The Decline and Fall of the Megalithic Period - 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 Decline and Fall of the Megalithic Period

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

Decline and Fall | The Late Bronze Age


Mên an Tol stone circle
Men an Tol
By 1500 BCE the megalithic impetus had slowed. Few ancient sites except burial mounds were built thereafter and a new dynamic was seeping into society. Nevertheless, life continued along traditional lines for three centuries, up to 1200 BCE. Times were moving on. Or maybe something serious was going wrong.

Perhaps it was the breaking of a spell, an enchantment, or a release from constraining traditions, since megalithic culture was well past its peak. Megalithic sites became peripheral – rather like churches and cathedrals in secular Britain today. Clearly respected as remnants of the past, they weren’t demolished, but their day was gone.

Then came the 1100s BCE. Circumstances changed fundamentally. Megalithic culture, along with ancient cultures elsewhere, was unable to meet new challenges. Something cumulative was going wrong. In history, change comes slowly at first and then it comes fast. A critical tilt or inflection of social consensus and viewpoint around 1200 occurred quite quickly. It was the end of a worldview and a reality, a soulquake whose time had seemingly come.

A concept used by some anthropologists is that of the ring of power – a virtuous cycle of mutually-reinforcing customs, consensus, ethics, kinship, solidarity and cooperation in traditional societies with low levels of social alienation, high group coherence and relatively clear shared values. Mutual trust and community convergence bring benefits and economies, building a culture of support and security that can hold up under duress. When the ring of power breaks, the results can be tragic, dramatic and deeply emotional, fundamentally undermining social trust.

Society went through a reset in the late Bronze Age. Pending issues went critical: viral ideas, decisive events and changing conditions sparked shifts in viewpoint and circumstance. The extent of social-cultural change taking place at the time is, I believe, underestimated – it was one of Britain’s defining, traumatic change-points, and its consequences rippled into the longterm future. Not just the fall of a culture, it was the fall of an ethic, an optic, a worldview.[1]

The early-mid Bronze Age embodied a fundamentally different mindset and social order to that of the late Bronze Age. Its breakdown represented the beginning of an enormous transition from a relatively cooperative model of organisation to a society where the strong got what they wanted and the rest got what they could. By the time the Romans came along a thousand years later, this megatrend was serious. In terms of the development of patriarchal social relations and patterns, 1200 BCE and the Roman invasion around CE 50 were both critical points.

Something unravelled in the implicit social contract that bids a society: a level of inherent social relatedness, trust, shared interest and sustainability subsided. The emphasis shifted from one of comparative cooperation, care for and trust in the people and the world, toward one of care for my family, our clan, our lands and our fortunes – because life is tough and it’s ‘every man for himself’. Cultivating good fortune turned into hedging against misfortune. Fear entered into social and religious beliefs.

Traumatic breakdown and separation periods like this leave a big shadow in the collective psyche, or in that of particular ethnicities, social classes or subgroups. In the Middle East the breaking of the ring of power started millennia ago, in Britain it happened around 1200 BCE, and in isolated cultures of recent years it broke down only in recent generations.

The early Bronze Age was neither ideal nor was it heaven on earth, but at its peak it marked a golden age, with a higher level of social cohesion than has been seen in Britain since. But something slowly ossified following the Bronze Age zenith. By 1200 the climate had deteriorated, social norms were shifting and trade sank with the collapsing Mediterranean civilisations. New generations, tired of the same old formula and traditions of the past, sought to take life in their hands.

The first hill camps were built by an emergent warlord class for whom strength, status, wealth and power were important. Hill camps, though many were defensible, were not forts – they hosted markets, fayres and services. People loved gathering and trading, and these warlords morphed into oligarchs. Many hill camps were built around the 1100s-1000s during times of reactivity, territoriality and cultural downturn. The former allegiances, conventions and agreements of earlier times had cracked apart.

Those with options would align with leaders offering the best protection and advantages, and the rest had to stay out of trouble or avoid problems as best they could. The economy and social order thus became redefined. There were growing signs of propitiation of the gods in the form of offerings and sacrifices of weapons and valuables, buried in the ground or cast into rivers or lakes, at great expense, as if to buy off misfortune. Weapons production, warrior elites and patron-client social arrangements developed.

A new insecurity and anxiety, a mutual retraction of collective goodwill, sharing and relatedness, infected society. The viral spread of self-interest caused a painful social tightening and touchiness, a growth of distrust, insensitivity and alienation, a feeling of being let down, threatened, even violated.  But, as humans do, people got through it. They got down to work.

In Cornwall, in response to deteriorating conditions, land was divided up, farming methods changed and capital improvements were made: land enclosure, wall-building, stone-clearing, field-levelling, crop rotation and farm-building. Late Bronze Age field systems between Morvah, Zennor and St Ives, still visible today, were established around this time. Those who could sought to build up surpluses, using them for trading, feasting, gift-exchange, patronage and barter. Horses came into use, working dogs were trained for shepherding and animal pedigrees were refined.

Around 1159-1141 BCE (dated dendrochronologically) a volcanic eruption somewhere – Hekla in Iceland is a candidate – brought colder, cloudier and rainier conditions, soil-acidification, crop failure and abandonment of marginal land. Around 1100 a longterm climatic change, with significantly cooler and wetter weather, set in. Overall land productivity and human wellbeing declined. Life went into an initial slump, which must have been hard, leaving a shadow of pain and loss in the psyche of the British. The megalithic era – long and fairly stable – was gone. But people worked at building up their security and fulfilling their needs. Things bumped along until around 800-600 BCE when a new epoch took root. It was then that the culture we call ‘Celtic’ took shape. This was the Iron Age.


