This is a new and growing area of attention for archaeologists and antiquarians in Cornwall. It is difficult to say when the use of rocks and stones, as described here, began, but it is likely that it occurred in the neolithic era, certainly in the late neolithic around 2600 BCE but possibly earlier during the mid-neolithic in the 3000s.
Where the megalithic age started
The menhir-building period started during the neolithic/bronze age transitionaround 2500-2200 BCE, reaching its peak during the megalithic zenith between 2200 and 1800 BCE. But before the building of bronze age menhirs and stone circles, certain precursor principles had already been established in the neolithic period - the idea of moving stones around and placing them in significant positions.
Likely placed stones on Zennor Hill
At first, in the mesolithic (5000s-4000s BCE) and the earlier neolithic (3000s BCE), the ancient sites that were recognised or sanctified were located at natural energy centres such as hilltops, headlands and carns (outcrops) - these were the obvious places for this in those times in a largely forested West Penwith. Springs, groves, coves, offshore rocks and unique rocks were important too. Later, in the bronze age, sites were located and built for much more scientific, technical and sophisticated reasons (see menhir geomancy and stone circles).
The neolithics started moving rocks around in the earlier 3000s - often probably only a short distance. There was a quality of spontaneous artistry to the moving of rocks, to enhance the character of local environments and perhaps to reflect narratives people had regarding the landscapes they lived in. It was a bit like wild gardening, where the fundamentals of the environment remain natural and unchanged, but tweaks are made to modify or upgrade it.
The neolithics did not build on every hilltop or carn, though quite a few sites were no doubt recognised as special by dint of their natural, energetic or scenic qualities. Bartinney Castle, for example, is a bronze age site, though the neolithics are sure to have gone there, identifying it as a special hilltop location, even if they built nothing there that we know of.
Some stones they simply moved to another location nearby, some they propped on top of smaller stones, or balanced to make logan or rocking stones, and some flatter stones they inserted vertically into the ground, oriented toward other sites.
There is a problem though in identifying which are natural and which are man-placed stones. In parts of Penwith, granitic rock formations can be unusual and uncanny in their natural shape and form, and it can be difficult deciding whether stones have been placed by humans or whether they were natural, and it can be difficult proving either option. For example, a number of natural simulacra - rocks that look like beings - are shown below, or click here to see a larger photo collection.
Most simulacra in West Penwith are natural. The one below on the middle-left, at Pordenack Point, could be placed or propped
and the bottom two at Carn Kenidjack could be placed or 'adjusted'. For captions, wave your cursor over any picture.
A carn is a rock-pile, outcrop or tor that wasn't erected, placed or changed by humans. Many of them have natural energy and prominence, and they play a part in the alignment system of Penwith. The term 'carn' can also apply to some cliff headlands and high hills, even to the very name 'Cornwall' itself, but here we mean outcrops and tors.
Here are four examples.
1. The southern Bojewans Carn, east of Boscawen-ûn, is quite a significant alignment intersection. Align Chapel Carn Brea, the hill visible from Boscawen-ûn, with the stone circle, and the other end of this radial alignment hits Bojewans Carn (alignment 145). It also sits on an alignment between Trelew and Redhouse NE menhirs (24) and another from Sheffield menhir to Trevorgans menhir (52). In other words, its position influenced the positioning of the four named menhirs and the stone circle.
Carn Cravah, above Nanjizal Bay
2. Carn Cravah, on the cliffside path on the north side of Nanjizal Bay, is a magic spot (especially if seals are around). It is on a crossing-point of two alignments, one (116) following the coast from the offshore Runnel Stone, south of Tol Pedn Penwith (Gwennap Head), through the two headlands of Carn Guthensbras and Carn Barra, to one of the cairns at Carn Lês Boel, and then on to Carn Cravah and eventually Maen Castle. (The Runnel Stone, now an underwater reef marked by a buoy, rose above the sea surface in the bronze age, and a Victorian steamship wreck also reduced its height somewhat.)
