The Decline and Fall of the Megalithic Period - Shining Land

Shining Land
The ancient sites of West Penwith, Cornwall
Palden Jenkins
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The Decline and Fall of the Megalithic Period

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

Decline and Fall | The Late Bronze Age
Extracted from the book Shining Land, by Palden Jenkins, chapters 17-20.

Men an Tol
By 1500 BCE the megalithic impetus was slowing. 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.

Perhaps the megalithic system was complete. Or perhaps times were simply moving on. Or maybe something serious was going wrong. Perhaps it was the dispersal 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 early 1200s BCE, and circumstances changed fundamentally. Megalithic culture, along with other ancient cultures elsewhere, was unable to meet new challenges presenting themselves. 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. Consider the end of the Soviet Union around 1990: it started with a 20-year deterioration in the 1960s-70s, followed by a decade of instability, change and belated reform in the 1980s, followed by a sequence of cascading events in the early 1990s, after which came a period of painful adjustment. Just like the oligarchs of Russia, warlords and chiefs captured the power and resources in the new time. In both cases, 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 communal 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, concerning social trust.

British society went through a thorough reset in the four-century late Bronze Age. Layers of accumulating change went critical, and only at certain points would people have realised the extent and significance of what was happening. Viral ideas and critical events would have sparked shifts in people’s viewpoints and circumstances. The extent of social-cultural change that took place at this time is, I believe, underestimated – it was one of Britain’s defining, traumatic change-points, and its consequences rippled into the longterm future.

The early Bronze Age had 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 increasingly got what they sought and the rest got what they could. By the time the Romans came along a thousand years later, this became much more serious. In terms of the development of patriarchal social relations, 1200 BCE and the Roman invasion around 50 CE were both critical breakthrough points.

Something unravelled in the social contract: a certain level of inherent social relatedness, implicit trust, shared interest and sustainability subsided. The emphasis shifted from one of comparative cooperation, care for and trust in the people and the world of nature and spirits, 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 became hedging against misfortune.

Traumatic breakdown and separation periods like this leave their mark 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 decades ago.

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 Mediterranean civilisations, themselves collapsing. New generations, tired of the same old formula and the traditions of the past, would have sought to take life in their hands, if they could.

The first hill camps were built by an emergent warlord class that sought strength, status, wealth and power. But hill camps hosted markets and fayres too – people still loved gathering together. Many were built during times of ricocheting escalation of reactivity, territoriality, land-grab and downturn. Former allegiances, conventions and agreements cracked apart. When self-interest enters a society it causes a painful, viral social tightening and reactivity, a growth of distrust, insensitivity and alienation, a feeling of being let down, even violated.[1]

Those with options would align with leaders offering the best protection and advantages. 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 or cast into rivers or lakes, at great expense, as if to stave off misfortune. Weapons production, warrior elites and patron-client social arrangements developed. A new insecurity and anxiety, a mutual retraction of goodwill, sharing and relatedness, collectively felt, infected British society.

In Cornwall, mainly in response to deteriorating conditions, land was divided up, farming methods changed and necessary capital improvements were made: land enclosure, wall-building, stone-clearing, field-levelling, crop rotation and farm-building. Field systems between Morvah, Zennor and St Ives, still visible today, were established mostly around this time. Those who could sought to build up surpluses and to use them for trading, feasting, gift-exchange, patronage and barter. Horses came into use, 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 prime candidate – brought colder, cloudier and rainier conditions, crop failure and marginal land abandonment. Around 1100 a longer-term climatic change, with significantly cooler and wetter weather, set in. Overall land productivity and human wellbeing declined. Life went into a downturn, 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. Things then bumped along until around 800-600 BCE when a new epoch started taking root. It was then that the culture we call ‘Celtic’ was taking shape. This was the Iron Age.

[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.

NEXT: The Iron Age
Shining Land
A book by Palden Jenkins about the ancient sites of West Penwith in Cornwall
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