The Coming of Patriarchy

Before we move on, there is a wider, deeper cultural-historical question, identified by feminist prehistorians and much argued over, though it is clearer now than it was 40-50 years ago. Matters of social power, race, inequality, gender and justice have become key areas of attention in modern society, bringing up long overdue issues of gender power. This is important and historic in scale, since its roots lie in ancient times – in Britain, many of today’s problems go back to the changes that started in the late Bronze Age.

One key indicator of patriarchal social patterns observed by anthropologists and ethnographers concerns marriage and whether a woman, upon marriage, is obliged to leave her family or tribe to join that of her spouse, or whether such a choice applies more or less equally to both sexes. Another key issue, less easy to determine, lies in societal power, decision-making and the roles women play. This concerns the overall character and behaviour of what have become called matrist and patrist societies, tending either toward inclusion (‘power with’) or extraction (‘power over’) – and no society is exclusively patriarchal or matrifocal. The issue lies in values, beliefs, cultural patterns and power games, though it reflects also in daily-life wellbeing, human relationships with the environment and the way a culture as a whole lives and behaves. To generalise, matrifocal societies tend to care more for their members while patriarchal societies seek to get what they can out of them.

Humanity has gone through a series of incremental transitions from matrifocal toward patriarchal social systems at different times in history, in differing parts of the world. In some isolated parts this has happened only in the last century, but in Britain it goes back at least 3,000 years. The period before that could be called pre-patriarchal – in other words, tendencies were developing though they had not gone critical. Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures are seen as predominantly Goddess oriented, though this is a matter of interpretation. It is arguable that, instead of 1200 BCE, early patriarchal patterns began creeping in during the NBA with the Beaker influx around 2500-2300 BCE, expressed particularly through grandiose ancient sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury.

Here come some more sweeping generalisations. A matrist or matrifocal society is largely tribal, cooperative or communal, people-scaled, sympathetic-magical, often polygamous or polyamorous, with looser gender distinctions, nomadic or transhumant life-patterns and tending toward self-sufficiency. But there have been complex, matrist, urban and palace-oriented matrist societies too, such as in Minoan Crete. Tribal power, however exercised, is either gender-egalitarian or largely determined, guided or authorised by women. Conversely, a patrist or patriarchal society is hierarchical, competitive, growth-based, market-agricultural, urban or centralised, militaristic, often developing a raiding or conquering economy, often practicing primogeniture and monogamy or polyginy (one husband, many wives), and steered largely by men according to their values. Religiously, matrist societies tend toward a spirit-within-all-things approach (immanence), while patrist societies tend toward a gods-beyond-all-things approach (transcendence).

In both kinds of society, it’s not that the other sex has no role or power, but that their role is largely framed by members of the opposite sex or it takes place in such a cultural context. These are loose, tricky definitions and, throughout history, it has always been a matter of degree: there has been much variation between clans, regions and social sectors – urban and village dwellers, elites and peasants, trading and farming societies, or even between families.

The transition from matrifocal to patriarchal societies was largely incremental, with crunch points. In Britain this seems to have been seeded around 2500 BCE with the Beaker influx, bringing Indo-European influences with new interests and priorities. This seeding developed slowly through the Bronze Age to reach a tipping point around 1200 BCE. A growing impulse to alter the face of the earth is seen through this period, with wildwood clearance and megalith-building, though the aim, at least up to 1500, was nevertheless to enhance and upgrade nature. Deforestation would not then have been considered environmental destruction in the way that we now consider it to be – it was progress and development. Altering the landscape created a new, man-made reality, and with it came changes of worldview. Early Bronze Age society in Cornwall remained largely transhumant, community-based, personal in relationships and stable in structure, ethics and social relations. As time went on the conditions fell into place for a change in the late Bronze Age – and change was happening elsewhere too.

Patriarchy took a leap around 1200 BCE when a new way of living emerged. This was perhaps one of the more painful transition times in British history when an aspect of the psyche of the Britons was lost forever. From this perspective it was to get worse in later times, and the emotional splintering of societal bonds had a longterm ripping, tearing and toughening effect. A critical threshold was crossed. If seek a watershed between matrist and patrist cultures in Britain, 1200 BCE is it, though the process had started around 2500, with roots further back, and the process continued into the future. To explore truly matrist cultures we need to go back to the early Neolithic and the Mesolithic periods of prehistory.

Even so, in Iron Age society around 200 BCE, women held more power than in subsequent times and by comparison with other European societies of the period. They could be druids or chiefs and, even when males made and implemented many decisions, the final moral arbiters were often women. The epic battles of the Iceni queen Boudica against the Romans, put down by sheer force, marked the end in Britain of this culture of comparative equity.

Dual societies and economies thereafter existed side by side: one based on trade, law, towns, roads and a moneymaking economy; the other a village subsistence economy of barter, close community relations, tradition and, later, serfdom. In relative terms, the first was more patriarchal, eventually becoming Christian, and the second was more matrifocal, remaining pagan, with the urban economy growing while the rural one was shrinking.

However one may feel about what has been said here, and the debate continues, the main thing to note is the date: 1200 BCE. This marked the end of the megalithic era and the beginning of a fundamental shift in society.


[1] An interesting take on this is the book Saharasia: the 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World, by James DeMeo, Natural Energy Works, 1998.

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