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Neolithic 4000 to 2500 BC

Monuments of the first farmers

Between 4000 BC and 3500 BC a new dimension in food provision was added to the already developing domestication of animals, namely farming: the deliberate cultivation and harvesting of food plants. There is evidence that the economy was a mixture of mobile pastoralism and hunting (but by 1500 BC this was in decline), small scale farming, with early enclosures (Tor Enclosures) acting perhaps as seasonal meeting places. Communities were now increasingly bound to the land they cultivated and much of the history of the succeeding millennia is concerned with the creation of agricultural land and pasture, its maintenance, its allocation, and later its defence in the face of a steadily increasing population.

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It is from this period that our first monuments have survived. It is known from flint scatters and other artefacts that settlements developed throughout the county, often on the sites of earlier Mesolithic camps, there are no visible remains of these first farms to be seen today. As the heavily wooded landscape was increasingly cleared and farmed the growing population developed a social organisation and sense of territory that is reflected in their monuments. The massive 'megalithic' Chamber Tombs (Lanyon Quoit, Trethevy Quoit, Mulfra Quoit, Chûn Quoit would have required the co-ordinated labour of a sizeable community. Generally known in Britain as 'Portal Dolmens' these monuments of the fourth millennium BC would have served as ritual foci and marked the community's ancestral territory. Long Cairns are rare in Cornwall and appear to be contemporary with the Chamber Tombs (eg. Lanyon Quoit, Woolley Barrow as well as several on Bodmin Moor). It is clear that landmarks such as tors and hills with distinctive profiles were important and there is increasing evidence that structures were being built both to mimic and to view these landmarks In the fourth millennium tribal centres developed, perhaps controlling relatively large territories. There may be as many as seven Tor Enclosures in Cornwall, including Helman Tor and Carn Brea. That at Carn Brea is an astonishing achievement for such an early date. A series of massive defensive ramparts enclose 46 acres. These ramparts take the form of a 2m wide and 2-3m high stone wall faced with upright stones back and front and stretch over at least 3,750m; no less than fifteen stone-lined entrances have been found. Other enclosures at Roughtor and Stowe’s Pound may be of similar date.

During the Neolithic period there is good evidence from Cornwall of an extensive trade in objects of increasing sophistication, of the developing art of pottery and of polished stone axe production. By examining the mineralogical characteristics of these artefacts it has been possible to establish that much of the pottery of Cornwall for this period was made from clay originating on the Gabbro rock of the east Lizard; there were also at least six axe factories, sited where suitable igneous rock (often greenstone) could be easily exploited (eg. St Just, Mount's Bay, SW of Camborne, W Hensbarrow, Balstone Down). Pottery and axes were distributed right across southern England. Axes were used for tree felling and wood-working but were clearly more significant than this: symbols of power and perhaps, magic, and were traded far and wide.

No farming settlements from this period have been located or excavated in Cornwall, but evidence from Carn Brea and elsewhere indicates that houses were rectangular. Fields cultivated with wooden stone-tipped hook ploughs (ards) or tipped hoes, began to have formal boundaries as a result of the never-ending struggle to clear them of stone, to keep the animals out, or pen them in.

Towards 2500 BC, henges, sites consisting of roughly circular areas enclosed by banks with internal ditches, were built across Britain. There are three in Cornwall - Castlewich, Castilly and The Stripple Stones. Their function is clearly not defensive and is assumed therefore to be social and ritual.

Read about Neolithic monuments