See the heavens the way ancient Britons did at this dark sky park
In Cornwall—home to hundreds of Neolithic and Bronze Age structures—‘archaeoastronomy’ tours explore the link between the moon, the stars, and human history.
In Britain’s newest dark sky park, the celestial tapestry above is deeply connected to an unsually rich archaeological landscape below.
Across Cornwall’s exposed peninsula of storm-ravaged cliffs and wind-blown moors, Neolithic people built stone structures guided by the constellations as long ago as 4000 B.C. In total, about 700 Neolithic and Bronze Age structures across 115 square miles in what is now West Penwith Dark Sky Park have helped shape the landscape of Britain’s southwest. Some structures point to the heavens, others are stacked over burial chambers or built in circles around ritual zones. All sit on a bed of granite veined with copper and tin.
“This is an ancient landscape with an ancient skyscape, and we can all connect with it in some way,” says astrophysicist Carolyn Kennett, who leads “archaeoastronomy” tours, an emerging interdisciplinary field that investigates the use of astronomy in ancient civilizations.
These “low-light” tours that begin at dusk explore the intertwined nature of the moon, stars, and human history. They’re a unique way to experience this sparsely populated wild coast, with its popular summertime beaches. Walking among ancient structures, travelers connect with local heritage while gazing at the sky above.
The rise of astro tourism in Cornwall
Internationally recognized dark sky areas are nothing new in the United Kingdom. There are 14 total International Dark Sky Parks and International Dark Sky Reserves designated by the International Dark-Sky Association, from parts of Cairngorms National Park in Scotland to South Downs, the newest national park in England.
While West Penwith’s distinct coastal and moorland features have long been protected as part of the wider Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), West Penwithians pushed to preserve the night sky here as well.
“It’s not just about stargazing,” says Sue James, mayor of St. Just, a town in West Penwith, who led the area’s dark sky park committee. Indeed, West Penwith doesn’t even have an observatory. “The International Dark Sky Park is as much about archaeology, wildlife, creative arts, and photography as it is about astronomy.”
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In the long term, preserving the night sky helps safeguard an ancient landscape in a modern economy. Any future developments in West Penwith must now limit light pollution.
And that’s just fine with resident Judith Summers, who values the ability to step out into her garden and take a photo of Jupiter on her mobile phone. “The night sky is part of our culture here,” she says. “We don’t want to lose it.”
Land of giants and daring maidens
On a late February afternoon, Kennett leads her first tour of the season in Boskednan Moor, an area with a particularly high density of ancient sites, about five miles east of St. Just in the dark sky park.
(Dark sky tourism is on the rise across the United States.)
By 3:45 p.m., the sun is already dipping low on the horizon. Participants walk a rock-strewn lane sunken into the earth by centuries of footfalls by farmers and livestock. It leads to an ancient granite boundary. In the field just beyond, the Bronze Age (2500-700 B.C.) standing stone, Mên Scryfa, marks the burial place of a king, nobleman, or warrior.
“The stone with writing,” as it’s called in Cornish, points due north to align with Carn Galva, a rocky outcropping capping a hill, or tor. It was an important focal point some 6,000 years ago, says Kennett, and even today is steeped in local mythology.
In the 19th century, William Bottrell wrote in Traditions and Hearthside Stories in West Cornwall, that Carn Galva was inhabited by a friendly giant who protected local villagers from other giants. The tors and rock formations on the moor were the remnants of battles fought between mythological titans that shaped the landscape.
Tales of behemoth beings are commonplace in Celtic cultures like Cornwall’s. Kennett believes that many of these stories are in fact derived from celestial movements over landmarks such as Carn Galva, which could have been the focus of religious ceremonies or processions.
For example, she notes that a Christian version of a local folk story says Boskednan Stone Circle, better known as the Nine Maidens, are the petrified remains of local women who dared dance on the Sabbath. However, Kennett theorizes that this stone arrangement, as well as others on Boskednan Moor, were aligned with celestial movements thousands of years before Christianity arrived in Britain.
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One possible explanation is that the circle is a lunar observation site. Viewed from the circle itself, the moon passes directly over Carn Galva at the end of the Metonic cycle, when it returns to its exact starting position every 19 years.
“Lunar events happen first thing in the morning when the sun rises and the moon sets, so your shadow would be long if you were facing Carn Galva from Boskednan Stone Circle,” Kennett notes. “You would become a giant as you walked through barrows towards a tor that could be worshiped as a god, possibly.”
“But West Penwith is full of stories,” she continues. “You have to take them all with a pinch of salt.”
What to know
More ways to travel Besides Carolyn Kennett’s tours, Ancient Stones of Kernow can tailor evening archaeoastronomy tours.
Cornish Heritage Safaris takes visitors on a drive to the area’s historic sites, while local author Rob Wildwood leads customizable drives and walks that reveal the local folkore. The Cornwall AONB website lists group events as well.
First Bus Kernow runs occasional open-top tours for larger groups. Check the website for upcoming outings.
Visitors can explore on their own with helpful guides from the National Trust and the Tin Coast Partnership.