The other alignment (85) goes from Wolf Rock to Carn Cravah, then to Chapel Carn Brea summit, Bartinney Castle and the Boskednan southern cairn, part of the Nine Maidens stone circle complex. Wolf Rock nowadays hosts a lighthouse, built ten miles out to sea in the 1860s, but in the neolithic and bronze age the lower sea levels made it more prominent than it is today. So Wolf Rock is aligned to two of Penwith's 'holy hills'.
Boswarva Carn, left, Lanyon Quoit, right. (Click for a larger version).
3. Two quoits, the Giant's Grave and West Lanyon Quoit, are aligned on Boswarva Carn - this is a classic three-site quoit alignment (150), typically with two quoits and another neolithic site on it. In the picture here, you can see the carn on the left, with a (most likely) placed and propped rock on top of it. On the right, closer to the camera, is Lanyon Quoit. This is a classic case of site intervisibility - as seen from Bosiliack Barrow. All three of these sites are neolithic.
4. A likeable but often unvisited low carn sits immediately south of the Tregeseal stone circle, only 150m away from it and in the next field. Visit the carn, put your antennae up, and you'll probably get a sense that it was part of the Tregeseal complex of sites - it's quite energetic.
These carns seem to have been perennial markers of 'placeness' to the ancient people of Penwith. They walked everywhere, and they knew every part of Penwith and its stories, its history, its personality and its 'vibe'. When walking in those times, one would often navigate by orientating on the carns or one might move between them. The carns, less noticeable now from our cars as we drive past, played a significant part in forming the prehistoric character of West Penwith, together with hills and cliff castles.
Placed stone at Higher Bosistow, near Carn Lês Boel
Ancient Penwithians did seem to like placing rocks in certain locations, as if perhaps to augment the artistry of nature, though also sometimes to mark alignments. These placed stones are found at places such as Zennor Hill, Carn Galva, Trencrom Hill and Pordenack Point (just south of Land's End), as well as at other locations. Even the protruding rock atop Treryn Dinas is possibly a placed stone.
In the picture here is a placed stone at Higher Bosistow, near Carn LêsBoel, with two alignments passing through it - probably put there in the bronze age. One is a significant backbone alignment (123) from the Merry Maidens stone circle, passing through the Bosistow stone and Carn Lês Boel, then over the sea to three cairns on St Martins, Scilly, including the key Knackyboy Cairn, ending at a kerbed chambered cairn on Gweal Hill, Bryher. The other (194) passes from the Trevean 1 propped stone (mentioned lower down) through a now-disappeared barrow at Parc an Griggan and the Bosistow stone to Brane chambered cairn and Caer Brân.
In many cases it is difficult to tell whether they are quirky feats of nature or the work of humans. This is a matter of debate and uncertainty. But placed stones do exist, and some are definitely recognised archaeologically as placed stones. With most placed stones the people of the neolithic and bronze ages did not seem to engage in fashioning them, and the rocks were probably moved only short distances - even just yards.
This matter needs studying more carefully. It's clear that some of these indeed are placed rocks. Why did people do this? There does seem to be a magical landscape-artistry element to it - they sought to beautify or add magical character to the natural environment around them. Whether and in what way such rocks were perceived to have geomantic purposes is a question yet to be answered. To understand these rocks it is necessary to make the leap of seeing them as magical entities or rock-presences, not just as material rocks - otherwise, their likely meaning is lost.
There are also different kinds of placed stones. In the southern lowlands of the peninsula, south of St Buryan, at Sparnon, Selena Markstone, Treen and Chapel Curno, there are a number of markstones that seem to function similarly to menhirs, judging by the alignments passing through them.
They are marked as red diamonds on the alignment map (click the map on the left to see them closer up).
These markstones seem to be of bronze age provenance, while in the north and in various coastal locations placed stones are more likely to be either mid- or late-neolithic, placed there for different reasons to the markstones.
A variety of menhir-like stones around Carn Galva, Nine Maidens and Bodrifty are boundary stones, marking the boundaries of parishes.
