The Bronze Age Zenith - 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 Bronze Age Zenith

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

The Bronze Age Zenith
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.


The high megalithic period lasted from 2200ish to 1800ish BCE. 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.

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.

The Bronze Age megalith-building enterprise in Penwith seems to have arisen quite quickly, and it makes sense that much of the impetus for this may have come from Brittany and Iberia. However, much of the necessary knowledge had already been applied to Penwith’s Neolithic sites a millennium earlier, 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 arose locally, inspired by examples from other parts of Britain and Ireland, to be supplemented by knowledge, particularly in cairn building, brought in by the Beaker migrants.

After the NBA a second phase of the Bronze Age arose around 2250-1950, according to the archaeological record. Building, clearance, population growth, economic and cultural development made Britain a leading culture in Europe. 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 1950ish to 1700ish, Britain was a cultural exporter. Its crafts, metals and ideas spread through Europe and the Med – and, of course, influences and goods came back.

Following this, up to around 1500 BCE, it was more or less ‘business as usual’. During phases such as this, unless disrupted, life goes on and people experience 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 replicated and 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 during this period. In history, stable periods are more common than we often believe because historians tend to look for change, dramas and marked events, overlooking stable, peaceful times of continuation, seeing them as unremarkable.


Bosiliack Barrow
Penwith was significant amongst megalithic areas in Britain, of which there were fifteen or so other concentrations: 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. What characterises Penwith is that, together with Orkney, it is small, dense and clearly contained by its coastline.

Locational factors became more complex and subtle in the Bronze Age: visit Boscawen-ûn or the Merry Maidens and the significance of their positioning is not immediately obvious – they appear to be situated on unremarkable slopes without the best of views. Yet they sit atop blind springs, with sightlines to holy hills and ancient sites, acting as alignment intersections and drawing in astronomical factors. They were probably landscaped, to optimise the sense of psychogeographic axiality that arises in the intensified reality-field at stone circles – today’s farming landscape obscures this perceptual nuance.

There is much more to decipher in understanding megalithic science. While progress has been made by researchers on the geometry of stone circles, archaeoastronomical and other locational factors, this is yet to be done systematically in Penwith – more work is needed on locational geometry, systematic dowsing surveys, and research on intervisibility and archaeoastronomy. 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 houses, villages and everyday items from much of the Bronze Age. Such finds more commonly come from the late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Clearly Bronze Age people had a decent life, not just scratching around for survival. Their living structures were wooden, which would have sufficed in the warmer and fairer climate of the time, and bronze tools were used for chopping and working wood, but signs of constructed domestic and farming stonework are strangely unusual, as are finds of durable metalware. Though organic items have decomposed, pottery finds are common. It is, nonetheless, surprising how few settlements and utility objects have been found.

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 remarkable 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 density of sites indicates a longstanding accumulation of megalithic landscaping, whereas in the south, cleared and colonised in the NBA and early Bronze Age, the systematic building of new 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 2000. After that, cairns and barrows were added over time, together with some local extensions and additions (perhaps the menhirs around Sennen or the Lamorna plateau menhirs). It is likely that the two big circular enclosures at Castle an Dinas and Caer Brân came around 1800. Apart from funerary cairns for the great and good, further building stopped by around 1500. By now, Bronze Age civilisation was running out of vigour. While things were beginning to change, it continued a further three centuries until around 1200, where archaeologists get more excited, because permanent settlements, hill camps and signs of serious farming, trade and conflict become visible – society becomes more competitive and stratified, therefore more comprehensible to modern researchers.

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