The Bronze Age and its Prelude - 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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The Bronze Age and its Prelude

Age of the Longstone Builders | The Bronze Age 2300-800 BCE

The Bronze Age and its Prelude

Boscawen-ûn stone circle
Boscawen-un
In the initial two-thirds of the Bronze Age came the second phase of the megalithic era, starting around 2500 BCE, lifting off around 2300, peaking around 2000-1800, then continuing into a stable period up to 1500ish. The Bronze Age saw the arrival of stone circles, standing stones and high culture in Britain and Ireland. The late Bronze Age was, however, a different story.

The notion of a Bronze Age is rather misleading. The rise of the use of bronze around 2200 BCE was important, though in Penwith it was locally processed and crafted only from 1800 onward. Up to then tin ingots were exported in exchange for bronze products. Bronze was not the trigger driving the rise of megalithic civilisation, but it played a part.

There’s a confusion between the megalithic ascendancy and the beginning of the Bronze Age. In the preceding chapter it was suggested that menhir and stone circle building had already started when the Beaker influx and the ensuing use of copper and bronze came about. Even if the difference was but fifty years, a short time, fifty years ago the internet didn’t exist. Megalithic culture in Penwith was cranking up around 2500-2400, during the NBA, while in parts of Britain and Ireland it had come a little earlier.

Dated from around 2300 to around 800 BCE, the Bronze Age is usually divided into three parts, the first two of which are megalithic in significance:

  • 2300-1500 early Bronze Age (eight centuries);
  • 1500-1200 middle Bronze Age (three centuries);
  • 1200-800 late Bronze Age (four centuries).

Here we’re interested in the early and middle Bronze Age, though we’ll cover the late period at the end. Early Bronze Age civilisation marked a high-point in British history and also the zenith of the megalithic era. Things cruised along for several centuries until 1500ish. In the subsequent period from 1500 to 1200 the culture shifted toward custom and tradition, doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Meanwhile, emergent changes led to the end of the megalithic period around 1200.

The Early Bronze Age

The Bronze Age was so named due to the adoption of bronze technologies. Pen-with became an exporter of tin, a key ingredient in bronze, and some copper and gold, while importing bronze items, mainly from Ireland and Wales. Strangely, Penwithians did not seem to take up bronze-working until around 1800 BCE, even though they had access to knowhow. Perhaps the barter and trade system discouraged a local craft industry since importing was easier, or perhaps there was a local consensus preferring to keep life relatively simple.

Megalith building in Penwith grew to a peak between 2400 and 1800 BCE. By 1800 BCE there are signs of a relatively dense population that might have reached 10,000. Reliable dating is vague, patchy and unsystematic, so the timing and sequence of megalith-building remain shrouded in mist.

Penwithians were transhumant until 1500ish, as gardeners and small farmers, still gaining much of their nourishment from game, seafood and foraging. Seemingly they were not greatly smitten with material growth and did not settle into permanent, stone-built settlements until the decline of the megalithic period.

This throws some light on the continuity of their worldview, still shamanic, with an attitude of numinous cooperation with nature and the world of spirit. Tribal relations were largely communal and, while people impacted significantly on nature, they did so with a philosophy that people later incrementally lost: an approach of working together with subtle energy, natural cycles and forces, to foster land fertility and improve the fortunes of tribes.

In the later 2000s, memorialisation of individuals in cairns was uncommon. Most funerary evidence from that time consists of the bone chips of lots of people stored together in urns – suggesting collective ancestor and tribal rites, not personal, whole-body burial. Cairn burials were often done around the edges, as if as an afterthought or supplement, not a primary reason for cairn-building.

Corpse disposal might not have been the main point here, since cremation and other means were also common at the time, and people seem not to have been highly ritualised in their funerary habits. The reasons for burial in cairns and barrows might well have been geomantic, creating links in the overall system of sites in Penwith, or relating to shamanic dialogues between the living and the dead, or to empowerment, blessing and protection of the land by burying revered people in key places – such as the Boscregan cairns, Carn Mên Ellas, Caer Brân, Bartinney Castle or the cairns atop Watch Croft.

As time went on worldviews changed, and by the 1500s BCE burials of the great and good in cairns and barrows had become more common. While this might have been seen as a form of blessing and land-empowerment, the emphasis was tilting toward memorialising the high-born – a trend which, by the late 1000s, had become distinct aristocrat-led social stratification. Deeper down, it symptomised a profound shift from a cooperative-sympathetic way of life toward a competitive, hierarchical, patronage-based model of belief and social organisation – perhaps a longterm effect of Beaker-modernising influences, arriving centuries before.

