Chapter 8 – Barrows

Book Extract……………………………..

A tumulus (plural tumuli) the word tumulus is Latin for ‘mound’ or ‘small hill’, from the PIE root *teuh- with extended zero grade *tum-, ‘to bulge, swell’ also found in tumor, thumb, thigh and thousand – A mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds, Hügelgrab or kurgans, and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn. A long barrow is a long tumulus, usually for numbers of burials. The method of inhumation may involve a dolmen, a cyst, a mortuary enclosure, a mortuary house or a chamber tomb.

It’s a grave, although the Latin word does not mean the grave, but a ‘small hill’. That’s a big difference; they also can be long or round, stone or earth, etc.  When we look at the traditional archaeological definition of tumuli, we are offered:

• Bank barrow

• Bell barrow

• Bowl barrow

• D-shaped barrow – round barrow with a purposely flat edge at one side often defined by stone slabs

• Fancy barrow – a generic term for any Bronze Age barrows more elaborate than a simple hemispherical shape.

• Long barrow

• Oval barrow – a Neolithic long barrow consisting of an elliptical, rather than rectangular or trapezoidal mound.

• Platform barrow – the least common of the recognised types of round barrow, consisting of a flat, wide circular mound, which may be surrounded by a ditch. They occur widely across southern England with a marked concentration in East and West Sussex.

• Pond barrow – a barrow consisting of a shallow circular depression, surrounded by a bank running around the rim of the depression.

• Ring barrow – a bank which encircles several burials.

• Round barrow – a circular feature created by the Bronze Age peoples of Britain and also the later Romans, Vikings, and Saxons. Divided into subclasses such as saucer and bell barrow.

• Saucer barrow – circular Bronze Age barrow featuring a low, wide mound surrounded by a ditch, which may be accompanied by an external bank.

• Square barrow – burial site, usually of Iron Age date, consisting of a small, square, ditched enclosure surrounding a central burial, which may also have been covered by a mound

STONEHENGE, Wiltshire. Reconstruction drawing by Peter Dunn (English Heritage Graphics Team) showing Bronze Age barrow types.

If the archaeologists are right, and barrows are just grave plots, they could be any shape.  But do we believe each had a different function or the same purpose in various forms?  The truth is that there are (in my view) just five categories of barrow:

• Long Barrow – the most significant and earliest form used for burials

• Round Barrows – big and round used as markers

• Pond Barrows – wells for water extraction

• Disturbed barrows – Round/Long/Pond Barrows that have degraded over 5,000 years by the elements and man’s attempts to destroy or excavate them

• Copy barrows – imitation Barrows from a later date, mimicking their ancestors.

Barrow Altitude

We have surveyed a sample of 50 prehistoric sites and monuments within the Stonehenge area, to look at their topology, in connection to the landscape.  Our findings show that the traditional belief, that prehistoric man, located his burials, ceremonial sites and structures on top of hills are wholly inaccurate – in fact, in our survey shows that only 8% of sites are on top of a hill.

This includes our most ancient site, Stonehenge.  Consequently, we are led to believe by archaeologists that our ancestors brought the bluestones all the way from Wales (some 250 miles) only to stop 50 metres short of the top of the hill because they were….. tired, or some other obscure unknown ceremonial or astronomical reason.

Figure 91 – Fifty ancient site locations around the Stonehenge Area

Moreover, our survey also shows that these barrows were not constructed at random heights either.  In the Stonehenge sample, the lowest burial was at 89m OD (above current sea level), the highest at 115m OD.  The only logical reason you would construct your barrow at the mid-point or two-thirds up a hillside would be that there was another overriding factor to consider. This reason can only be that you can’t build a barrow below this level as it would be underwater.

The variations shown in these sites is due to the groundwater tables falling from the Mesolithic (high) to the Neolithic (low), after which barrows were no longer built for their original purpose as the Bronze, Iron Age, Vikings and even Saxons civilisations copied their ancestral rituals and barrows for burial purposes only, and these are the only barrows built are below the old prehistoric water table.   This empirical evidence I call ‘archaeology of the landscape’ – where we can date the ancient sites by the location of their shorelines.

Long Barrows

The first thing we should note about Long Barrows is that they are unique to Northern Europe, unlike Round Barrows, which are found all over the world.  Archaeologists agree that the Long Barrow is the oldest monument to exist in our landscape.  As shown by the carbon dating from Carnac in France of St Michael’s tumuli (a Long Barrow) dated to 6850 BCE. Prior to this confirmation archaeologists have always believed these enormous and elaborate structures which include giant megaliths at their entrances clearly belonged to a civilisation that lived long ago.  Moreover, they are also aware that the bones from many dead people were collected together inside the chambers, rather than in individual graves, or cremations that were seen at a later date.

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Figure 92– St. Michaels Long Barrow – Carnac

The number and condition of these bones show us that they were disarticulated, with only the larger bones and skulls being brought to the sites after death, probably after the bones had been defleshed.  We believe their shape and design are of great importance. Firstly, the monuments are long and thin, with the entrance at the end of the mound. The entire Long Barrow mound originally had a ditch dug completely around its exterior, to represent water and the voyage to the afterlife.

During the prehistoric period, Long Barrows like West Kennet were on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by water. This groundwater now gives us a clue as to why the ditches that surrounded the monument were dug, for the bottom of the ditches would have been below the groundwater table at this location. Therefore, the ditches of today were moats of yesteryear.

