Age of the Longstone Builders | The Bronze Age 2300-800 BCE
The Megalith Builders
Boswens menhir, Dry Carn
The arrival of menhirs and stone circles was symptomatic of a cultural shift, bringing less of a light touch on the earth and more engineering and alteration of it. In building megaliths people sought to support and magnify natural energy conditions in the land, sky, the human and spirit worlds, 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, and ropes and invocations working together. People were clearly adept in engineering and an advanced system of thinking gave logic to their geomancy.
Neolithic Cornish had been transhumant smallholders, herders, hunters, fishers and foragers, moving around their patches with the seasons. Maintaining and enhancing the fertility of the land as well as they could, living in extended tribal kinship networks, moving between summer and winter settlements, people worked the soil, cleared rocks and developed garden-fields following the contours of the land and utilising patches of good soil. When land lost fertility they would leave it fallow, returning years later. Land management, fertilisation, seed improvement and husbandry were developing, though since these were relatively good times there was little pressure to change. A need for change arose 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 dominant, creating an open landscape with fields, pastures, parklands and woodlands never seen before. This evolving mindset proliferated as woodland clearance increased and tools improved. Populations grew, attitudes changed and impacts on the 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 cultural 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 forms of advanced 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 built into sites in the Boyne valley, the Hebrides and Orkney centuries earlier – and seemingly some of this knowledge in mathematics and astronomy was taught to the Egyptians by the Britons. 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 shared design themes spread 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 institution of druids, ovates, bards and elders. A Neolithic shaman, or a villager with a gift of spirit, would be mentored by his or her predecessor and to an extent was self-trained by direct initiatory experience, whereas Bronze Age druids will have had a more structured training, with specialisms, attainment goals, tests, rituals and traditions. This was not like the elite priesthoods we see in later times, but the development of an advanced theology does tend to stratify society. Nevertheless, the longevity of Bronze Age civilisation suggests that something was more or less right about it, and it had popular support.
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 village beliefs and rituals with local shamanic roots;
- monastic orders – theological, scriptural and ritual practices, drawing on meditation and study, framed around a fusion of Buddhism and Tibetan Bön shamanic traditions; and,
- hermit yogis – who attained inner realisation through lengthy retreat and solitary practice, ‘maintaining the purity of the Dharma’.
In terms of spiritual authority, monks and abbots would defer to the 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 hermit sages with the priesthood might have pertained in Bronze Age Britain. Bronze age druidry was a pre-literate, pre-doctrinal faith where rules and rituals were maintained through an oral and initiatory tradition. Druids were probably quite an individualistic lot, many of them wanderers. But they received a solid, protracted training, judging by later Iron Age druidic traditions.
This is qualified guesswork backed by circumstantial evidence: ancient sites across Penwith and throughout Britain had a technical consistency, demonstrating detailed, advanced knowledge that remained consistent over a wide area over many centuries. This could only have been held by a caucus of specialised knowledge-holders – academics of the day. It would have required an expert group spread across Britain and Ireland, with special centres and colleges but also travelling around. Yet every site across Britain was also unique – the uniformity that we are accustomed to today was a thing of empires that would hit Britain only when the Romans came.
 Knight, Christopher & Lomas, Robert, Uriel’s Machine, Random House, 1999