Long or round, large or small, prehistoric burial mounds dot the countryside. Vicky Liddell explores the history, folklore and literary influence of burial mounds or burial mounds and reveals how they were nearly lost to digging mania in the 18th century.
And a long mound crowned with trees
Stretched like a sow that has farrowed
Hide the bones of a king
Lying like broken sticks among the stones.
—Andrew Young, “Wiltshire Downs”
Driving south on the A303 past Stonehenge, crawling traffic affords travelers spectacular views of the ancient monument, but there is also prehistoric riches across the road, in the form of dozens of burial mounds which are spread over Salisbury Plain. like huge spilled green puddings. Marked on the Ordnance Survey map with the familiar Gothic Italic ‘barrow’ or ‘tumuli’, they are among some 20,000 burial mound or burial mound sites scattered throughout Britain.
They come in two main forms: the long tumulus, which dates from the earliest Neolithic agricultural communities (3800 BC – 3500 BC) and the round tumulus of the later Bronze Age (2000 BC – 1500 BC) which is subdivided into five different shapes: bowl, bell, saucer, pond and the aesthetic disc wheelbarrow with its well-defined ditch and bank. Although older, the long tumulus is the most complex, with stone passageways and chambers that held the remains of up to 50 people. Rectangular or diamond-shaped, these long mounds of earth are between 65 and 394 feet long and are said to have been used as shrines for the living, as well as tombs for the dead.
The long chambered burial mounds are Britain’s oldest monuments and their densest concentration is in the Cotswold Hills and the Marlborough Downs, where over 150 survive. Known as the Cotswold Severn Group, they are generally trapezoidal in shape and located on prominent hills and slopes, where they may have served as a marker in the landscape along passing routes. “They are awesome today,” Timothy Darvill writes in his book, Long Barrows of the Cotswolds“but when these sites were new, they were brutal and harsh, bright white rocky mounds covering dark, damp chambers.”
Each long tumulus contains the same three elements, comprising a forecourt, which may have been used for rituals, an entrance area, and a passage leading to the mound with one or more cells leading off. It is here that the disarticulated remains of men, women and children were placed, sometimes with the occasional pot and ornament. Excavations have shown that the burial mounds were opened from time to time for the addition of corpses and body parts that had been stored elsewhere. “It must have been an emotionally charged and uncomfortable experience, squeezing through tight spaces, moving bones and maneuvering bodies into their new resting places,” says Professor Darvill.
At Belas Knap, near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, what appears to be the main entrance is a false entrance, which prehistorians believe could have been designed as a ‘spirit door’ to allow the dead to come and go . In 3000 BC. BC, most of the long burial mounds had fallen into disuse and were gradually abandoned and blocked off. Only West Kennet in Wiltshire, one of the longest burial mounds in the country, saw continuous activity until around 2500 BC.
Round burial mounds were simpler, often only a mound of earth on a single burial with a few grave goods in the Beaker style of early Bronze Age peoples – named for their bell-shaped drinking vessels – and sometimes no burial at all. Size varies from a barely perceptible swelling in the ground to mounds over 9 feet, but by far the most common variety of round wheelbarrow is the bowl wheelbarrow, with around 10,000 surviving examples across Great Britain. Britain, including the Shrewsbury Mound, which is in a residential area of south London. Isolated specimens can be seen in every parish, and in Wiltshire they are often crowned with a grove of beech trees. Round burial mounds also appear in groups of 30 or more in what are now known as ‘barrow cemeteries’, such as the Winterbourne Poor Lot burial mounds in Dorset, a 44-mound burial ground dating from around 1500 BCE. AD, which straddles the A35, and the mighty Kings Barrows, overlooking Stonehenge.
After the Bronze Age there were never so many burial mounds – Iron Age people built squares of them, in which they sometimes buried chariots, and the Romans made large conical ones like the Bartlow Hills, known as the Pyramids of Essex. The Anglo-Saxons of East Anglia raised burial mounds above ship graves, as at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, and the Vikings built burial mounds until the year 1000, but as Christianity s installed, resting places migrated to cemeteries and tombs to churches.
