Age of the Longstone Builders | The Bronze Age 2300-800 BCE
The Bronze Age Zenith
The high Bronze Age lasted from 2200ish to 1800ish BCE with its peak after 2000. Before 2200 things are fuzzy. Some archaeologists are happy to date some sites back to around 2500, calling them ‘late Neolithic’ while others are more cautious, perhaps believing that megalithic activity started up as a result of the Beaker influx, thus tending toward 2300-2200. Insufficient systematic dating has been done to clarify this.
My suspicion is that there is something amiss in the way we currently visualise this period, and I tend toward the earlier date. Part of what drives this thought is the rather long gap between the building from around 2800 of megalithic sites in other parts of Britain and their construction a whole 400-500 years later in Penwith. Something is missing here. In those days Penwith sat in the way of such changes – it wasn’t remote and out of the way.
The Bronze Age megalith-building enterprise in Penwith seems to have arisen quite quickly, and the spark for this may have come northwards from Brittany and Iberia or southwards from Scotland and Ireland. Much of the necessary knowledge had already been applied in Penwith’s Neolithic sites, so indigenous knowhow did exist. What was needed was a burst of ideas, inspiration, drive and organisation. It is likely that the impetus to build Bronze Age sites in Penwith was inspired by examples from other parts of Britain and Ireland, supplemented by knowledge and energy accompanying the Beaker migrants.
After the NBA a second phase of the Bronze Age arose around 2250-1950. Building, clearance, population growth, economic and cultural development made Britain a leading culture. This and the next phase marked the zenith of Penwith’s Bronze Age when its ancient sites were expanded and integrated into a complete system.
In the third phase, from around 1950 to 1700, Britain was a cultural exporter. Its crafts, metals and ideas spread through Europe and the Med, and many influences and goods came back – this was a ‘globalisation phase’ of prehistory.
Following this, up to around 1500 BCE, it was more or less business as usual. During periods such as this, life goes on and people exper-ience relative stability. All is relatively well, and life’s ups and downs operate within a manageable framework – the fundamentals remain consistent. A successful formula is perpetuated since it is comfortable to do so and there is no pressing need to change it. This was happening in cultures across Europe and the Mediterranean at the time. In history, stable periods are more common than we tend to believe because historians tend to look for change, drama and distinct events, overlooking stable, peaceful, less eventful times, seeing them as unremarkable.
Penwith was significant amongst megalithic areas in Britain, of which there were fifteen or so other concentrations such as Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor, the Mendips-Cotswolds, Dorset, Salisbury Plain, Mynydd Preseli, Powys-Shropshire, Anglesey, the Peak District, Cumbria, Arran, Argyll, Aberdeenshire, the Hebrides and the Orkneys. Something clearly drove Bronze Age people to undertake engineering on this scale.
Locational factors became more complex and subtle: visit Boscawen-ûn or the Merry Maidens and the significance of their positioning is not immediately obvious – they appear to be situated on un-remarkable slopes without the best of views. Yet they sit atop blind springs, with sightlines to holy hills and other ancient sites, acting as alignment intersections and drawing in astronomical factors. They were landscaped to optimise the sense of psycho-geographic axiality that arises in the intensified reality-field of stone circle. Today’s farming landscape obscures this perceptual nuance.
There is more to decipher in megalithic science. Researchers have progressed with the geometry of stone circles, archaeoastronomical and other locational factors, though this is yet to be done system-atically in Penwith – more work on locational geometry, systematic dowsing surveys, intervisibility and archaeoastronomy is needed. It needs to be seen as a whole system.
Although megalithic constructions grew in number and complexity, Penwith is not overflowing with signs of permanent Bronze Age houses, villages and everyday items. Such finds more commonly come from the late Bronze and Iron Ages. Clearly Bronze Age people had a decent life, not just scratching around for survival. Their wooden living structures would have sufficed in the warmer and fairer climate of the time, and bronze tools were used, but signs of domestic and farming stonework are unusual, as are finds of durable metalware. However, pottery finds are common. It is surprising how few settlements and utility objects have been found from before 1500.
From our viewpoint, there is a discrepancy between the seemingly simple material standard of living and the sophisticated megalithic engineering of Bronze Age people. Even if the building of sites was spread out over generations, its integrated pattern reflects a consistency of ideas applied over time. Given that we’re talking about building a system, not just a haphazard assortment of sites, the construction probably proceeded in concentrated phases and waves. In the north, in ‘metro Penwith’ (the populated upland area between Chûn Castle and Zennor Hill), the density of sites indicates a longstanding development of megalithic landscaping, whereas in the south, colonised in the early Bronze Age, the systematic building of stone circle complexes and landscape-wide megalithic systems represented a new phase and a big expansion for Penwithians.
The main elements of the megalithic system were in place by 1800 BCE. After that, cairns and barrows were added over time, together with local extensions and additions (perhaps the menhirs around Sennen or the Lamorna plateau menhirs). The circular enclosures at Castle an Dinas, Bartinney Castle and Caer Brân came around 1800. Apart from funerary cairns for the great and good, further building slowed by around 1500.
By now, Bronze Age civilisation was running out of vigour. While circumstances began to change, it continued a further three cent-uries until around 1200. Here archaeologists get excited because permanent settlements, hill camps and signs of serious farming, trade and conflict become more visible – society becomes more competitive, stratified and comprehensible to modern researchers.