The other noteworthy aspect of Long Barrows is the size and construction of the monument. At West Kennet and other Long Barrows, giant megaliths were used to highlight the entrance to the chambers; these boulders are over 15 tonnes in weight and four to five metres in height. They are an unnecessary addition to the construction, but they are visible even a couple of miles away on a clear day. Long Barrows when first constructed would have been covered not with grass as today, but with the sub-soil that came from the ditches they dug that surrounded the monument, in the case of West Kennet, it would be bright white chalk. The massive size of these monuments must also be taken into consideration as they are over 100m in length – five times longer than the chambers they hide within them, and they are tapered from the helm 4m high to the bow, just 1m high. Making them look like a gigantic direction indicator.

Another remarkable aspect of Long Barrows is their location and position on the landscape. If we look at the extensive river ways after the last ice age, we notice that these monuments are built parallel to major rivers and appear at junctions where rivers converge. Moreover, they don’t appear on the top of the hills that surround the rivers, but actually appear just over halfway up – so that they cannot be seen over the top of the hill on the opposite side. Because of their size and construction materials, these ‘markers’ are visible for miles like white pointers in daylight, but because they are pure white, they can also be seen at night with ‘moonshine’.

The Long Barrow represents the boat culture of this ancient society; they lived in boats, and so, when they died, they were sent on their last voyage by boat to the afterlife. Even today, we still have a custom of placing money over a dead person’s eyes as their fare to be collected by the ferryman.   Consequently, this also gives us a fantastic insight into the design of the boats used in this period. This boat looks more like a barge than a canoe, with the back end (the stern) being where they steered the craft with a rudder, which means they used sails (not paddles) for power.

Figure 93– Stonehenge area with eight Long Barrows aligned to the River Avon indicating direction to sail

Round Barrows

In our examination of Long Barrows, we have discovered that this civilisation traded heavily with other cultures, tribes, clans and groups within prehistoric Britain and beyond. 

Herefordshire businessman Alfred Watkins was sitting in his car one summer afternoon, during a visit to Blackwardine in Herefordshire in 1921, when he happened to consult a local map and noticed that a number of prehistoric and other ancient sites in the area fell into alignments.

Subsequent field and map work convinced him that this pattern was indeed a real one. Watkins came to the conclusion that he saw the vestigial traces of old straight tracks laid down in the Neolithic Period, probably, he surmised, for traders’ routes.

He concluded that after modernisation in the later Bronze and Iron Age periods, the tracks had fallen into disuse during the early historic period. The pattern had been accidentally preserved here and there due to the Christianisation of individual pagan sites that were markers along the old straight tracks. He published these theories in two books. 

Reaction to Watkins’ book ‘The Old Straight Track’ was sharply divided. Many thought he had uncovered a long-forgotten secret within the landscape, and The Straight Track Club was formed to carry out further “ley hunting”, while orthodox archaeologists vehemently dismissed the whole notion. And with a few notable exceptions, this situation still exists today. 

There are two kinds of tracks: Firstly, as we have shown, the older Long Barrows were markers based on islands and peninsulas within the river routes to known sites; then, after the groundwater subsided, Round Barrows were used for overland routes. 

When the groundwater subsided after the Neolithic Period, our ancestors needed a further navigational aid to allow them to find the location overland rather than by river as in the past.  These markers are known today as Round Barrows, and they are consequently, more frequent than Long Barrows because dense foliage makes the line of sight shorter for someone on foot than for someone taking the same route by boat and secondly, there are more routes by foot, than by river to navigate.

Figure 94– Round Barrow Path from Stonehenge to Quarley Hill

The incorrectly conceived aspect of Watkins land markers is that they did not run in perfectly straight lines, but actually to the high ground.  This was because the lower ground that had been flooded in the Mesolithic period would still be boggy and wet in some seasons, and therefore impassable.  Therefore, these tracks are straight, but not ruler-straight as Watkins first believed.  One of the closest sites to Stonehenge is Quarley Hill, to the East, the path between these two sites passes 13 barrows, in a 15 km distance.

If you stand on top of one of these barrows, you can see the next one in line very clearly. You must also take into consideration, that farmers have ploughed out nearly half the barrows, and that the mounds would have been at least 30% larger, and pure white, at time of construction.  Even so, they can still be seen as path markers today in some areas, 5,000 years later.

It is almost impossible to know what information would have greeted a walker in the Neolithic when he reached a Round Barrow, but we still have roman milestones surviving today on our modern roads, and I believe, this is a relic from our ancient past.  One can only imagine that somehow the barrow, like a milestone, would give an indication of the distance to be travelled, this was probably on a standing stone, buried upright in the centre of the barrow.   It should also be noted that the burials within these Round Barrows, were placed in them at a much later date, which would explain why these barrows do not contain burials at the centre and have been dug into the edges as an afterthought and not the original design.

Pond Barrows

Now we have established the use of the majority of prehistoric barrows by our ancestors. We can look at the ‘other’ barrows catalogued by archaeologists, to see what function they had in helping our ancestors navigate from town to town in prehistoric days.  Pond barrows’ shape is just as described: ‘pond-like’, and as we now understand, the groundwater tables were higher in the past, consequently, creating artificial ponds.

Water, in any civilisation, is critical to survival. Our ancestors were no exception, so when they travelled on foot to other towns or sites, the provision of water was essential.  Most pond barrows have the centre dugout, which would have tapped into the groundwater course; this would allow the pond to flood, depending on the tide levels.  This tradition continues into modern days by the use of dew ponds, which are of the same size and shape, but relied more on rainwater to fill the pond.

Other Barrows

These barrows are the original path markers that have either eroded over the last five thousand years or the remains have been altered and adapted over time by later descendants. Burials mark a change in use for these round barrows by later civilisations including the mimicking of similar round barrows by Bronze and Iron age people (including the Vikings) as a mark of respect for their ancestors who they wish to be buried amongst and hence the historical confusion and variety.

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