Sanctifiers of Belerion | The Neolithic 4500-2500 BCE
New Stone Age Penwith | The World Spirit
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.
The half-millennium from around 3700 to 3200 BCE saw the first, Neolithic phase of the megalithic period. Lift-off occurred around 3700-3500 and things seemingly cruised along from there.
Penwithians had a sufficiently good life to be able to invest their energies in longterm engineering projects. The first sign of this was the building of the tor enclosures, unique to SW Britain, though there are not dissimilar sites in the Preseli Mountains of Wales and the Pennine Peak District – but they are not built around granite tors. Since Preseli and Cornwall are maritime neighbours, this makes some sense, though it is an open question whether or not the Pennine people independently thought up such enclosures.
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 places, not living places (only 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 were 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 establishing 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. Everything revolved around these places. This notion of here was vital: wherever they were, Neolithic people stood at the centre of their universe, but some centres were super-central. The tor enclosures, quoits and carns were like gravity-centres or nodes from which the Neolithics’ perceptual reality-fields radiated – just as Trafford Park is the centre of the shared reality-field of Manchester United supporters.
The cliff sanctuaries were important too. The evidence comes from backbone alignments, demonstrating how the cliff sanctuaries were crucial in the formative geomancy of Penwith and the positioning of key sites. Peripheral, they were also central in their own way, like the anchor-points of a spider’s web or a tapestry. While 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 cliff sanctuary, and this preoccupation with ramparts leads them 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.
I suggest we 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. Three characteristics were shared by all of them: they were natural power places and 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, as is demonstrated in the quoits which I have suggested are energy chambers, plugged into underground, landscape and astronomical energy-systems. In engineering terms, these were the trickiest, most advanced constructions of the whole megalithic period in Penwith, for their time involving quite advanced 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 stones lying somewhere in the landscape that represent technical failures.
Often ascribed to the Iron Age, Chûn Castle is a Neolithic hill with an enclosure that was largely obliterated when the Iron Age camp was built on top, and the rest is concealed under the furze. It didn’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 in Penwith. The Neolithic enclosure would have been residential. In the Iron Age it was more industrial.
 Weatherhill, Craig, The Promontory People: An Early History of the Cornish, Francis Boutle Publishers, 2018.