Curriculum Kernewek

Cornwall Agreed Syllabus 2011

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+ Guide to standing stones

Standing stones or menhirs (from Cornish, 'men' meaning stone, and 'hir' meaning long) are probably the most dramatic manifestation of the megalithic (stone monument building) culture of the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The first surviving examples of the megalithic culture are quoits, dating from Neolithic Period. The late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c2500-1400 BC) is characterised by its ceremonial and burial monuments, the stone circles, stone rows, menhirs, barrows and cairns.

There has been much debate about the function and meaning of the sites. It is clear that landmarks such as tors and hills with distinctive profiles were important and some people suggest that structures were being built both to mimic and to view these landmarks. These ancient monuments are often found near other megalithic monuments in 'sacred landscapes' on windswept uplands, such as Bodmin Moor. These monuments date to a period when new farming methods were spreading and communities were increasingly bound to the land they cultivated. The increasing settlement of the landscape, initially seasonal and becoming permanent, resulted in the removal of woodland and concepts of territory.

Most of the remaining monument types survive today in upland areas but such monuments are believed to have originally been widespread.

The main arrangements of these ancient monuments include:

+ Quoits - massive 'megalithic' chamber tombs which would have required the co-ordinated labour of a sizeable community. These monuments of the fourth millennium BC would have served as ritual foci and marked the community's ancestral territory.

+ Standing Stones (menhirs) - 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.

+ Stone Circles - few are perfectly circular and their function has sparked controversy and debate in recent years. Recent theories suggest that they are best interpreted as places for the public performance of ceremonies and ritual.

+ Stone Rows - straight alignments of stones, usually either all large or all small, some closely, some widely spaced.

+ Barrows or Cairns - a local variant of barrows. These entrance graves are found in Penwith and on the Isles of Scilly. A kerbed stone mound contains a simple passage or chamber of drystone construction capped with massive slabs.

+ Holed stones - are considered to be Bronze Age in date although no extensive excavations have taken place. Holed stones are very rare in prehistoric Cornwall. Apart from Men an Tol and the Tolvan Stone near Gweek all other ‘holed stones’ are small with holes less than 15 cm in diameter. The holes may have been created on a tor by natural weathering processes and the stone brought to the site to fulfil a specific ritual purpose.