Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age 800 BCE – CE 300
Iron Age Penwith
Inherited sites that were upcycled in the Iron Age were the hilltops and cliff sanctuaries. Stone circles, menhirs and cairns were left as they were, but probably kept in good condition. As time went on, Iron Age society formed its own viewpoint, drawing on the past but very much rooted in the present and its current imperatives.
Britain was made up of tribal confederations, with bigger and smaller clans, some more centrally located and engaged, others quieter and more peripheral. Cornwall and Devon were held by the Dumnonii – from which comes ‘Devon’. The roots of the Dumnonii go right back at least to the Neolithic. Though people in Cornwall and Devon might have been a bit different, the notion of ‘Cornwall’ came only with the Saxons, when they took over Devon – half of Dumnonia.
They called the Cornish Carnwalas or Peninsular Welsh – carn being a headland and walas or walha meaning ‘the others’ or ‘not us’. Being a long, thin peninsula, the east and west of Cornwall were differently affected by the Saxons. Old Penwithians today are genetically slightly distinct from other Cornish who, in turn, with the Welsh, are quite genetically distinct from most English.
The Dumnonii were a relatively prosperous clan, holding their autonomy throughout the Iron Age. The southwest peninsula was generally stable: it did not have as many or as grand hill camps as upcountry. This said, mid-Cornwall had an array of hill camps crossing the peninsula that clearly reflected a perception or an actuality of risk coming from upcountry – there are far fewer further west. As trading centres the hill camps in the east will naturally have carried more trade. However, since records of Iron Age hill camp usage come mostly from the Romans, giving the impression they were primarily military, this is misleading as hill camps were mainly social, tribal and local centres for markets, gatherings, artisanry, services and settlement.
During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, Dumnonia’s main centres of activity had been Dartmoor, Bodmin Moor and Penwith (also the Lizard, Scilly and other localised parts), separated by large swathes of wildwood. Many wildwood areas were settled, colonised and cleared during the Iron Age, and mid-Cornwall was opened up. Bodmin Moor’s climate deteriorated and, though mining continued there, most people moved down into lower lands – the Killas. This happened in Penwith to a lesser extent. Development and forest clearance can be identified by looking at the distribution of Iron Age rounds in the gaps between Bronze Age sites, since these are likely to show where former wildwood areas had cleared in the Iron Age for farming and settlement.
The Cornish were known to the Greeks through the travel reports of Pytheas, who had visited around 325 BCE, and to the Carthaginians (Phoenicians), as well as other travellers. They were known to be hospitable and civilised in behaviour. The Greeks and Phoenicians bought Cornish tin through intermediaries in Brittany and southwards, though individual travellers and oddbods with wanderlust probably ventured up to Cornwall. There are no records of such travels except for Pytheas – who arrived in Cornwall around the time that Alexander the Great’s armies were in today’s Tajikistan and Pakistan – but the extent of prehistoric travel tends to be underestimated, not least because most of it went unrecorded.
Iron ore was geologically more widely available than copper or tin. But there was still a market in tin, and Penwithians did well. Though it was a barter economy, the high value of tin meant that Penwithians led a decent life, trading across Europe with ingots, crafts and other products – especially through the Bretons. The Bretons traded with Phoenicians, Greeks and Cornish, and some Cornish will have been steadfast mariners and travellers, meeting Mediterranean people in France or even inviting some of them over to Cornwall to meet the folks.
Phoenician and Greek items have been found across Cornwall, and Cornish tin was traded in the East Mediterranean, so these people in faraway parts certainly knew about each other. Over many centuries Penwith had had significant contact overseas, yet it was in a world of its own too, with a local culture offset even from the rest of Dumnonia.
The population of the later Iron Age was relatively dense and there were numerous settlements: Carn Euny, Chysauster, Goldherring, Bosullow Trehyllis, Bosiliack, Nanjulian and more. Many are still visible, mostly as piles of stones, some more intact than others, and best seen in winter or spring before the bracken is up. Most have a good atmosphere, and you can get a glimmer of the feeling of their inhabitants’ lives if you allow yourself to sit quietly and, in your imagination, go back two millennia and more. You might be sitting on a spot that someone sat on way back then.
Penwithians seem to have been largely at peace, although they had defensible camps on the borders of Penwith (Trencrom and Tregonning Hills), on some inland hills (Chûn Castle) and at cliff sanctuaries (Treryn Dinas, St Ives Head and St Michael’s Mount). Events upcountry tended not to reverberate much down here. Nonetheless, having valuables derived from tin wealth meant that Penwithians could have been raided.
Even so, camps, enclosures and cliff sanctuaries in Penwith were not primarily defensive. They were landscape assets, places of strength, centrality and atmosphere, commanding fine views, endowing a feeling of greatness and dominion – hot property in dramatic places in an heroic age where eminence and nobility mattered more than before. Well, at least to some. Most ordinary people were crofters and artisans who just got on with their lives, concerned about weather, children, the harvest, laying in supplies for winter, fixing the house and working the land. They lived in farms and crofts, in roundhouses and courtyard houses, engaging in farming and fishing, barter exchange, riding horses, sailing boats, and some were involved in the tin business.
Iron age aristocrats had an emotional connection with their people and they were related to them, unlike later Norman lords whose placemen were outsiders despatched to control and tax the locals, taking power by force, bequest or inheritance, and losing it when the king decided or when they were killed. Everything on clan lands was clan property, in overall control of the chiefs.
Individual rights pertained unless overridden by wider tribal needs, but the welfare of the tribe as a whole was a primary priority. If a family grew in size it could be allocated new lands, and if it suffered misfortune it could be supported. In Penwith there might have been five or ten big families under an overarching clan.
Generally, Penwithians stuck together, and still do – it’s in the nature of the place – and what problems they had often came from elsewhere. Or from the weather, fluctuations in the value of tin, or periodic tiffs, hoohahs and feuds on fullmoons.
Iron Age culture in Penwith peaked between 200 BCE and around CE 100, tailing off in the early medieval period. In Roman times Cornwall went through a downturn: the tin trade slumped when tin mining developed in Galicia, though these mines were exhausted by around 400 and the Cornish tin trade revived, just as the Romans were leaving.
 Weatherhill, Craig, The Promontory People, 2018, p30. See also the postscript on genetics, p209.