Monuments to the ancestors; the sun, the moon and the earth.  The archaeology of religion and spirituality.

 


The Archaeology of Religion and Spirituality

The earliest monuments in the landscape today were built by people living in Cornwall between three and a half and six thousand years ago. We know little about the lives of these people; much of what we do know comes from their ceremonial monuments. These were often substantial stone structures and this has helped them survive the ravages of time.

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The Map of cornwall links to the follwing pages:
Tor Enclosures
Neolithic Tombs
Late Neolithic/Bronze Age Tombs
Neolithic Ritual Sites
Later Ritual Sites


The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan, West Penwith. Stone circles are among a range of ceremonial monuments dating from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age period which are characterised by upright stones. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
The Merry Maidens stone circle near St Buryan, West Penwith. Stone circles are among a range of ceremonial monuments dating from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age period which are characterised by upright stones. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The earliest monuments in the landscape today date from the Neolithic and early Bronze Age, between three and a half and six thousand years ago. Relatively little is known of any settlements from this period. It is assumed that they probably comprised wooden structures and were transient in nature; the widespread adoption of farming and permanent settlement in Cornwall does not seem to have developed until the middle Bronze Age, around 1500 BC.

 

What we do know of these early inhabitants of Cornwall and Scilly comes from their ceremonial monuments. These were often large-scale structures built of stone and this has resulted in remarkable levels of survival; Cornwall and Scilly have an exceptionally rich legacy of such monuments. The profusion of ceremonial monuments of this period conveys an impression of a society in which religion and spirituality played a fundamental role in how people perceived their world.

 

Chun Quoit, West Penwith. This is one of several surviving megalithic chambered tombs in the upland areas of west Cornwall. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Chun Quoit, West Penwith. This is one of several surviving megalithic chambered tombs in the upland areas of west Cornwall. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Within this society there was clearly a significant degree of communal organisation. Among the earliest monuments were large-scale enclosures constructed on prominent hilltops. These are known as tor enclosures; their enclosing banks are built of weathered granite blocks and they surround dramatic tors, often linking one tor with another or linking a tor with a smaller granite outcrop. Clearly their construction demanded considerable man power and organisation and we can imagine them as symbols of cultural identity to the people who built them, providing a sense of permanence and place within the landscape and serving as communal gathering places where festivals and ceremonies were performed.

 

Other places with spiritual significance were megalithic chambered tombs, long barrows and long cairns, where the dead were deposited and the community’s ancestors were venerated. Many of these tombs appear to have been used over long periods of time. Their chambers remained open for burials to be added over time and there is evidence that bodies were left to rot inside or outside the tombs and the bones then later rearranged.

 

Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor. Early Prehistoric ceremonial monuments were located in significant places within the landscape and it is no coincidence that the highest point in Cornwall, Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor is marked by two large Bronze Age round cairns prominently positioned on the crest of the tor. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor. Early Prehistoric ceremonial monuments were located in significant places within the landscape and it is no coincidence that the highest point in Cornwall, Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor is marked by two large Bronze Age round cairns prominently positioned on the crest of the tor. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Whereas long barrows and chambered tombs from the Neolithic period were communal burial places, the round barrows and round cairns of the later Neolithic and early Bronze Age were used for the burial of individuals. This change is an expression of a new belief system with a shift in focus from the community ancestry of the Neolithic to a new social hierarchy where the lives of individuals were celebrated after death.

 

However it would be wrong to suppose round barrows and cairns were simply burial mounds; in many Cornish barrows no human remains have been found. The mounds are very probably sealing and marking the sites where a variety of ceremonies had taken place.

 

Barrows and cairns were often sited in prominent locations such as on hilltops and ridges and are likely to have been used as territorial markers; confirming the ancestral rights of individual families and communities to the tracts of land in which they lived.

 

Entrance graves are ceremonial monuments broadly contemporary with round barrows and cairns, but their distribution is confined to West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly. They share some structural characteristics with megalithic chambered tombs in that they consist of stone chambers roofed with large capstones. They are, however, much smaller in scale. Although burial was their primary function they probably fulfilled wider social and ritual functions and may have served as territorial markers or places where offerings were made to ensure good harvests.

 

Tregiffian, West Penwith. A Bronze Age entrance grave, partially mutilated by the modern B3315 Newlyn to Lands End road. Photo © English Heritage. NMR23511/11
Tregiffian, West Penwith. A Bronze Age entrance grave, partially mutilated by the modern B3315 Newlyn to Lands End road. Photo © English Heritage. NMR23511/11

The monumental tombs of Neolithic people, the quoits and long barrows, were symbols of permanence; fixed points of reference in the landscape which will have allowed the movement of the sun and the moon to be related to sacred places on the earth. Some Neolithic monuments are aligned on important solar directions. One type of monument which appears to have an astronomical association is the cursus monument. Although their function is uncertain cursuses are frequently aligned towards astronomical events such as midsummer or midwinter sunset. One of the most significant discoveries made during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme was a possible cursus (the only one known in Cornwall) near Downderry.
 

The stone circle at Duloe, in Caradon. This is the smallest stone circle in Cornwall measuring roughly ten metres by twelve. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
The stone circle at Duloe, in Caradon. This is the smallest stone circle in Cornwall measuring roughly ten metres by twelve. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

In addition to solar events significant alignments with terrestrial features such as rivers and hilltops were also incorporated into the design of cursuses. The same is often true of monuments known as henges, which were built during the later Neolithic.

 

Among the most enigmatic and evocative archaeological sites in Cornwall are those of the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age formed by upright stones; stone circles, stone rows and standing stones. They were important ritual and ceremonial sites and were also likely to have had significance as communal gathering places in the same way as the earlier tor enclosures, quoits and long barrows.

Lanyon Quoit, West Penwith. Many Neolithic and early Bronze Age ceremonial monuments were deliberately sited so that significant features in the landscape, such as prominent hills and tors were visible from them. In this way groups of monuments appear to form ceremonial complexes or sacred landscapes. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service
Lanyon Quoit, West Penwith. Many Neolithic and early Bronze Age ceremonial monuments were deliberately sited so that significant features in the landscape, such as prominent hills and tors were visible from them. In this way groups of monuments appear to form ceremonial complexes or sacred landscapes. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

The profusion and variety of ceremonial monuments across Cornwall dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, conveys a picture of a society where religion and ritual was a major part of everyday life, fundamental to the way in which people perceived their world. Their ritual sites were all around them in the landscape as they went about their everyday life.

 

The distribution of ceremonial monuments in upland areas (where they survive in large numbers) suggests that there may have been special sacred areas associated with ritual or ceremonial activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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