The Neolithic Zenith - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
Shining Land
and what they tell us about megalithic civilisation
Go to content

The Neolithic Zenith

Sanctifiers of Belerion | The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE

The Neolithic Zenith

Neolithic placed stone on Sperris Croft (Zennor Hill)
Placed stones on Zennor Hill
In the immigration period around 3700ish BCE from Biscay and Iberia, Cornwall was the first place migrants reached, and many passed further up the Irish Sea. These people built the quoits and tor enclosures, or at least they provided the ideas and impetus for it.

While numbers arriving were a steady trickle, a few small boatloads at a time, a gradual cultural grafting took place. Perhaps these incomers were influential at an early stage, fulfilling a need by bringing valuable knowledge, resources and skills. Perhaps Britain was seen as a land of opportunity or it was experiencing an upswing that incomers were drawn to join.

Society, though tribal, became by degrees more specialised and stratified. Within tribes, those with skills, leadership and respect gained seniority, becoming elders, wisewomen, shamans, healers, bards, artisans and builders. They held specialist expertise in plant knowledge, astronomy, language, history and genealogy, building, woodwork, midwifery, medicine and husbandry. Many of these talents were later associated with the druids of the Iron Age. Advanced thinking on time and tide, medicine, mathematics, science, husbandry and engineering was part of this evolution.

Life was communally based. The individualism we now cherish would then have been looked on as a bleak societal tragedy. Individuals would have taken on skills and roles to suit the tribe’s needs. People would still have had personality issues and differing views, with soap-operas of their own. But in the end it was a matter of deferring to the priorities of the tribe – or leaving and striking out to create an offshoot. Tribal wealth took the form of land stewardship, animal pedigrees, seed stocks, tools, boats, dwellings, skills, community support systems and comforts such as furs, adornments, woven and felted woollens, even gold picked from the land, then beaten and fashioned into valuables. Ancestry and genetic stock in humans, domesticated or herded animals were assets, as were knowledge and psycho-spiritual attainment.

Humans gradually changed the face of the land: clearings and trackways multiplied and dedicated sacred sites were built – tor enclosures, quoits, longbarrows, placed stones and possibly wooden edifices or posts long gone. A big investment of energy and time was put into these sites, and Neolithics saw little difference between their sacred and practical purposes. The inner powers of nature and the presence of the ancestors were invoked to aid in harvests and culls, tool- and clothes-making and the birth of children. There were observances to conduct and propitious times for different activities.

In some localities such as Chûn, Bosporthennis and Zennor Hill, people impacted noticeably on nature, making clearings, building and moving things around, making a mark, moulding their reality and leaving lasting remains. Yet they still felt like guests in a world dominated by nature and these developments were modest. When an animal was hunted, the soul of that species would be asked to yield an offering, which it might or might not do. With only spears, slingshots, bows and arrows, a hunter had far more chance of being hurt or killed than a modern gun-toting hunter of today – and in those days they had to get much closer to their prey.

The Neolithics had specialist skills and knowledge to help deal with life’s challenges. An intuitive and dowsing ability was clearly used in the location, orientation and design of early sites, yet the signs are that it was also thought through and discussed carefully. One symptom is the coordinated astronomical siting of quoits. Orienting and aligning sacred sites was established as a principle, presumably by the incomers, and it is reasonable to assume that many of these ideas came over the sea from the south, with tweaks added.

These people accrued a growing sense of human distinctiveness, feeling a need to claim specific hills, tors, carns and headlands for gatherings and as human places. Enclosing some of the tors with rock walls and banks, they made tor enclosures – designating them as ‘magic mountains’. Drawing a circle to distinguish inside from outside and higher from lower realms, they consecrated the tors as sacred space. The sky-spirits, ancestors and stars were close.

