The Megalith Builders - 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 Megalith Builders

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

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

Boswens menhir
The arrival of menhirs and stone circles was symptomatic of a marked cultural shift, suggesting less of a light touch on the earth and more engineering and alteration of it. In building megaliths people sought to augment, support and magnify natural energy conditions in the land, sky, the human realm and the spirit world, calculating that it was in their best interests to do so – or perhaps they felt they had no option, or perhaps it just came naturally.

They took it upon themselves to make sympathetic interventions in nature – landscape design with a magical dimension. It was a matter of both ropes and invocations. People were clearly adept in engineering and an advanced system of thinking gave logic to their geomancy.

Neolithic Cornish had been transhumant horticulturalists, herders, hunters, fishers and gatherers, moving around their patches with the seasons. Maintaining and enhancing the fertility of the land, living in extended tribal kinship networks, moving between settlements on summer and winter lands, they worked the land, cleared rocks and developed garden-fields following the contours and utilising patches of good soil. When land lost fertility they would leave it fallow and return another time. Land management, fertilisation, seed improvement and husbandry were developing, though these were relatively good times and there was little pressure to change. This all became a more serious proposition by the late Bronze Age, when overall conditions deteriorated.

As people impacted more markedly on the landscape through wildwood clearance, it changed their psychology. Clearings and the resulting landscape were man-made – this had big implications. People’s perceptual relationship with their environment – their psychogeography and geomythology – shifted in perspective. No longer were humans just another species in a wildscape: we were distinctly dominant, creating an open landscape with established fields, pastures, parklands and woodlands, never seen before. This evolving mindset proliferated as woodland clearance increased and tools improved. Populations grew, attitudes changed and people’s capacity to impact on their local environment intensified. While plenty of woodland remained intact, a deforestation trend was gathering pace.

Arguably, in the late Neolithic, there had arisen a kind of eco-religiosity, integrating issues such as soil fertility, farming, stock and plant breeding with a magical-spiritual approach to weather, season, time and the subtleties of nature. Astronomy-astrology and geomancy were not intellectual frivolities but a form of practical knowhow needed for survival, giving people an understanding of the way energy behaves when it exudes into time and space, in turn affecting harvests and weather.

This civilisation built no cities yet its knowledge was sophisticated. Astronomical and mathematical principles embodied in the building of Egyptian constructions had been embodied in ancient sites in the Atlantic west centuries before – and there is some evidence that the Brits taught the Egyptians a thing or two concerning mathematics and astronomy.[1] The pyramids were built at the same time as the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain.

Britain was tribally and regionally organised, yet it had a common culture stretching from Cornwall to the Shetlands, shared with Ireland and Brittany. Skill-levels, advanced thinking and common threads across this megalithic zone imply the presence of a druidic, aristocratic and artisanal elite covering the whole area. Changing times brought a religious change: the morphing of a relatively informal, organic, unsystematised culture of shamans, teachers and healers into an organised priesthood of druids.

A shaman, a villager with a gift of spirit, was mentored by his or her predecessor and self-trained by direct experience, whereas Bronze Age druidry will have had a more structured training, increasing specialisms, attainment goals, tests, rituals and traditions. This was not the elite priesthood of later times, and the longevity of Bronze Age civilisation suggests that they got things more or less right and had the support of ordinary people. However, development of an advanced theology does stratify society.

In the Tibetan tradition, which morphed similarly from a shamanic to an institutional faith, Buddhism, three parallel levels of religious-spiritual practice developed:

  • folk faiths – commonly held beliefs and rituals with localised shamanic roots;
  • monastic orders – theological, scriptural and ritualistic practices, drawing on meditation and study framed around a fusion of Buddhism and Tibetan shamanic traditions; and,
  • hermit yogis – direct spiritual descendants of the shamans, who attained inner realisation through lengthy retreat and solitary yogic practice.

In terms of spiritual authority, monks and abbots would defer to the corrective influence of the yogis and by this means the faith, Dharma, was kept alive and moving, avoiding many of the theological distortions that priesthoods can create. I suspect that a similar interaction of shamans and priesthood might have pertained in Bronze Age Britain. Bronze age druidry was a pre-literate, pre-doctrinal faith where rules and rituals were maintained by an oral and initiatory tradition. Druids were probably quite an individualistic lot, many of them wanderers, if the mendicant Celtic saints and Culdees of later times were anything to go by. Nevertheless, they received a solid, protracted training, judging by later Iron Age druidic traditions.

This is qualified guesswork, backed up by circumstantial evidence: ancient sites across Penwith and throughout Britain had a technical consistency to them, demonstrating detailed, advanced knowledge that remained consistent over many centuries. This could only have been fully known by a caucus of specialised knowledge-holders – academics of the day. It would have required an expert group spread across Britain and Ireland, probably with special centres and colleges but also travelling around. Yet every site across Britain was also unique – the idea of uniformity that we are accustomed to was a thing of empires that would hit Britain only when the Romans came.

[1] Knight, Christopher & Lomas, Robert, Uriel’s Machine, Random House, 1999

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