Shining Land | Part Three
A History of Penwith’s Prehistory
A supplementary appendix to the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins.
This Prehistory section recounts a history of the megalithic period, giving a good picture of the nature of the cultures of the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, as they happened in West Penwith and Cornwall.
For a PDF copy of this section, click here.
The Megalithic Era
and what came before it
The megalithic era spans the Neolithic and much of the Bronze Age, during which time the great stone constructions of West Penwith were built. However, the customary threefold division of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages tends to obscure the true shape and sequentiality of the megalithic period and the evolving culture behind it.
Some principles and traditions of this 2,500-year period carried over into later times, as far as the late medieval period – a further 2,500ish years. So this involves a five-millennium cultural thread.
Megalithic culture spans large chunks of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, though not all of either. There is a problem: these two archaeological periods do not fit well with the shape of the megalithic period. There is a big difference between the early Neolithic of the late 4000s, the mid-Neolithic of the 3000s (when the quoits of Penwith were built), and the late Neolithic of the early 2000s when, according to the archaeological record, little activity seemingly took place in Penwith.
However, there was greater similarity between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age, since they had a certain continuity and sequence to them. The arrival of bronze made a big difference, just as computers have done today, though it represented a step-change in developments already started rather than a discontinuity and a new start.
So there is a problem with archaeological ages. Similarly, there was a big difference between the early/mid-Bronze Age, when the menhirs and stone circles were built, and the late Bronze Age. This post-megalithic period, beginning around 1200 BCE, represented a great divide in British history. The late Bronze Age morphed into the Iron Age around 800ish BCE, acting as a prelude to it, so these can be regarded as a kind of continuity.
The usual archaeological ages don’t necessarily serve us well from a megalithic perspective, though they are well embedded. We need, for our purposes, to de-emphasise the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, and to think in terms of earlier and later megalithic periods. It’s worth thinking of a ‘true Neolithic’ in the 3000s, a ‘big Bronze Age’ from 2800ish to 1200ish BCE, and a ‘big Iron Age’ from 1200ish to, in Cornwall, around CE 300. The Roman invasion only indirectly affected Cornwall, so the Iron Age lasted later here and in Ireland and Highland Scotland, transitioning gradually into early medieval times. In some respects, these three ‘big’ periods more accurately reflect the real-life chapters of Cornish prehistory.
The customary Neolithic-Bronze-Iron nomenclature skews public and academic perceptions. Archaeologists call the early stages of sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge ‘late Neolithic’ when really they are Bronze Age precursors. The bank-and-ditch henge at Stonehenge, built around 3000 BCE, is characteristically Neolithic while the erection of the sarsen stones around 2500, after the site had been abandoned for a century, is characteristically Bronze Age, and Stonehenge’s final form came 200-300 years later at the peak of the Bronze Age. Categorising sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge as Neolithic, when most of their architecture relates to the Bronze Age, detracts from understanding the ‘true Neolithic’ of the 3000s. The ‘true Neolithic’ is the period when the astronomical, geomantic and mathematical ideas and principles used in the Bronze Age had first been thought up and established.
The drama and scale of some Bronze Age sites overshadows the fact that most of the pioneering innovations of the megalithic period were conceived in the Neolithic 3000s, mainly in the west and north of Britain, particularly in Orkney and the Hebrides where, together with the Boyne valley in Ireland, the earliest advanced megalithic sites were built. However, they came a few centuries after the quoits and tor enclosures of Penwith, and other sites around Britain.
There’s an extra issue too: the timing of the beginning of the Bronze Age, based on the adoption of bronze, is loosely assumed to be contemporaneous with the megalithic boom driving the construction of sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge, or the stone circle building period in Penwith, but this is questionable since the start of the megalithic boom preceded the Beaker influx and the adoption of bronze. The Beaker influx gave it new energy and nuance but megalith building had already started a century and more earlier.
The archaeological ages are distinguished on the basis of tool technologies, not psycho-spiritual, social and cultural fundamentals. The arrival of copper and bronze made an enormous difference in terms of human capability, particularly in enabling clearance of wildwood and tilling of land, but it was not a key element in mega-lithic geoengineering and neither did it greatly alter the course of megalithic development. If we compare the Neolithic 3000s with the late Neolithic in the early 2000s BCE, there was a continuity of core knowledge – astronomy, geomancy and ancient principles – but there was a fundamental difference in architecture, project-scale, ambitions, population and available resources. There is thus a closer cultural continuity between late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites than between mid-Neolithic and late Neolithic sites.
Contents of this Section
The Megalithic Era | Overview
The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE
The Bronze Age | 2300-900 BCE
Iron Age Penwith | 900 BCE - CE 300