Neolithic Cornwall – 4300 BC to 2100 BC

The human history of Cornwall begins with the reoccupation of Britain after the last Ice Age perhaps 10,000 years ago.

The upland areas of Cornwall were the parts first settled probably as there was less clearance needed: they were probably first occupied in Neolithic times. Mesolithic and Palaeolithic remains are almost non-existent in Cornwall.

“Megalithic” (“big stone”) monuments of this period exist across Cornwall. “Quoit” is the Cornish name for one common type of grave built using a number of large stones set upright, supporting a massive horizontal capstone forming a small chamber.

These stone chambers were built around 3000 BC and were probably used for communal and dynastic burials in the Neolithic period. Several of these are to be found in West Penwith (Mulfra, Zennor, Chun, Lanyon, and the ruined examples at West Lanyon and Sperris) though there are two or three further east in Cornwall (Carwynnen near Praze-an-Beeble and Trevethy, managed by the Cornwall Heritage Trust). They are also common in Wales, Ireland and Brittany. Archaeologists call such sites “chambered tombs” or “portal dolmens”, and date them to the 3rd or 4th millennia BC.

Many of these “quoits” are surrounded by the traces of a low stone and earth mound, probably not very high originally, leaving the capstone visible.

Finds generally from these kinds of monuments are almost unknown in Cornwall because the naturally acidic moorland soils destroys organic remains. However, comparing Cornish sites with similar monuments elsewhere in Western Europe especially western France suggests that they were used as repositories for ancestral remains. There is some evidence – from Neolithic tombs in Wessex such as West Kennet long-barrow, for example – that the bones were from time to time removed, returned and re-arranged.

Francis Pryor, amongst other archaeologists, suggests that the featured in ceremonies associated with an ancestor cult; communities at this time were becoming increasingly settled and stable and such rites represented attempts to establish hereditary ‘ownership’ of a territory and to develop a communal or tribal identity. So the quoits, often in prominent hillside positions, were statements of power and ownership in the landscape, as much as they were places for venerating the dead.

Another group of remains from the late Neolithic period found in Cornwall may be associated with another wave of settlers who arrived from north-western Europe around 2500BC, bringing with them a different style of megalithic tomb. These, whilst common in Brittany, for example, are only found in Britain in West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly.

They are known as Scillonian chamber tombs or entrance graves. Much like the earlier quoits, large stones support a capstone or capstones, creating a chamber, to which a stone-lined passage leads from the outside. Often they too are surrounded by a low mound and kerb of stones. Amongst the best and most intriguing of these in Cornwall is the tomb at Ballowall, near Cape Cornwall. Cornwall Heritage Trust cares for the once magnificent entrance grave at Tregiffian, near the Merry maidens Stone Circle at Lamorna, which is now cut in half by a road.


History of Cornwall



Neolithic Cornwall

Neolithic Cornwall

The upland areas of Cornwall were the parts first open to settlement as the vegetation required little in the way of clearance: they were perhaps first occupied in Neolithic times.

Hurler Stone Circles

Cornwall in the Bronze Age

Bronze Age cultures began to appear in Cornwall around 2200 BC with new ideas spreading from the Continent to the existing population, but the changes were gradual not sudden and stone tools continued to be used...

Cornwall in the Iron Age

Cornwall in the Iron Age

New, stronger iron ploughs and axes meant that farming improved. Cornwall contains many archaeological remains from this time: small villages with field systems around them, hillforts and cliff castles that...

Roman Cornwall

Roman sites and finds in Cornwall are few and far-between. In Cornwall, the first impact of the Roman domination of north-west Europe must have been felt around 56BC...



Cornwall 410 - 1066

Cornwall 410 - 1066

After the Roman withdrawal from Great Britain, Saxons and other peoples were able to conquer and settle most of the east of the island. But Cornwall remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic elites...

Mediaeval Cornwall 1066-1485

Mediaeval Cornwall


With the arrival of the Normans to the British mainland in 1066, the River Tamar became the agreed border. There was also a general acceptance that Cornwall had a separate identity to the rest of England...


Sancreed Beacon

Early Modern Cornwall 1485

During this period English rulers sought to establish firmer control over the furthermost parts of Britain - Scotland and Ireland especially but this trend also affected Cornwall. Here the loyalty of many gentry, particularly in East Cornwall...

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

Cornwall & The Civil War 1642

The Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century were a result of political, constitutional, religious and social changes and disagreements, which culminated in a struggle for control of the country between King and Parliament...


treffry viaduct

Industry in Cornwall

The industrial revolution had a huge impact on Cornwall and the county at this time was amongst the most industrialized part of the UK, if not the world...

History of Transport

History of Transport

The development of Cornwall’s roads was hugely affected by the county’s unique topography and landscape. Cornwall’s rivers run north-south, so all traffic along the peninsular...