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Barrows

Introduction

A barrow is a mound of earth that is often surrounded by a ditch. The ditch is usually the source of material for the mound. Barrows can date from the Neolithic period up to the Saxon period. They are most usually used to cover human remains, whether inhumations or cremations. Barrows were constructed to celebrate and/or commemorate the dead. Many barrows were reused either as burial places or for some other purpose in Roman and/or later times, and in some cases therefore have other other classes of monument superimposed on them.

Neolithic barrows
Long barrows

A long barrow is a roughly rectangular or trapezoidal mound of earth and/or stone, usually between 25m and 120m long, with a length exceeding twice its greatest width. The mound may be edged with a timber or stone revetment, and there is frequently a facade at the higher and/or wider end of the monument. The majority of long barrows contain one or more stone or wooden burial chambers which occupy a small portion of the total structure. A few long barrows are known to lack burial chambers. Other distinctive components include quarry pits, flanking quarry ditches, and a forecourt.

 

The tradition of building and using long barrows seems to have spanned the middle Neolithic period, broadly 3000 BC to 2400 BC, a total of perhaps five or six centuries. Among the earliest dated examples are Hazleton, Gloucestershire, Willerby Wold, North Yorkshire, and Giants Hills II, Lincolnshire. Many long barrows seem to have been used for communal burial rites. Burial chambers are often found to contain jumbled human bone, suggesting that once bodies had decomposed the bones were moved around inside the barrow or taken out and used in ceremonies.

 

Long barrows are widely scattered over the whole of England, in the Cotswolds, the downlands of Wessex, the Yorkshire Wolds, and the Lincolnshire Wolds. Smaller groups are known in the Medway Valley of Kent, the Peak District of Derbyshire, and around Bodmin Moor, Cornwall. In eastern counties, most of the recorded examples are known only through aerial photographs, and more examples no doubt await discovery in this way.

 

Whiteleaf Neolithic barrowLong barrows in Buckinghamshire are known above Whiteleaf Cross, though this can also be classed as an oval barrow. Possible long barrows are also known at Bulback Barracks in Halton and at Bulstrode Camp where a long barrow may be in the interior of the Iron Age hillfort.

Oval barrows

An oval barrow is a mound of earth and/or stones of roughly elliptical plan covering or containing one or more human burials and/or other ceremonially placed deposits, sometimes partly or wholly surrounded by a ditch from which the material to build the mound was derived. Oval barrows are generally less than 45m long and tend to be about half as broad as their length.

 

Oval barrows are often regarded as being later than long barrows and therefore dating to the later part of the middle Neolithic period. However, radiocarbon dates are now available from seven excavated oval barrows, demonstrating that the tradition of constructing and using this class of monument spans a period of perhaps eight or nine centuries. Among the earliest dates is one of 3210+45 BC (BM-2355) from beneath the Thickthorn Barrow, Dorset. The other end of the range is represented by the date of 2360+110 BC (HAR-940) from Alfriston, East Sussex, which comes from an antler found in the bottom of one of the quarry ditches.

 

The oval, or rather kidney-shaped, barrow on Whiteleaf Hill was recently exavated and yielded an early Neolithic date as well. At Wayland's Smithy I, Oxfordshire, an oval barrow was found stratified beneath a long barrow, while at Maxey, Cambridgeshire, an oval barrow was probably later than a cursus but contemporary with, or earlier than, a henge.

Bronze Age barrows
Round barrows

Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age barrows tend to be roughly conical and cover usually one primary burial but also have secondary burials inserted into the mound later in the Early or Middle Bronze Age. Many round barrows had a circular surrounding ditch and bank but the form could vary greatly. It was common for subsequent ‘secondary’ burials to be inserted in and around these monuments, sometimes many years later. Round barrows are often found in conjunction with boundaries and it is unclear whether these existed when they were originally constructed or whether they formed a focus points when the boundaries were subsequently formed. Round barrows in Buckinghamshire include sites such as Bledlow Cop and the Rollingpin in Lowndes Park, Chesham.

