Dawn of the Megaliths - 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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Dawn of the Megaliths

Propped, Placed and Oriented Stones

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. It is likely that it started during the neolithic in the mid-3000s at, or after, the time of the building of quoits.

Where the Megalithic Era Started

The menhir-building period started during the neolithic/bronze age transition around 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 neolithic (3000s BCE), the ancient sites that were recognised or sanctified were located at natural energy centres such as hilltops, headlands and carns (outcrops). Early on, as far as we know, they weren't built on, but things changed around 3700 when the tor enclosures and quoits were first constructed. These were the obvious places for endowing with 'placeness', in a largely forested West Penwith. Springs, streams, groves, coves, offshore rocks and unique-looking rocks were also important.

The neolithics possibly started moving rocks around in the early-to-mid 3000s - often only a short distance. There was a quality of spontaneous artistry to the moving of rocks, enhancing the character of local environments and perhaps reflecting magical 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 enhance it.

The neolithics did not build on every hilltop or carn, though quite a few sites that were not built on would have been recognised as special by dint of their natural, energetic or scenic qualities. Bartinney Castle 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.

Red = placed stones, green = natural carns, pink = holed stones, circles = stone circles
Menhirs stones and carns in West PenwithSome stones they simply moved to a new location nearby, to add character to the scene.

Some they propped on top of smaller stones, or balanced to make logan or rocking stones.

Some flatter stones they inserted vertically into the ground, pointed toward other sites - these are oriented stones. These might have come later than placed and propped stones.

There is a problem 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 problematic 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. Their suggestive symbolism and beingness would have given them significance to the neolithics.

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 natural rock-pile, outcrop or tor that wasn't erected, placed or changed by humans. Many of them have energy and prominence, and some play a part in the alignment system of Penwith. The term 'carn' can also apply to cliff headlands and high hills, even to the very name 'Cornwall' itself, but here we mean outcrops and smaller granitic tors.

Here are four examples:

1. The southern Bojewans Carn (map ref SW 4320 2682), 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). The carn 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
Carn Cravah2. Carn Cravah (SW 3540 2380), on the cliffside path on the north side of Nanjizal Bay, south of Land's End, 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 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, an underwater offshore reef marked by a buoy, rose above the sea surface in the bronze age, but sea levels rose and a Victorian steamship wreck also reduced its height.)

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 the rock more prominent than it is today. So Wolf Rock is aligned to two of Penwith's holy hills and one of its stone circle complexes.
Boswarva Carn, left, Lanyon Quoit, right. (Click for a larger version).
Boswarva Carn3. Two quoits, the Giant's Grave and West Lanyon Quoit, are aligned on Boswarva Carn (SW 4294 3322) - 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 placed and propped rock balancing on it. On the right, closer to the camera, is Lanyon Quoit. This is as seen from Bosiliack Barrow. All three of these sites are neolithic.

4. A likeable but rather unvisited low carn sits immediately south of the Tregeseal stone circle, only 150m away from it and in the next field (SW 3868 3233). Walk up from the stone circle to 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.

Carns such as these 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, personality and 'vibe'. When walking in those times, one would often navigate by orientating on the carns and other high points, moving 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 Stones

Placed stone at Higher Bosistow, near Carn Lês Boel
Ancient Penwithians did seem to like placing rocks in certain chosen locations, as if to augment the artistry of nature, though also sometimes to mark alignments. 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 (SW 3664 2338) near Carn Lês Boel, 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 (such as King Arthur's Stone near Sennen, SW 3599 2540) are recognised archaeologically as placed stones, while others are only arguably so. With most placed stones the people of the neolithic and bronze ages did not engage in fashioning them, and the rocks were probably moved only short distances.

This matter needs studying more carefully. It's clear, just by looking at them, that some of these indeed are placed rocks. Either that, or they are even more remarkable feats of nature and 'chance' (such as the Giant's Rock at Zennor, SW 455 388).

Why did people do this? There is undoubtedly a landscape-artistry element to it - they sought to beautify or add magical character to the natural environment around them. The pictures below, from the moorland area between Zennor Hill and Trendrine Hill, demonstrate how already-extraordinary geological shapes have been shifted around to bring out a certain magic to the environment up there - it's a genuinely magical hill plateau (easy to get pisky-led there too).