The Beaker Influx

Signs of activity in Penwith emerged from 2500ish – or so the rather fuzzy archaeological consensus goes. Yet sites in the Boyne valley in Ireland, built around 3300-2900, Callanish in the Hebrides and Stenness in the Orkneys, built around 3000, were there centuries earlier. Even so, few, or no, known remains from the 500 years preceding 2500 are found in Penwith. This was either genuinely a fallow time, or insufficient evidence has been unearthed, or insufficient dating work has been done, or ideas around the dating and sequencing of this period need re-examining.

The evolving situation in Britain was much affected by the Beaker influx, a steady trickle of ideas, technologies and people migrating in the 2400s and 2300s from two regions: people from Brittany and Iberia went to Cornwall, Ireland and up the Irish Sea coast, and those from the Rhineland and Danube areas, arriving slightly later, settled in the east of Britain. A proportion were travellers and artisans, followed over the years by families and relatives as settlers. They seem not to have come in tribal migrations but as individuals and groups as part of normal interaction between peoples.

Here we need to backtrack. The proto-Celtic peoples of the Tagus valley in Iberia, arriving in Cornwall during the Neolithic, also occupied the Biscay and Brittany regions. The Tagus flows from eastern Spain westwards to Lisbon in Portugal, through the centre of Spain. These people weren’t Celtic, but the proto-Celtic cultural and linguistic grouping was later to emerge among this array of peoples, after the fall of the megalithic era.

They were made up of a fusion of local Iberians with migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who converged many centuries earlier. Archaeologists call them Maritime Bell Beaker folk, based on a characteristic pottery drinking flask they used. These incomers had adopted copper working around 2700 BCE in Iberia, toughening it with arsenic and sulphates to make an early form of bronze. Some migrated north to Biscay, Brittany, Britain and Ireland from 2500 onward, while others migrated east to the Seine and Rhineland from around 2600 BCE.

In Rhineland they met up with migrating peoples who had spread up the Danube valley. These were a mixture of Neolithic Danubians (Lithuanian archaeologist Maria Gimbutas called them Old Europeans)[1] and Indo-European Kurgan or Yamnaya people who had migrated around 2800 BCE up the Danube, originating from Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Gimbutas identified the Danubians as a matrifocal goddess culture that was subsumed by patriarchal Kurgans. The mingling of Atlantic with Danubian-Yamnaya peoples in the Danube and Rhineland headwaters created a hybrid Bronze Age culture that archaeologists call the Corded Ware culture, after another style of drinking vessel.

Some of these hybrid folk migrated to eastern Britain around 2300-2200 BCE, later than the Atlantic people who migrated to and through Cornwall around 2500-2300, both of them bringing new knowledge and capability in working copper and, later, bronze. The Cornish had had contact with Beaker Bretons through longstanding maritime contacts, so Beaker ideas and innovations probably arrived before people did.

Here lies the origin of proto-Celtic culture and languages. The Beaker people laid the foundations, then time and circumstance rolled on for more than a millennium before the Celtic tongues and the shape of Celtic culture emerged during the late Bronze and early Iron Ages. Proto-Celtic was a coastal Atlantic pan-tribal tongue used by peoples with differing languages and dialects,[2] moving up to Britain with the Beaker migrants, travellers and mariners.

The Beaker influx, so named after the pottery drinking vessels these people brought with them (they brought social boozing too), was a change-bringer. With the arrival of the Beaker folk, the Bronze Age and all that came with it really lifted off. This wasn’t just about metallurgy: with the influx came advances in husbandry, land improvement, carpentry, textile weaving, tools, medicine and many other things, and greater social diversity and skill specialisation, new seed and animal stocks, ideas, designs and language.

Conceivably the influx might have created underlying divisions between the Britons themselves – divisions between early adopters of new ideas and those not doing so. This was not just a classic rift between modernisers and traditionalists, but also a disparity between more and less accessible areas of Britain. Some researchers suggest that a form of cultural competition took place, wherein the incomers competed for control through cultural capture (though not destruction and conflict, for which there is no evidence). But more signs point toward relatively friendly settlement and intermixing. Migrant numbers were not enormous, yet it seems these were high-impact immigrants. Perhaps by osmosis they gradually became a new elite or merged easily into the existing one. Incomers tend to work hard and, within a few generations, their offspring infiltrate indigenous elites, often through sheer skill and aptitude, so gradual capture of elite positions can happen naturally over the generations.

It seems that the incomers had a more hierarchical, individualistic social structure, while the indigenals were more communal and esoteric in outlook. Both had something to offer each other but there were surely differences too. Over time an upswing grew out of this cultural fusion, intermixing and intermarriage. This period, the NBA, is not at all clear in shape and sequence, and the scenarios portrayed here are a best guess.