Tor enclosures represented the emergence of the idea of a temple, a dedicated place more holy or special than elsewhere. Perhaps mainly reserved for shamans and initiates, everyone will have gone there at special times, for rites, celebrations or learning. This culture was well capable of advanced thinking, as shown in the design of the quoits – not just neat piles of rocks. An understanding of astronomy, the patterns and cycles of nature, medicine, crafts, artisanry, husbandry and horticulture was a survival necessity.
New Stone Age Penwith

The 500 years from around 3700 to 3200 BCE saw the first phase of the megalithic period. Lift-off occurred around 3700-3500 and things seemingly cruised along from there for a few centuries. Penwithians had a sufficiently good life to be able to invest their energies in longterm engineering projects.

Though tor enclosures are unique to SW Britain, there are similar sites in the Preseli Mountains of Wales and the Pennine Peak District – though not built around granite tors. Since Preseli and Cornwall are maritime neighbours, this makes some sense, though it is a question whether or not the Pennine people independently thought up such enclosures. Hilltop causewayed enclosures upcountry in England worked on a similar principle.

The tors started out as much-visited hilltops, enabling a bird’s-eye view over the wildwood – important for people’s sanity and sense of geography. These were meeting and ceremonial, not living places (though Trencrom Hill would be comfortable to stay on), though in summer and at special times of year people would have overnighted there or nearby. The tors had been used since time began, though their enclosure around 3700 BCE marked a shift in the evolution of people’s relationship with the landscape. It involved claiming and prioritising human space.

Certain landscape features and power points were important to the Neolithics simply because they gave a sense of standing somewhere special. Psychogeographically, everything revolved around these places. This notion of here was vital: the tor enclosures, quoits and carns were like gravity-centres or nodes from which the Neolithics’ perceptual reality-fields radiated.

The cliff sanctuaries were more important than many people realise. The evidence for this comes from backbone alignments, which demonstrate how the cliff sanctuaries were counted as crucial in the formative geomancy of Penwith and the positioning of key sites.  Peripheral to the peninsula, they were crucial, acting like the anchor-points of a web. While cliff sanctuaries are normally dated to the Iron Age and regarded as defensive, reconsideration is overdue. The boundary ramparts by which archaeologists date ‘cliff castles’ to the Iron Age simply give a date for those banks, not for the first significant use of the cliff sanctuary, and this preoccupation with ramparts and castles has led archaeologists to believe these sites exist for defensive purposes. By the same logic we could say that city parks, locked up each night, are defensive too.

We need to think again about cliff sanctuaries, not only about their dating but also their purpose and characteristics. Recognising three types of cliff sanctuary  and entertaining the idea of their being power places with a variety of functions and flavours is well worth a try. These were not just any old headland. They shared three key characteristics: they were natural power places, human-consecrated sites, and they played a key role in the alignments system.

They had their practical value too. As prominent coastal landmarks cliff sanctuaries were valued not only for their sense of space and enchantment, but also because the Cornish were fishers, sealers, whalers, egg-collectors and mariners. The sea speaks and people listened. When pilchard shoals or whales hoved into view, out they went in boats with nets, harpoons and scoops. These headland interfaces between land, ocean and sky were numinous threshold places where worlds met and the veils of reality were thin. They were revered places – you can feel it when you visit.

The Neolithics had a somewhat high-tech approach to life by the standards of the time, as is demonstrated in the quoits – energy chambers, plugged into underground, landscape and astronomical energy-systems. In engineering terms, these were some of the trickiest, most advanced constructions of the whole megalithic period in Penwith, involving quite advanced engineering concepts and the transport, raising and propping of multi-ton capstones. Keeping capstones intact would have been an enormous logistical challenge, and there might even be some broken capstones lying somewhere in the landscape that represent technical failures.

Often ascribed to the Iron Age, Chûn Castle is a Neolithic hill with an enclosure, much of which was obliterated when an Iron Age camp was later built on top – and the rest is concealed under the heather. It doesn’t make sense that a quoit sat downhill from the hilltop without the hilltop also having been used in Neolithic times. Neolithic evidence was indeed found under the Iron Age remains – this was one of the late archaeologist Craig Weatherhill’s many notable discoveries.  The Neolithic enclosure would have been residential. In the Iron Age it was more industrial.

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