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Bronze Age

2,300BC to 800BC

Whereas long barrows and chambered tombs from the Neolithic were communal burial places, the round barrows and round cairns of the 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.  Most burials within such barrows are cremations placed in a small stone chamber known as a cist.

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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.

Barrows and cairns were sometimes sited on their own, but more usually were grouped into clusters or linear groups referred to as barrow cemeteries. Some cemeteries may have been deliberately designed as barrow complexes; others may have begun as small groups to which new barrows were later added. It is thought that the location of each new barrow in relation to existing ones may have strengthened the identity of the community through the shared ancestral lineage. In this way a sense of place for the surviving members of the community was created and strengthened.

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.

Among the most enigmatic and evocative archaeological sites in Cornwall are those 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.

A different type of hilltop enclosure has been identified which is thought to date from the later Neolithic period into the early Bronze Age. These enclosures are far smaller than tor enclosures, none is more than 75m in diameter, and all of them are roughly circular in shape. Rather than being enclosed by substantial banks made of granite blocks they are defined by low stony banks. These banks could probably have been stepped over because none of the enclosures have an obvious entrance.

All of these enclosures contain cairns, which supports the view that they were used as ceremonial or ritual centres. A number of enclosures have been surrounded by the ramparts of Iron Age hillforts (pictured). It is possible that future excavations at Cornish hillforts might uncover evidence of more examples of these earlier ceremonial enclosures beneath the Iron Age ramparts.


From about 1500BC onwards, during the Middle 
Bronze Age, farming settlements, rather than tombs, become the prominent features in the landscape. These early settlements consist of groups of houses and other structures usually set amid fields enclosed by earth or stone banks. These sites are called 'open' or 'unenclosed' settlements, distinguishing them from 'enclosed' settlements bounded by a substantial bank and ditch. Open settlements were being built and occupied from the Bronze Age into the Romano-British period. The early farmers who lived in these settlements grew crops and kept cattle, sheep and goats.

In the granite uplands the use of stone in building and remoteness from modern intensive agricultural practice has resulted in the survival of the early farming landscape. This is especially the case on Bodmin Moor where the remains of roughly 200 Bronze Age settlements have been found. Most appear to have been abandoned around three thousand years ago due to deterioration in the climate at that time.

Prehistoric farms and villages were accompanied by extensive field systems. The first fields were small and curvilinear and the field patterns developed piecemeal, with new fields added to existing ones as the settlement expanded. The field boundaries consist of low banks of stones and boulders, designed to be stock-proof. Some fields contain heaps of loose stones which have been cleared from the soil, and at the lower end of some are banks or earth known as lynchets formed by slippage downhill of soil loosened during cultivation of crops. Other parts of the countryside were left as open downland or moorland for use as grazing land, and lanes lead between this and the fields.

So these early farmers lived in loosely defined hamlets, cultivating the land and growing crops in small irregular-shaped fields, maintaining herds and flocks and sharing communal grazing land with neighbouring settlements.

On Bodmin Moor settlements with cultivated fields are found mainly around the upland edge whilst the open moorland beyond was used for grazing. Studies of vegetation history suggest that by the Middle Bronze Age much of the heart of the moor was an open landscape like today. Maintaining this treeless vegetation cover would have required a very large number of grazing animals.

The need to define and control the use of grazing land led to large-scale reorganisation of the landscape around 1500BC. Long parallel field boundaries were laid out, ending in boundary banks dividing up the pasture into large blocks. These are known as coaxial field systems. New settlements consisted of groups of round houses scattered throughout the fields, and all of the higher ground beyond the fields was used as common grazing land.

Archaeologists see the establishing of these major land dividions as a response to increased pressure on resources. Clearly similar pressures were arising throughout Cornwall as traces of coaxial field systems have been recognised in the Lizard Peninsula, West Penwith and elsewhere.

Reorganisation of the fields was carried out on more than one occasion, and widespread organisation of farming land indicates the existence of a level of power or authority beyond that of each individual village.

Round houses were made of stone or wood and had roofs of turf or thatch. They were the standard form of dwelling in the Bronze Age, throughout the Iron Age and onto the Roman period; a time span of two thousand years or more.

Round house settlements on the common grazing land differ from those around its edges. They have no associated fields or small enclosures. Given their location and lack of fields, these settlements must have had a specialist pastoral function, linked with maintenance of the herds. Some contain substantial well-built houses and were probably permanently occupied, maybe having a co-dependant relationship with the moorland edge communities. Others have small roughly built houses and were probably temporary or summer accommodation for people from the moorland edge taking their cattle and sheep onto the grazing land. These seasonal campls are known as tranhumance settlements.

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