 

The most common form of Early Bronze Age barrows are round barrows, but there are also bell barrows, pond barrows and bowl barrows. Often barrows are found in cemeteries. When barrows are ploughed out they tend to leave a circular cropmark behind that is known as a ring-ditch.

Bowl barrows

A bowl barrow is a roughly hemispherical mound of prehistoric date comprising turf, soil, and redeposited bedrock, and covering one or more burials contained within wooden or stone structures. Bowl barrows are typically between about 3m and 40m in diameter, from 0.3m to over 6m high, and were constructed as anything from an almost random accumulation of soil and stone through to a structured arrangement involving kerbs, and internal subdivisions.

 

Bronze Age bowl barrow in Lowndes Park, CheshamThe tradition of building and using bowl barrows began in the early Neolithic period around 3000 BC (eg. at Grindale, Humberside) and continued through until Late Bronze Age times (eg. Simons Ground Barrow 9, Dorest, probably built 600 BC); the peak of bowl barrow construction was during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (2400 to 1500 BC). In general, bowl barrows seem to concentrate on the higher ground, being especially common on prominent hill-tops or raised ground, hill-spurs, saddles, false crests, and the upper parts of hill-slopes. Examples do certainly occur in river valleys as well, however, although in most cases they have either been ploughed away or are covered in colluvium or alluvium. Two examples of bowl barrows in Buckinghamshire are on high ground, at Ivinghoe Beacon and at the north end of Whiteleaf Ridge.

Bell barrows

A bell barrow is a prehistoric burial site comprising between one and four earthen or stone mounds set within a ditched enclosure, the mounds being separated from the ditch by a berm. The mounds each usually cover one or more burials. The most common type, the single bell barrows range in size from 10m to over 60m across, the average being about 40m in overall diameter.

 

The majority of bell barrows date to the Early Bronze Age, dated examples include Amesbury G58, Wiltshire, with a radiocarbon date of 1360+80 BC (HAR-6226), and Ascot, Berkshire, with a date of 1480+70 (HAR-478) from charcoal on the old ground surface under the barrow. The areas of maximum concentration of bell barrows are around Avebury and Stonehenge in Wiltshire, along the south Dorset coast, on Mendip, in the New Forest, near Woodyates in Dorset, and in West Sussex. One possible bell barrow in Buckinghamshire is known at Pitstone.

Pond barrows

A pond barrow is a circular depression, the material from which has been placed around the circumference to form an embanked rim. Within the enclosed central area there may be pits and/or shafts, some of which contain burials, and some of which can be of great depth. In diameter pond barrows range from about 5m to 30m across. Most are recognized as upstanding earthworks, but plough-reduced examples can be identified from cropmarks or soilmarks on aerial photographs.

 

Pond barrows are mostly confined to central southern England, principally Wiltshire and Dorset, although a few outliers are known further north and east. Within the known distribution of pond barrows there are three main concentrations, around Avebury, Wiltshire, around Stonehenge, Wiltshire, and around Winterbourne Abbas, Dorset. In these and other areas too they are mostly situated on rolling downland in promenent locations but rarely on hilltops or especially elevated positions.

 

Round barrows with which pond barrows are often associated (eg. fancy barrows, bowl barrows and bell barrows), are discussed elsewhere. Pond barrows are generally interpreted as funerary and/or ceremonial monuments of early and middle Bronze Age date because of their close associations with other kinds of barrows and round barrow cemeteries; the pits and shafts within pond barrows may have been for communication with the spirits of the earth. Pond barrows occur singly or within round barrow cemeteries, but according to present evidence only rarely if ever in pairs or groups of their own class. Two possible pond barrows have been identified in Buckinghamshire at Bacombe Hill in Wendover.

