be one of the earlier sites of Penwith because of this prominence. It is unlikely not to have been an early site: if you were an early inhabitant of Penwith, you would definitely have known the hill on which Chûn Castle sits.

On the other hand, Caer Brân is not greatly remarkable in its immediate landscape setting, located on a slope with no major bumps or outcrops to highlight the location. It does have a noteworthy panoramic view - though in early days this view might have been obscured by trees. It's the kind of site that the locals would have thought of after they had established other sites such as Chûn Castle or, closer by, Sancreed Beacon or Bartinney Castle, both of which stand out and draw attention their way.

Sancreed Beacon is lower than Caer Brân but it stands out in the landscape, possessing a certain calmly brooding magic of its own. Perhaps Caer Brân was built as a reflection of thought-through human ideas during the high bronze age, rather than more intuitively marking and enhancing a prominent landscape site, as would be the case with an older neolithic or early bronze age site.

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