The Isles of Scilly in ancient times - 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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The Isles of Scilly in ancient times

Island of the Dead


In the late 2000s BCE in the bronze age Scilly comprised one big and one small island (St Agnes). The Isle of Scilly constituted a separate world, a somewhat mystic world reputed to be the Isle of the Dead - and certainly the sheer number of burial-oriented cairns on the islands testifies to that. The 'isle of the dead' could however be interpreted as an 'isle beyond time' or beyond earthly normality. The tradition of a sunken landmass, Lyonesse, perhaps the Scilly island or a landmass between Scilly and the mainland, adds to this mystique.
The Isles of Scilly from the mainland  
The Isles of Scilly as seen from near Tregeseal stone circle

Scilly is dense with ancient sites - mostly cairns, with a large number (83) of chambered cairns, with a few menhirs and cliff castles. Most of these sites were on higher ground, and many of them were located and built to be seen from the sea.

Cairnfields


Scilly is notable also for its cairnfields - agglomerations of cairns in large numbers regarded by archaeologists as cemeteries - though this interpretation is not certain. There's something more about these cairnfields than meets the eye. Shipman Head cairnfield on Bryher contains over 130 cairns, most of them flat, low platform cairns which, if used for burial, surely would be shallow as graves and susceptible to digging up by animals (or, later, grave robbers).

The cairns in the cairnfields are not uniform. They include normal humped round cairns, flatter platform cairns, a few D-shaped and oval cairns and some ring cairns, some with kerbs and some not. Kerbs are a ring of flattish stones placed vertically in the ground around the cairn, at least to contain the cairn and stop it spreading, but probably serving a greater function than that. It is possible that these cairns served as 'orgone generators' (a term coined by scientist and psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich) where alternating layers of organic and inorganic matter (soil and stones) generated or accumulated 'orgone' or subtle life-energy (the Chinese call it ch'i), operating a bit like an energy-battery or, to use a computer term, a buffer.

Some cairns are chambered cairns, the orientation of which toward a variety of points on the horizon is significant - the only problem being that we don't know exactly how. In many cases, these chambers, long, thin and sometimes quite low, were oriented toward such points on the horizon as the solstice sunrise and sunset points, but some were oriented near-due north and in directions that cannot easily be explained.

Chambered cairns (archaeologists questionably call them 'entrance graves') were unlikely actually to be only for burial as we know it. They were likely either to be a form of meditation or initiatory chamber or a repository for important items - such as seeds for upgrading, decoctions for potentising for medicinal use, or tools, then regarded as sacred. Genetic tests have shown that bones left in urns in chambered cairns tend to be from multiple people, suggesting that they were holy relics of tribal ancestors more than signs of burial, as such, in the way that we know it. Memorialisation of individuals was unlikely to be important to bronze age people, unless perhaps they were the 'great and good' of the tribal lineages, given special treatment to uphold the essence and quality of the ancestral tribal line.
Shipman Head Down cairnfield, Bryher
There's a sense of pattern to the distribution of cairns within some cairnfields - they aren't randomly placed or in rows but in curvy lines and clusters. Again, the reason why is unknown. One theory is that they could represent generations of members of tribes.

These patterns suggest that there is something more to these cairnfields than the simple burial of the dead. Burial is an assumed purpose for the cairns - it is not conclusively proven that they all contain human remains or that they existed primarily for that purpose. In the cairnfield to the right, there are only two chambered cairns (light yellow), on the edge of the hill - all the rest are solid, mostly platform cairns (wide and flat-topped), made of a variety of constituents such as soil and stones, or rocks with infilling earth. Many of them have been raided by hopeful grave-robbers or dug through by rabbits, or eroded by the weather, so their original internal structure is not clear to see.

A Maritime Culture


Culturally Scilly was connected with West Penwith, and whatever happened in one generally happened in the other, as evidenced by the chambered or entrance cairns uniquely built in both places, from around 2500 BCE in Penwith and 2250 BCE in Scilly (rough dates). Though these are called 'Scillonian chambered cairns', their construction seems to have started first in Penwith in the later neolithic, then to spread to Scilly in the bronze age. However, there were difference also between Scilly and Penwith - after all, the islanders were pretty much isolated on their islands during winter months, and the journey to the mainland wasn't easy, so a separate culture developed on Scilly too.

The people of the neolithic and bronze ages were steadfast mariners, using logboats, plank-built boats and skin-boats (a wooden frame with waterproofed leather stretched over them) such as curraghs and coracles. They managed even to bring animals with them, sailing from such places as Brittany to Cornwall and Ireland - and some of those sailing to Ireland might well have used Scilly as a stopover place, avoiding the strong tides and waves around West Penwith.

Archaeologically there are signs of marine contact stretching from Iberia to Britain and Ireland to the Orkneys and Denmark - the Atlantic coast megalithic culture area. In good weather the Scillies and West Penwith are intervisible, and the journey could be done in a day using sail and paddle from the islands between Great Ganilly and Sennen beach, or perhaps to Priest's Cove at Cape Cornwall. This would probably have been mainly summer seasonal traffic - in winter it is likely that whoever was on the islands stayed there for the season, since the seas and currents were rough and dangerous.

