The Megalithic Era - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
Site nearly complete - organically growing
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
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The Megalithic Era

Prehistory > The Megalithic Era
Shining Land | Part Three
A History of Penwith’s Prehistory

Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.

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This Prehistory section of the website is devoted to a history of the megalithic period, giving a good picture of the nature of the cultures of the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age, as they happened in West Penwith and Cornwall.
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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 monuments of West Penwith were built. Some of the 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. However, the customary three-fold 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.

Megalithic culture spans large chunks of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. There is a big difference between the mid-Neolithic of the 3000s and late Neolithic of the early 2000s. There was less difference between the late Neolithic and the early Bronze Age, since they had a certain continuity and sequence.

Similarly, there was a big difference between the early-to-mid and the late Bronze Ages, as the megalithic period fizzled away, creating a great divide in British history. The late Bronze Age morphed into the Iron Age around 800ish BCE, acting as a prelude to it, and these can also be regarded as a kind of continuity.

So the usual archaeological ages don’t necessarily serve us well, from a megalithic perspective. Problem is, they are well embedded, to the extent that it’s still necessary to use such ideas.

We need, for our purposes, to reduce the importance of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, and to think in terms of an earlier and a later megalithic period. It’s worth thinking in terms of a ‘true Neolithic’ in the 3000s, a ‘big Bronze Age’ from 2800ish through to 1200ish BCE, and a ‘big Iron Age’ from 1200ish to, in Cornwall, around CE 300. The Roman invasion of the 40s CE only indirectly affected Cornwall, so the Iron Age continued later here and in Ireland and Highland Scotland, transitioning more gradually into early medieval times. In some respects, these three ‘big’ periods more accurately reflect the real-life chapters of Cornish prehistory.

Retaining the customary Neolithic-Bronze-Iron nomenclature skews public and academic perceptions. Archaeologists call the early versions of sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge ‘late Neolithic’ when they are more realistically Bronze Age precursors. Actually, 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, while Stonehenge’s final form came 200-300 years later. Categorising sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge as Neolithic detracts from understanding the ‘true Neolithic’ period of the 3000s. Most of the architecture in both places comes from the Bronze Age.

Perhaps the drama and scale of these later sites overshadows the fact that many of the core pioneering innovations of the megalithic period happened in the Neolithic 3000s, especially in the west and north of Britain, particularly right up in Orkney and the Hebrides where, together with the Boyne valley in Ireland, the earliest advanced megalithic sites were built.

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 contemporary with the megalithic boom driving the construction of earlier sites such as Avebury and Stonehenge, or the stone circle building period in Penwith, but this is incorrect 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 it had already started a century and more earlier.

The archaeological ages are distinguished on the basis of tool technologies, not psychospiritual, social and cultural fundamentals. The arrival of copper and bronze made an enormous difference in terms of human capability, particularly in enabling the clearance of wildwood and tilling of land, but it was not a key element in megalithic 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 resources. There is thus a closer cultural continuity between late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites than between Neolithic and late Neolithic sites.

Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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