Over the millennia few burial mounds have survived in intact condition and many have been leveled by agriculture and development – in Hampshire alone an estimated 75% have been destroyed. The damage worsened in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the digging of burial mounds became a field sport for landowners and pastors wishing to fill their cabinets with curiosities. They often worked with astonishing speed: Bryan Faussett, an antique dealer and collector from Kent, dug nearly 800 burial mounds with a one-day record of 31 on July 29, 1771. Pottery was broken up and bones stolen and the Reverend John Skinner, who opened and erected 26 burial mounds between 1815 and 1818, recorded a shameful picture of hoarded urns smashed by unguarded laborers and sites trampled by wandering sheep. The much-desired ‘treasure’ was rarely found, but in 1808, during one of the most orderly excavations, archaeologist William Cunnington, working for Sir Richard Colt Hoare, discovered a gold pellet and several daggers of bronze in the Bush Barrow near Stonehenge, which are now on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
Unsurprisingly, the prehistoric burial mounds have attracted a lot of folklore. Devil’s Leaps near Treyford in West Sussex, a group of five large well-preserved burial mounds, is believed to be where the Devil leapt from hill to hill until the god Thor became so enraged that he threw a stone scaring him away. At Culliford Tree Barrow in Dorset, also known as Music Barrow, it is believed that fairy music can be heard below the mound by those listening at the top at midday. At Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire, any horse left tethered to the long mound with a coin would be shoed by an unseen elven blacksmith. Strategically placed in a grove along the ancient ridge, Wayland’s Smithy was often visited by JRR Tolkien, who incorporated the landscape into his ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy – the mound is said to have been the model for the Barrow Downs, where Frodo Baggins and the hobbits have been captured by an evil mound fiend. The burial mounds also feature in the Anglo-Saxon epic of the slaying of dragons Beowulf.
The secrets of the burial mounds are still being revealed and human bones collected have indicated that Neolithic humans had a high protein diet, but suffered from arthritis, tuberculosis and scurvy. In 2021, DNA analysis of the bones and teeth of 35 bodies in the long barrow at Hazleton North in the Cotswolds showed that 27 of them were biological relatives of five generations of an extended family, proving for the first times the close link of prehistoric man with his immediate ancestors. . The findings have been described as the world’s oldest family tree and offer insight into the lives of Britain’s earliest farmers, who lived around 3700BC – 3600BC – 700 years before construction of the Great Monument to Stonehenge.
Britain’s Alluring Wheelbarrows
West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, Wiltshire
One of the largest and most accessible Neolithic chamber tombs with magnificent views of Silbury Hill and the surrounding countryside. Built around 3650 BC. and used for another 1,000 years, the long burial mound contained the partial remains of at least 46 people along with grave goods. Free access during the day. Park in the parking area on the A4.
Arthur’s Stone, Arthur’s Stone Lane, Dorstone, Herefordshire
A Neolithic chamber tomb on the crest of a hill overlooking the Golden Valley, Arthur’s Stone is an outlier to the north of the Severn-Cotswold group. Linked to King Arthur since before the 13th century as the place where Arthur slew a giant. Open during daylight hours.
Coldrum Long Barrow, Trottiscliffe, West Malling, Kent
Sitting on a natural terrace overlooking farmland, Coldrum is the best preserved example of an early Neolithic ‘Medway Megalith’ on the North Downs. Originally rectangular in shape, the tomb contained the bones of 22 related men, women and children, all of whom were buried elsewhere and then moved to Coldrum around 3985 BC. Free and open 24 hours a day.
Priddy Nine Barrow Cemetery, North Hill, Nine Barrows Lane, Priddy, Somerset
A group of nine round Bronze Age burial mounds, seven aligned with two other mounds located slightly to the north. Excavations in 1815 unearthed cremation burials and grave goods, including bronze daggers. Follow the trail from the village of Priddy.
Burial chamber of Bryn Celli Ddu, Llanddaniel Fab, Llanfair, Gwynedd
One of Anglesey’s most famous prehistoric monuments. When the sun rises on the summer solstice, a ray of light shines directly into the passageway of the tomb, illuminating the chamber within. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.