Making the Maps - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
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Making the Maps

About the Making of the Maps

Researching alignments is not as easy as it might appear, though occasionally an alignment pops out easily on a hunch - or even a few, in one short session. But much of the time it involves a lot of trial and error.

Sometimes an alignment is spotted but then it proves to be inaccurate, after all possible fits and permutations have been tried. It is important to avoid forcing, fiddling or falsifying alignments since sooner or later they will prove problematic, and they are open for checking by anyone.

There are complexities too: a site’s position might not be clear, either on the ground or in aerial photos, or slightly differing map references might be given by different sources, or the nature of the site might be unclear or disputed – in each of these cases careful judgement must be applied.

These maps of Cornwall were made using the satellite photography of Google Maps. This is much more useful for examining the precise location of sites than customary printed Ordnance Survey maps, where the map-symbols used can actually stretch 30-50 metres across the ground. Satellite maps can be more accurate for our purposes than OS maps.

There's a further advantage with online maps too. They use a different map projection that factors in earth curvature. Flat-printed maps such as OS maps use projections that, for the purposes of finding longer distance alignments over about 30 miles, distort alignments or make them inaccurate. But this problem is solved with online mapping.

How it was done

The first task in making the map  was to populate the base map with prehistoric sites – a lengthy task taking a few years, using sources ranging from Heritage Gateway, Pastscape and the Megalithic Portal to Meyn Mamvro, books and personal communications. This started with West Penwith in 2015-17, Scilly in 2018, Mid-Cornwall in 2019 and East Cornwall in 2020-21.

A digital base working map showing all known sites of significance in Cornwall was eventually created – arranged in seven layers, each with its own database from which the map is drawn when it is called up on-screen.

The maps are constructed to highlight sites from the Megalithic period and the Iron Age, with a few Early Medieval sites such as oratories and churches. Some sites were omitted, to avoid unnecessary clutter on the maps. These include single, solitary hut circles, archaeological findspots, cists without cairns and less-significant Iron Age Rounds.

Then, as progress was made with the areas covered, alignments were researched and added to the map – themselves in three layers. In West Penwith there was already a list of alignments found in earlier decades (not least by John Michell), compiled by Ray Cox of Meyn Mamvro, which were placed on the map. As this proceded, new alignments were found, and this discovery process grew much more and further than originally anticipated.

The layered data was then transferred into a range of publicly-available maps highlighting certain areas (such as Scilly or Penwith) or certain factors (such as backbone alignments or quoit alignments) or matters of interest (such as near-parallel alignments or radial alignments around Carn Brea).

In compiling ancient site alignments a three-metre (10ft) accuracy rule was observed, with an occasional five-metre (15ft) leeway for big sites. This is a tight accuracy standard. In cases where an alignment passes close to an important site, say 10-50 metres (30-150ft) away, without touching or tangenting it exactly enough, the site is noted in parentheses in the alignment listings though it is not itself counted as an alignment-determining site.


One evening early in 2015, on a hunch, a new type of alignment, the backbones, was unearthed. This was rather a eureka moment. I was contemplating St Michael’s Mount and Cape Cornwall, two similarly-shaped cliff sanctuaries, only to find that a straight line between them went right through the platform barrows on Botrea Hill, just above my house. This started bells ringing.

I had spent a lot of time at the barrows and, while they command a remarkable panorama, they had not appeared to be a really major site – visually, the are not impressive, and they sit on a furzy moor that few people visit.

But here they were, at the highest point of an alignment between these two very significant cliff sanctuaries. Later, the barrows proved to be a major node involving many such alignments: they sit at the crossing point of alignments passing, astonishingly, between three pairs of cliff sanctuaries – St Michael’s Mount and Cape Cornwall, Pendeen Watch and Kemyel Point, and Gurnard’s Head and Tol Pedn Penwith. This suddenly made Botrea Barrows into one of the big alignment nodes of West Penwith.

Seeking further alignments radiating from St Michael’s Mount toward other cliff sanctuaries, I quickly found several more: the Mount, Lanyon Quoit and Pendeen Watch were aligned, as were the Mount, Boscawen-ûn and Maen Castle, or the Mount, the Merry Maidens and Treryn Dinas. It all snowballed from there, with findings duly checked by Cheryl Straffon and Raymond Cox, catalogued by Ray, made available on the Ancient Penwith and Meyn Mamvro websites and ongoingly updated ever since.

Arguably, backbone and long-distance alignments can be permitted a little more inexactness than local, shorter alignments, by dint of their length and magnitude – the magnitude being judged by the importance of the sites they connect. Even so, most backbone alignments on the maps are surprisingly exact, though in a few cases alignments pass close to sites without exactly touching them.

Boscawen-unTo give an example, at Boscawen-ûn, one backbone alignment passes just 20 metres (60ft) from the circle – yet it is 95km long, stretching from Carn Lȇs Boel to Stannon Circle on Bodmin Moor. Yes, the alignment is technically inaccurate at Boscawen-ûn but, at that distance, despite the inaccuracy, it is significant that the alignment comes that close to the stone circle. Actually, it hits a nearby, now-removed boulder cairn called the Money Rock, close to Boscawen-ûn and part of its complex – so the Money Rock acted as a proxy for the stone circle. This is quite common with stone circles and other key sites – they can have outlier menhirs or cairns that act as proxies or relays. Some alignments exactly strike the main site and some go to a proxy. Two examples of proxies are The Pipers at the Merry Maidens and Boswens menhir near Tregeseal.

Just because many barrows and cairns look similar, this does not mean all of them are the same. For some barrows, no alignments can be found. Some lie on one alignment while others are at intersections of multiple alignments, suggesting that these particular barrows or cairns serve a distinct geomantic purpose as focal or nodal sites. Many burial barrows and cairns lie on no alignments at all. Each barrow thus has a unique character.

The same applies to menhirs and other sites, which are also variable in geomantic purpose, and this purpose can be seen by examining other sites that they are aligned with and by looking at other locational factors. A site’s role in the whole system is defined by the site itself (its look, feel and location), and by its relationships with other sites (intervisibility, alignments and energy-lines).

The maps are regularly reviewed and updated as new information comes in or as new ideas are tested. The most accurate and up-to-date versions are the online Google maps. JPG image maps are taken from these, but they are updated once every two years or so only. They do not contain the same reference information that is built into the Google maps of Cornwall.
Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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