Druids, Roundhuts and Smithies | The Iron Age 800 BCE – CE 300
Iron Age Penwith
Gurnard's Head cliff sanctuary, 'the desolate one'
Some inherited sites – the hilltops and cliff sanctuaries – were upcycled in the Iron Age. Stone circles, menhirs and cairns were left as they were but, out of a mixture of respect and superstition, they were probably kept in good condition. As time went on, Iron Age society formed its own viewpoint, drawing on the past but attending to the present and its current imperatives.
Cornwall and Devon were held by the Dumnonii – from which comes ‘Devon’. The roots of the Dumnonii go back at least to the Neolithic. The notion of ‘Cornwall’ came only with the Saxons in the 900s CE, 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 ‘not us’ or ‘that lot’. Being a long, thin peninsula, east and west Cornwall were differently affected by the Saxons. Old Penwithians today are genetically distinct from other Cornish who, in turn, with the Welsh, are genetically distinct from most English, and English genetic strains are more common in East Cornwall.
The Dumnonii were a relatively prosperous clan, holding their autonomy throughout the Iron Age. The SW 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 hill camps further west. As trading centres the hill camps in Mid- and East Cornwall will naturally have carried more traffic and trade.
During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, Dumnonia’s heart-lands were Dart-moor, Bodmin Moor and Penwith, with the Lizard, Scilly and other localised parts, separated by large swathes of wild-wood. Many wild-wood areas were settled, colonised and cleared during the Iron Age, and mid-Cornwall was opened up. Bodmin Moor’s climate deteriorated from 1200 BCE onward and, though mining continued, most people moved down into lower lands, the Killas. This happened in Penwith to a lesser extent.
Iron ore was more widely available than copper or tin. But there was still a market in tin, and Penwithians did well – one ingot could yield gifts of wine, oil, shawls or sheep. Though it was a barter and gifting 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. Bretons traded with Phoenicians, Greeks and Cornish, and some Cornish will have been steadfast mariners and travellers, meeting Mediterranean people in France. Over many centuries Penwith had had significant overseas contact, yet it was in a world of its own, with a local culture offset even from the rest of Dumnonia. As is the case today.
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 some cliff sanctuaries (Treryn Dinas, St Ives Head and St Michael’s Mount). Events upcountry tended not to reverberate much down here though. Nonetheless, having valuables derived from tin wealth meant that Penwithians could have been raided.
Camps, enclosures and cliff sanctuaries in Penwith were landscape assets, places of strength, centrality and atmosphere, commanding fine views, endowing a feeling of greatness and dominion – hot property in an heroic age where eminence and nobility mattered. Well, at least to some. Most 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, roundhouses and courtyard houses, engaging in farming and fishing, barter, horse-riding, sailing boats, and some were involved in the tin business – many of these probably built the more classy courtyard houses of West Cornwall.
Iron age aristocrats had an emotional connection with their people, being 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. Everything on clan lands was clan property, in overall control of the chiefs. Individual rights pertained unless overridden by wider tribal needs. 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 extended families under an overarching clan. 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 fullmoon tiffs and feuds over the silly kinds of things we humans tend to get het up about.
Iron Age culture in Penwith peaked between 200 BCE and around CE 100. It tailed off as, in Roman times, Cornwall went through a downturn. The tin trade slumped when tin mining was developed in Galicia, NW Spain, though they 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.