Ganilly is now an island, site of the notable ancient settlement of Nornour, but in the bronze age the Scillies formed one main island and Ganilly was the main landing place. The presence of beacon hills on both sides of the sound separating the islands and the mainland suggest a signalling system too, for practical and religious reasons.

It is generally accepted that Scilly was permanently colonised around 2250 BCE, though mesolithic and neolithic finds indicate that the islands, then wooded in more sheltered parts, would have been visited during summer months much earlier than this. It is not clear whether any of the cairns of Scilly were built by seasonal visitors before permanent settlement.

Permanent settlement seemed to involve the establishment of a few core bases where farming, fishing and the means of survival were established, and then outlying settlements were established from there. Self-sufficiency was imperative. Fish, seals, dolphins, whales and sea products would have been the main food source, with farm products added as time went on and farming developed.
Isles of Scilly from Carn Boel

Land and sea levels


It is commonly held that the Scillies were first permanently occupied around 2250 BCE at the beginning of the bronze age. At that time most of today's islands except St Agnes, Gugh and the western islets formed one island - the land has sunk and the sea has risen by 5-6 metres since then, and the waters between the islands are still shallow. Some ancient sites now lie underwater between today's islands, though since the ancients had a habit of locating sites on hilltops and higher ground, most sites are still on land today.

This sinking of the land is partially accounted for by a general moderate rise of sea levels since the bronze age, but it was also caused by a post-glacial sinking of the land. The Scillies and Cornwall were not covered with ice so, during the ice age they rose up somewhat to compensate for the weighing-down of landmasses further north. When the ice age ended, lands further north, especially in Scotland, rose and Scilly and Cornwall sank relatively. Hence the rather dramatic change of sea levels in Scilly, which continues to some extent today.

The legend of Lyonesse, probably located between Scilly and Penwith, and reputed to have sunk quite suddenly, is a strong tradition but it is difficult to justify geologically. Either it is a romanticisation and extrapolation of the fact that the Scillies and some parts between Scilly and Penwith sank between the bronze age and now - and there is a possibility that a tsunami emanating from Portugal/Azores or from west of Ireland helped this process - or there is something about the geology of this area that we do not know. It is difficult therefore to form a sound conclusion on this matter. Whether Lyonesse was an actuality or a metaphor, it certainly is true that, when seen from the mainland, the Scillies sometimes look as if they are rising out of the water, hovering slightly above it.
Isles of Scilly from near St Just
Isles of Scilly from near St Just

Alignments on Scilly


Click the map below to see the map in greater detail
Alignments in the Isles of Scilly
To do justice to Scilly's alignments, the normal geomancers' rule of four or five sites to make an alignment has been reduced to three sites - otherwise, much is lost and most alignments would disappear. This might not satisfy leyline-sceptics, but just look at the patterns that emerge from it.

The islands are not big enough for a preponderance of four-site alignments, in most cases (though there are a few such alignments).

Alignments on Scilly fall into two main types: those local to the islands (violet and blue) and those spanning the sound to the mainland (yellow and orange).

The pattern of alignments slightly resembles a 'cat's cradle' with a predominant NE-SW orientation. There are a number of parallel or near-parallel alignments, marked in blue, which must in some way be significant.

Several sites emerge from this as being prominent, at least as nodes in the alignments system on the islands:

  • Gun Hill cairn on the SE end of St Martin's,
  • Knackyboy cairn in the middle of St Martin's,
  • Castle Down cairn on Tresco,
  • Halangy Lower cairn on St Mary's,
  • Samson Hill on Bryher, and
  • the multiple cairns on South Hill on the island of Samson.

There are four incoming backbone alignments from the mainland, and five other alignments discovered thus far, all of them striking at least two sites on the Scillies and ending in the west of the islands. These longer-distance alignments highlight Samson Hill on Bryher, Knackyboy cairn on St Martin's, Obadiah's Barrow on Gugh and the Castle Down cairnfield on Tresco.

Two of the backbone alignments come from Boscawen-ûn (one of these starting at Godolphin Hill and the other starting at St Michael's Mount and passing through Maen Castle on the mainland). One alignment comes from the Merry Maidens and Carn Lês Boel and one from Cape Cornwall, St Ives Head and possibly further upcountry.

Of the other alignments, one passes through three sites on the Scillies and ends at Wolf Rock (now hosting a lighthouse) - which in ancient times would have protruded more prominently from the sea than today.

Other alignments go from the Scillies to prominent cliff sanctuaries on the Penwith coast such as Cape Cornwall, Maen Castle and Carn Lês Boel, or to hills such as Chapel Carn Brea (a neolithic and bronze age beacon hill). One alignment goes even as far as Carn Brea near Camborne.

Alignments SC06 and SC18 are parallel to each other, possibly pointing at the summer solstice setting point of the sun (or its winter solstice rising point in the other direction). This is also the case with SC15 and SC17 on St Martin's, though with a different orientation.

It's also worth noting two 'radiation points' where alignments fan out at a series of relatively close angles, at the Chapel Downs cairns on St Martin's, and at South Hill on Bryher.

For more about the Scillies, try here too.

Isles of Scilly from near St Just
Isles of Scilly from Carn Les Boel
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