The evidence that does exist suggests that new Beaker influences were grafted onto an indigenous megalithic upswing that was already taking shape. The incomers didn’t seem as interested as the Britons in building sophisticated megaliths, though they did build barrows and cairns, based on the kurgan mounds. Long cairns, not a difficult invention to conceive, had already been built in Neolithic Britain, so the Beaker people didn’t invent a new idea – perhaps they gave the Cornish added impetus to build cairns, though for their own geomantic purposes and reflecting their own beliefs and worldview. Meanwhile, the Beaker folk tended toward using cairns for burial of their notables. Thus, there might have been a variety of motives and purposes for building cairns and barrows.

This intermingling of ideas and people led to the ascent of one of the great civilisations of prehistory which, by the 1800s BCE, was an exporter of ideas and knowledge, together with adornments, metals, crafts and clothing to Europe and the Mediterranean. In the Iron Age, the druids of Gaul and much of Europe looked up to the British druids, and this primacy probably began in the Bronze Age because Britain and Ireland had become standard-setting centres of excellence in megalithic culture. Contrary to the customary archaeological tradition of diffusionism, which regards all things civilised to have come from the Near East, at this time the net flow went in the other direction, with Britain as a cultural exporter.

Copper, an attractive metal and easily workable for adornments, mirrors, needles, blades and utensils, improved people’s lives but it was too malleable for use in making tools needing a tougher material. Once the alloying of copper with tin was developed, producing hardened bronze, people’s capacities in farming, woodwork and crafts escalated thanks to a dramatic improvement in the durability and sharpness of knives, axes, ploughs and tools.

Recent studies have revealed a surprising 90% change in the genetics of the British sometime after 2300ish – that is, sometime after the Beaker influx had started.[3] This happened to a lesser extent across Europe. Prehistorians previously had it that the Beaker influx was an inflow of ideas more than of people. This recently discovered genetic change suggests however, that people – specifically male genes – had a big impact. The indigenous female mitochondrial line remained intact and consistent while much of the indigenous male gene pool was replaced by Beaker-origin male genetics. It could have meant warfare, rape and pillage, though there is no evidence of these – the signs are of a welcome. This implies a possible infertility crisis among indigenous males around the time of the inward migration of Beaker males, many possibly travellers, artisans and traders without families.

If this genetic change was caused by a health condition affecting male fertility, no sign of mass graves has been found. The change may have been incremental, leading to a die-out and replacement of indigenous male genes over several generations. One possibility is that, given the tribal-communal society, partially polyamorous, male Beaker DNA infiltrated the gene pool, replacing indigenous genes by accretion. As far as we know, genetic paternity was not clearly understood then, and social structures were such that identifying precisely whose children belonged to whom was not a primary concern. They were tribal children.

There are a few problems with this 90% finding, such as the small sample sizes used in the study and the limited areas that they were taken from, so the matter is as yet unsettled. Genetic samples were extracted from graves and cists, elite burials in relatively cosmopolitan parts of what is now England. The extent to which Beaker genetics spread across the whole population, especially in remoter areas such as Cornwall, is an open question.

A discovery in Sweden of the arrival of a disease at that time has found that the indigenous population there was wiped out by Yamnaya incomers from the Caucasus – ancestors of the blonder strain of modern Nordics.  This provides a viable, though as yet unconfirmed, hypothesis explaining this population replacement. Speculation has it that people in Britain and Scandinavia lacked immunity, so they could have been much reduced by the influx.

However, since the Cornish Beaker influx came from Brittany and Iberia, not central Europe, such immunity issues might have been less applicable here. Significant population replacement does seem to have happened in Britain, but perhaps not to the extent that has been rather sensationally claimed. There are no conclusive signs of significant population decline during the late 2000s but, if it lasted a few decades with numbers reviving soon after, the accuracy of archaeological dating techniques is insufficient to track changes on a small timescale of decades.

There’s another quandary too: this genetic change happened at roughly the same time as the building of copious numbers of Bronze Age monuments all over Britain – and such construction is not a sign of population decline. Major construction projects require a buildup of capacity to support the necessary skill-development and work. So, the later 2000s BCE contain many quandaries that remain to be cleared up.   


[1] Maria Gimbutas wrote three noteworthy books in English: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe (1974); The Language of the Goddess (1989), and The Civilization of the Goddess (1991).
[2] Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts, second ed, Oxford Univ Press, 2017, Ch 3.
[3] Ancient Britons ‘replaced’ by Newcomers, BBC News, 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43115485 | Olalde, I, et al, The Beaker Phenomenon and the Genomic Transformation of Northwest Europe, 2017. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/135962v1.article-info
Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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