The Four Parishes Stone
One wonders which came first - the stones or the boundaries. If the stones came first, thus pre-Christian, parish boundaries will have been formed around them, or they might perhaps represent pre-Christian tribal boundaries.
If the stones were erected specifically to mark parish boundaries, then they will be early-medieval in origin. The latter option is more likely but is uncertain.
The most notable of these boundary stones is the fallen Four Parishes Stone, on the path between the Nine Maidens stone circle and Men an Tol - literally the meeting point of four old parishes. Another one, north of New Mill, is called the Bishop's Head and Foot stone.
Propped stones are rocks propped up on smaller stones and thus raised slightly above the ground or the rock underneath. Why these were thus made is unknown but, presumably, in the perception of ancient peoples, this energised or empowered them, or gave them special qualities or significance.
They seem to act similarly to standing stones, but in many cases their verticality isn't emphasised - as you can see from the stone on the right at the Boscregan Cairns on the west coast of Penwith north of Sennen and south of Cape Cornwall (being inspected by participants at the Pathways to the Past weekend in 2015, standing at an eroded chambered cairn nearby). These cairns probably had some relation to the Isle of Scilly, since the islands are clearly seen from here. It is possible that the people occupying this part of Penwith were related to Scillonians.
Carn Lês Boel
The propped stone at the entrance to the cliff sanctuary at Carn Lês Boel is quite unique, both as a stone propped on small stones to raise it slightly off the ground and also in its hulking shape, which does have verticality, appearing like a classic menhir. It's quite huggable - and if people think you're crazy for doing it, perhaps it's okay to be a bit crazy, and it might be their problem! It had a partner stone, now lying half-buried on its side to the right of the path onto the carn, and clearly they acted as a threshold gateway.
Immediately behind the propped stone in the picture is another stone that has been tipped over, which probably stood on the flattish summit rock-platform of the Carn, possibly also propped and a candidate for restoration.
Trevean 1 propped menhir
There is a matching stone, Trevean 1, about 300 yards away, nowadays built into a field hedge (or wall) which will not have been in eistence when the stone was erected, probably in the bronze age. It is not dissimilar in shape and it is propped similarly.
This stone has two alignments starting from it - one (192) to Bartinney Castle and the Botrea B barrow, and the other (194) to the Brane chambered cairn and Caer Brân. The first of these alignments passes through the nearby Bosistow Seal menhir and the second passes through the stone at Higher Bosistow mentioned above. Another alignment goes from the nearby Trevean 2 menhir, through Trevean 1 and a cairn atCarn Lês Boel to the 'power rock' at the Longships Rocks (the high rock without the lighthouse on it, to the left when looking at Longships from Land's End).
One rock near Carn Boel, between it and Pordenack Point (one of the pair of 'ET' stones shown above) is very finely placed on three protuding bumps on the underside of the rock, so that the rock on top touches the supporting rock below in a notably delicate, almost calculated way. A likely contender for being a placed rock, it was put in place probably in the middle or late neolithic. Unlike the two propped stones above, it is not menhir-style, more a rock, and moved to its current position probablyfrom just a short distance away.
Viewbox at Little Galva, looking up at the top of Carn Galva
There are quite several propped stones on Carn Galva and Zennor Hill, probably originating in the neolithic. More and more propped and placed stones are being discovered.
Here we should also mention viewboxes. These are rocks that have been placed in order to create a gap through which a prominent feature such as a hill can be viewed. Their purpose is not clear, though obviously they highlight the hill in question, and some might also highlight the rising or setting point of the sun or moon at a certain time of year. One of them is shown here at Little Galva, below Carn Galva.
Oriented or aligned stones
Three placed rocks at Bosigran Castle, aligned on the tip of Pendeen Watch
The people of the neolithic developed a form of oriented or aligned stone. These are flattish rocks, or rocks with one flattish side to them, dug into the ground to stand vertically. Those found thus far are located mainly but not solely round Penwith's coast, aligned to natural features such as cliff castles, offshore rocks or Scilly, and in some cases with one or two astronomical alignments.
