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Neolithic

4,000BC to 2,300BC

New Stone Age

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The earliest monuments in the landscape today date from the Neolithic. Relatively little is known about settlement in this period. What we do know of these 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. The profusion of ceremonial monuments of this period conveys an impression of a society in which religious and spirtual considerations played a fundamental role in how people percieved their world.

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 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 (quoits), 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 later rearranged.

The monumental tombs of Neolithic people 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 function is the cursus monument. Although their function is uncertain cursuses are frequently aligned towards astronomical events such as midsummer or midwinter sunset. The annual cycle of the seasons would have been of tremendous importance to Neolithic people, especially those making the first attempts at crop cultivation. This in turn will have led to a keen interest in the movements of the sun and the moon.

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. Henges were constructed towards the end of the Neolithic. They are roughly circular or oval spaces usually enclosed by a single bank with an internal ditch. Access to the central area was via formal entrances and the number of these entrances have been used as a basis for henge classification. Most have one entrance (Class I) or two opposed entrances (Class II) although a small number have four facing each other in pairs (Class III). The purpose and function of henges is not fully understood but due to the non-defensive nature of the earthworks, they are generally accepted to have had some kind of ceremonial, religious or ritual significance.

Links to more information on key themes:

Ceremony and Ritual