Round barrow cemeteries

A round barrow cemetery is a group of five or more closely spaced prehistoric round barrows comprising examples of one or more of the following classes: bell barrows, bowl barrows, fancy barrows, pond barrows and ring cairns. Other possible components include urnfields and flat graves. The spacing of barrows within a round barrow cemetery varies considerably, but few barrows will be over 150m from their nearest neighbour; most will be less than 100m apart. The largest cemeteries contain up to about 30 barrows. Round barrow cemeteries may be recognized as groups of upstanding barrows, ring-ditches, or a combination of the two.

 

The tradition of constructing round barrow cemeteries seems to have spanned most of the Bronze Age, broadly 2000 to 700 BC. Some round barrow cemeteries contain or lie adjacent to earlier monuments, usually Neolithic long barrows or oval barrows, but there is no evidence that when these monuments were built they comprised part of a cemetery. The length of time over which individual round barrow cemeteries were used varied enourmously, although as a general rule the larger cemeteries are also the longest-lived. At Barrow Hills, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, a cemetery of 17 round barrows included examples ranging from the late Neolithic and beaker periods through to the middle Bronze Age. Other examples, such as the one excavated on Shaugh Moor, Devon, with just six barrows, were used over a more limited period, perhaps only a century or two in some cases. The addition of secondary burials to existing barrows within a round barrow cemetery, or the placing of an urnfield over or around the barrows, often represents the lastest phase of use. At Simons Ground, Dorset, most of the round barrows were constructed between about 1200 and 1000 BC but the deposition of urned cremation burials seems to have continued the life of the cemetery down to about 600 BC.

 

A few round barrow cemeteries are thought to exist in Buckinghamshire. One exists only as a number of ring-ditches in a field east of Sentry Hill, Lower Grounds Farm, Marlow. Another existed until recently as a combination of both upstanding barrows and ring-ditches at Molin's Works, Saunderton, but now all are flattened.

Later barrows
Iron Age barrows

Barrows, and indeed visible burial rites, tend to disappear after the Middle Bronze Age. The round barrow reappears as a burial mound in the Late Iron Age in Essex and square barrows form part of the Arras culture in Yorkshire, though it may be more widespread. A possible Buckinghamshire square barrow is known from crop-marks at Barnett House in Bierton.

Roman barrows at ThornboroughRoman barrows

Roman barrows are rare and are known at Bartlow Hills on the Essex-Suffolk border, but also at Thornborough in Buckinghamshire. It is possible that they were more widespread but have disappeared. of course, many of the unopened barrows that are thought to be Bronze Age may be of a later date.

Saxon barrows (hlaews)

A hlaew is a burial monument of Anglo-Saxon or Viking date, comprising a hemispherical mound of earth and redeposited bedrock constructed over a primary burial or burials. These were usually inhumations, buried in a grave cut into the subsoil beneath the mound, but there are also cremations, usually on the ground surface beneath the mound. The mounds are typically between 7.5m and 17m in diameter and usually survive today to a height of less than 1.5m.

 

It is thought that the term "hlaew" tended to be used by the Anglo-Saxons to refer to Saxon barrows in which pagan interments were made; the word "beorh" tended to be used for the barrows of earlier peoples. Hlaews were constructed for individuals of high rank as a visible and ostentatious marker of their social position. They could have been associated with claims to territory.

 

Taplow Saxon barrowMost hlaews were richly furnished with grave goods and those that have been examined have been dated to the late 6th and 7th centuries. A bronze buckle from the hlaew at Burgh-le-Marsh, Lincs, has been dated to the late 6th or early 7th century; at Coombe, Woodnesborough, Kent, a sword hilt has dated the hlaew to the late 7th century. There are a few examples of hlaews relating to Viking settlement and thus dating to the 9th century, as at Repton, Derbys.

 

Many of the known examples are situated on high ground, often on chalk. It has been suggested that these hlaews represent a 7th-century expansion of population onto less favourable soils; hlaews would also have been constructed on the lower, more fertile ground but these have been obliterated by subsequent ploughing and have only been preserved in exceptional circumstances, as at Taplow in Buckinghamshire, situated in a the grounds of a country house.