Many of them have quite characteristic shapes to them when seen side-on, many of them roughly oblong. Some are not so flat in shape, but they have one straightish edge that aligns to a distant point, such as the series of three rocks shown here at Bosigran Castle, oriented toward the very tip of Pendeen Watch (both of them cliff castles).
These oriented rocks are a new discovery by the author, currently being researched, who has thus far (late 2018) found thirteen possible aligned stones.
Why did they install these aligned rocks? Presumably to highlight and feature certain hills, cliff castles and other features. One banal, rather uniquely Penwithian purpose might have been to be able to see the direction of such alignments in the mist and fog! There is a suggestion here that they sought to integrate the landscape in a visual and magical sense by connecting one site with another one, in terms of orienting awareness toward that site.
Aligned stone (foreground) at Cape Kenidjack
Thus, an aligned stone on Kenidjack Castle, with one of its faces oriented to the northernmost of the isles of Scilly, is presumably intended to connect the two intervisible sites geomantically.
Another aligned stone at Bosiliack (just over the hedge east of Bosiliack menhir) is aligned toward Tregonning Hill, visible south-eastwards, connecting these two locations (see pictures below).
One characterestic of aligned stones is that they are usually oriented toward distant visible landscape features - unlike the ancient site alignments examined on this site. They tend not to align with other erected stones, as menhirs can be - they are simply oriented toward a topographical feature.
Two at Greeb, Land's End, are oriented toward the Longships Rocks. One, in a small valley between Cribba Head and Treryn Dinas (near the newly re-erected menhir there), is oriented to the Dinas itself. Another, at Carn Vellan near Trewellard, is oriented to the Brisons in one direction and Watch Croft in the other. A small one near Porth Loe at Gwennap Head, is oriented to the end of Carn Lês Boel.
There are probably more of these to be discovered. They are too low to be rubbing stones, too 'of a kind' to be natural, and they're distinctly oriented. There is a possibility that they are a very early kind of erected stone, perhaps from the neolithic period, and a precursor to the classic bronze age menhirs.
The idea of the classic menhir did not come until around 2500 BCE at the beginning of the bronze age heyday of the megalithic period. Menhirs derived from the earlier practice of placing rocks and digging aligned rocks vertically into the ground, likely to have been done either or both in the mid-neolithic around 3500 or the late-neolithic around 2600.
Merry Maidens hedge stone
There are also hedge menhirs - big rocks built into hedges (walls) and behaving like menhirs, regarding underground water and alignments. They were probably erected in the bronze age and the time of the menhirs, and the hedge was built to enclose them later. The stone on the right is close to the Merry Maidens stone circle and part of the complex surrounding it.
It can be difficult to judge what is a hedge menhir and what is simply a big stone inserted into a hedge at the time of its building, in post-megalithic times. Higher up this page is an example of a genuine propped hedge menhir at Trevean 1.
Banns Farm menhir
One way to check their validity as hedge menhirs is to find out whether any alignments pass through them - this is how the Seal Menhir at Higher Bosistow was identified in 2017 as a genuine menhir, and how the hedge menhir at Banns Farm (left), southwest of Boscawen-un stone circle, was verified.
There are also many gatepost stones in Penwith's stone hedges that look like menhirs but they are not. This can be confusing. There are, however, a few hedge gateposts that are menhirs, and a few that are suspected former menhirs that have been moved from their original location to serve as a gatepost.
It is arguable that the stones highlighted above were precursors to the menhirs of the bronze age megalithic zenith. Neolithic people were experimenting with ideas and possibilities - and it is fascinating that it is only nowadays that we're beginning to fully investigate placed, propped and oriented stones. Part of the reason for this is that placed stones of the kind discussed on this page are not as obvious as menhirs.
Placed stones might come from a variety of periods, ranging from the mid-neolithic in the 3000s, to the neolithic/bronze age transition around 2500 and into the bronze age megalithic zenith from around 2200-1800. This matter needs much more investigation.
Next, we move into the bronze age and the time of menhir-building...