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Bronze Age 2500 to 800 BC

Settlement and ceremony; organised landscapes

Although the introduction of metalworking is an important cultural marker it was not for many hundreds of years (not until c1400 BC) that bronze was used for everyday tools and weapons, rather than being a rare metal used by an elite for objects of prestige and display. A more significant break occurs earlier in prehistory; the appearance of henges in the late Neolithic sees the beginning of a tradition of ceremonial monuments which stretches without a break through the Early Bronze Age. At first gold and then copper objects were made, but increasingly bronze (made by the alloying of tin and lead with copper) became the material most used for metal artefacts. During those early days (before 2000 BC) there is stylistic evidence for close contact and trade with Ireland. Four gold lunulae (crescentic collars) found in Cornwall are of Irish design. It is likely that Cornish sources of tin, copper and perhaps lead and even gold were used even at this early date - the tin lying as alluvial gravel in many streams and copper clearly visible as a green streak on rock outcrops and cliffs. The discovery of early artefacts within the tin gravels takes the tin industry back to prehistory. Over the succeeding centuries, technological advances allowed metalwork styles to evolve from flat axes (made in single moulds) to more complex weapons and tools (made in two-sided moulds) and sophisticated bronze jewellery.

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The late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c2500-1400 BC) is characterised by its ceremonial and burial monuments, the stone circles, stone rows, standing stones (menhirs) and barrows or cairns. A local variant of barrows, the entrance graves are found in Penwith and on Scilly where they may have originated. A kerbed stone mound contains a simple passage or chamber of drystone construction capped with massive slabs. Whilst not as sophisticated as Stonehenge, the Cornish circles are nonetheless beautiful and evocative (Merry Maidens, Tregeseal, Fernacre, Trippet stones, the Hurlers). They are best interpreted as places for the public performance of ceremonial and ritual. Even more enigmatic are the stone rows, though their form hints at use in processions; they are straight alignments of stones, usually either all large or all small, some closely, some widely spaced. These, with standing stones (menhirs) were originally much more widespread, and as with stone circles they survive today largely in upland areas; there are seven stone rows on Bodmin Moor and one, the Nine Maidens, on St Breock Downs. Standing stones: many in West Penwith eg. Goon Rith and on Bodmin Moor eg. The Pipers. The standing stones were probably marker stones: the burials sometimes found by them suggesting that they were memorial stones, grave markers, way markers or territorial boundary stones, as well as the focus for rituals.

We get our best glimpse of Bronze Age life and death on Bodmin Moor, on the Lizard, and in West Penwith. During the 2nd millennium BC these areas were densely settled (eg. Roughtor area, Stowe's Pound areas). The foundations of hundreds of stone round houses (none dated before 1500 BC) and many hundreds of acres of fields, now defined by low stone banks, lie scattered across these upland plateaux and valley sides. Some appear to be permanently occupied settlements, complete with fields, but others may have been used only seasonally during summer grazing of the uplands. Close by are stone circles, standing stones, stone rows, and the barrows and cairns (the former being mounds of earth, the latter of stone) although most are dated before the period of permanent settlement. In some parts of Britain these are first and foremost burial mounds, but in Cornwall excavation has shown them to be complex and varied sites where burial was only one of the rites performed; many do not have burials at all. Most date from the period 2000 to 1600 BC. The variety in size and shape is remarkable. Diameters range from 2m to 40m. Some are simple mounds of earth, turf or stone; others have a revetting wall or kerb; some incorporate a natural outcrop or tor, and a few are doughnut-shaped 'ring-cairns'. Many have a stone burial box (cist) as a component. The dead were usually cremated and the ashes buried in an urn, sometimes with other personal objects such as beads, a dagger, or a bone ornament such as a pin or archers' wrist brace. Some mounds are probably burials of important people. The largest barrows are in prominent locations on hilltops and ridges. The smaller barrows, which do not normally survive in lowland Cornwall, are inconspicuously sited amongst the fields and near the contemporary settlements. It is only in these upland areas that it is possible to examine the spatial and chronological relationships between the settlements, burials and ritual monuments in their contemporary setting. We can conclude that the many barrows found elsewhere in lowland Cornwall (eg. Cubert Common, Veryan Beacon) would have had round house settlements close by which are not now visible. Settlements of Middle Bronze Age round houses (c 1500-1200 BC) have been discovered and excavated at more than five sites in lowland Cornwall, including Trevisker (St Eval), Trethellan (Newquay) and Penhale (St Enoder), The houses were typically built with their floors sunken a little beneath the surrounding ground level. In looking at the area around Roughtor we are looking at the upper edges of a 3,000 year old farming landscape which has elsewhere in the lowland Cornwall now been largely ploughed away.
These farms consist of large curvilinear fields attached or accreted on to each other with round houses accessible via trackways through the fields. They are usually separated from their neighbours by open areas of common grazing or perhaps woodland. As the population increased so farms began to crowd closer together. There is evidence that at some time after 1700 BC there was a pressing need for a more systematic organisation of the landscape. On Dartmoor this took the form of Reave systems where very large areas were subdivided by a regular pattern of fields and major pastoral boundaries. On Bodmin Moor, grazing blocks were defined by substantial stone boundaries, and in Penwith and probably over much of the rest of lowland Cornwall the countryside was divided into regular small arable fields. The rectilinear net-like field systems laid out during this period underlie the modern field pattern of parts of the northern part of West Penwith. The pastoral boundaries on Bodmin Moor may indicate that, after a widespread early attempt at arable farming, soil degradation and deteriorating climate necessitated a change to seasonal grazing and less intensive exploitation. Permanent settlement retreated to the moorland edges and the lowlands but clusters of moorland round houses were still used for seasonal grazing.

It is difficult to imagine what society must have been like but in the Early Bronze Age it seems certain that religion and ceremony were inseparably woven into the fabric of everyday life. The presence of an elite or aristocracy is very occasionally indicated by burials with prestigious grave goods of display and rank, such as daggers, and jewellery of amber and faience glass. Weaponry is present throughout, but the apparent disappearance of the bow (by c1500 BC) may reflect a greater emphasis on individual combat. Pottery styles are very conservative and change little throughout the period. Trevisker Ware is the dominant style between c 2000-1000 BC, and Beakers and Collared Urns are not common. Most of this material comes from burials and is recovered through excavation of the mounds. Houses, whether built in stone or wood, were round, and often have evidence of internal compartments and central hearths and bear the traces of indoor activities such as weaving. Wooden rafters supported thatched roofs. Many had an internal capacity as large or larger than a typical Cornish 19th century one up one down cottage.
Excavations of Bronze Age fields buried by sand at Gwithian showed evidence of scratch marks in the sub soil made by the hook-shaped ploughs as well as marks around the field edges made by spade digging in those areas the plough could not reach. The farming calendar and activities for most of the population in the Bronze Age cannot have been dramatically different to that known to the Cornish peasant farmer only 150 years ago. By the 1st millennium BC the megalithic ritual monuments (standing stones, stone rows, stone circles) had long since been abandoned, the uplands, now largely moorland, had been turned over to seasonal grazing. As yet the centuries from c1200-400 BC are very obscure because of the lack of obvious ritual monuments or defended sites but this is likely to have been an important formative period during which the lowlands were increasingly being opened up to permanent farming.

Read about Bronze Age monuments