Whether and in what way such rocks were perceived to have geomantic purposes is a question yet to be answered, but some, such as the Bosistow Stone mentioned above, seem to conform to the same geomantic principles as menhirs and might have been precursors to them. 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.

Below, Zennor Hill to Trendrine Hill - mostly shifted/placed stones, though this is not certain:

Propped Stones

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.
Boscregan Cairns
Boscregan Cairns
They seem to act similarly to standing stones, but in most cases their verticality isn't emphasised - as you can see from the stone on the right at Carn Creis (SW 358 297) by 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
Carn Les Boel entrance rockThe propped stone at the entrance to the cliff sanctuary at Carn Lês Boel (SW 3569 2324) 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 that's okay 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 might have stood upright on the flattish summit rock-platform of the Carn, possibly propped and a candidate for restoration.
Trevean 1 propped menhir
There is a matching stone, Trevean 1 (SW 3632 2296), about 300 yards away, nowadays built into a field hedge (or wall) which will not have been in existence when the stone was erected, probably in the bronze age. It is not dissimilar in shape to that on Carn Lês Boel and it is propped similarly - in some way they are related, or they were erected at the same time by the same people.

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 at Carn Lês Boel to the 'power rock' at Longships Rocks (the high rock to the left of the lighthouse rock 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, just yards from the coast path) is very finely placed on three protruding 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 as a placed rock, it was put in place possibly in the middle or late neolithic. Unlike the two propped stones above, it is not menhir-style, more a boulder, and moved to its current position probably from just a short distance away.

Propped stone on Zennor HillThere are quite a few propped stones on Carn Galva and Zennor Hill, probably originating in the mid-neolithic, up to a thousand years before the above stones. A conglomeration of propped and placed stones close to Sperris Quoit suggests this - they are likely to be of the same vintage, around the mid-3000s BCE.

More and more propped and placed stones are being discovered by a variety of archaeologists and antiquarians. The problem is that many of these stones are difficult to judge conclusively. The stone above, on Zennor Hill, is safely a propped stone, but others are not so clear, especially given the geology of the area.

Viewbox at Little Galva, looking up at the top of Carn Galva
Viewbox near Carn GalvaHere 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, which you can see behind.

Oriented 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 (SW 4156 3704) shown here at Bosigran Castle, with one edge of all three oriented toward the very tip of Pendeen Watch (both of them cliff castles).

These oriented rocks are a new discovery, currently being researched by the author, who has thus far (late 2018) found thirteen possible aligned stones.

Why did they install these oriented rocks? Presumably to highlight and feature certain hills, cliff castles and other features by pointing to them. 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 Kenidjack Castle
Thus, an oriented stone on Kenidjack Castle (SW 3554 3256), 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 oriented stone at Bosiliack (just over the hedge east of Bosiliack menhir (SW 4373 3421), is aligned toward Tregonning Hill, visible south-eastwards, connecting these two locations (see pictures below).

One characteristic 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 (SW 3448 2479), Land's End, are oriented toward the Longships Rocks. One, in a small valley between Cribba Head and Treryn Dinas (SW 3991 2240, near the newly re-erected menhir there), is oriented to the peak of the Dinas itself. Another, at Carn Vellan (SW 3650 3417) near Trewellard, is oriented to the Brisons rocks in one direction and Watch Croft in the other. A small one near Carn Barra (SW 3608 2277) 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 toward visible landscape features. They are possibly 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 megalithic heyday. 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.

Below: some oriented stones
Markstones of southern Penwith


There are different kinds of placed stones. In the southern lowlands of the peninsula, south of St Buryan, at Sparnon, Selena Markstone, Treen and Chapel Curno, a number of markstones 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 could be either mid- or late-neolithic, placed there for different reasons to the markstones.

Boundary stones

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
The Four Parishes StoneOne wonders which came first - the stones or the boundaries. If the stones came first, 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 (SW 4298 3540), on the path between the Nine Maidens stone circle and Mên 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 (SW 4638 3623).

Hedge Menhirs

Merry Maidens hedge stone
Merry Maidens hedge stoneThere 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.

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