The Ancient Dead: A Brief History of Barrows in England

One of the things I love about Ordnance Survey Maps is all the little details of history that pop out when you examine them. England features a high concentration of man-made structures, spanning thousands of years, and Ordnance Survey strives to note them all (as part of their founding quest to seek out unexploded bombs after WWII). In particular, the land is riddled with barrows, mounds of land, generally over a stone core, commonly used as graves starting in the Neolithic period (3700-3500 BCE, in this case).

an exterior view of the chambered West Kennet Long Barrow

an exterior view of the chambered West Kennet Long Barrow

My recent visit to Stonehenge included a walkabout with two archaeologists specializing in this early history, and showed me all sorts of things about the landscape, some of which I noted in an earlier blog. Today, I’m focusing on the barrows. In America, I think most readers know about them mainly from Tolkien’s barrow wights, the ghosts inhabiting their tombs and enticing others to join them, notably, Frodo and his friends after they make it through the Old Forest in the Fellowship of the Ring. That barrow is clearly a long barrow, of a particular sort: not merely a pile of rocks over bones, it contains chambers, like the West Kennet Long Barrow pictured above.

Chambered barrows were more of a construction project than a landscaping one, because they feature linteled entrances and rooms inside for the placement of the dead over a period of time. The West Kennet Long Barrow was built around 3600 (400 years before Stonehenge) and used until 2500 BCE, during which time it remained open for the burial of about 46 people, and folks apparently went in and out, sometimes taking bones away for unknown purposes (have any of these bones been found elsewhere? I’m very curious).

The King Barrow near Stonehenge, by contrast, did not contain human remains at all, although secondary burials have been found in the upper layers–meaning that later peoples, seeing the site as spiritually significant, buried their own dead in the mound. Instead of human remains, this barrow contained cattle skulls. Apparently, such burials are common–often including hooves, and sometimes “head and hood burials” in which the cattle were skinned with their heads and hooves left intact, and these skins were they interred.

But getting back to those later peoples. . . the common round barrows, which often appear in groups or lines in the English countryside, date from the Bronze Age, around 2200 BCE. They are frequently placed in relationship to the existing long barrows from the earlier time, perhaps in the way that we think of the family plot or family graveyard. But then, how much did these later peoples know about the long barrows and their builders?

Whenever I read of assumptions about what early peoples were thinking, I remember an article about the excavation of a barrow in Northern England, which featured a variety of small animal skulls inserted among the stones. The researchers were fascinated as they came across and carefully documented them for later study. When were the bones left? Were they offerings? “Food” for the dead? Or sacrifices of some kind? Then, during a lunch break where they sat nearby eating and looking at the subject of their work, they saw a local cat trot up to the mound with a rabbit in its mouth, and stuff the rabbit in among the rocks for later eating.

Speculation is both fascinating, and dangerous. . .like Tolkien’s barrow downs, a constant draw for the curious and unwary.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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6 Responses to The Ancient Dead: A Brief History of Barrows in England

  1. The idea of that a cat’s food stashes might be mistaken for offerings to the dead reminded me of David Macauley’s Motel of the Mysteries.

  2. harrietjean says:

    As half an archaeologist myself, one of the things I find hardest to come to terms with is just how much we cannot take for granted from sites – especially graves (or “subterranean deposits possibly associated with death”). Although the truly bizarre and wonderful places make for some epically inspiring mysteries (or, excellent food stores in this case).

  3. Cambias says:

    Ordnance Survey wasn’t a survey for unexploded ordnance, it was a survey done by the Ordnance office, mostly to provide maps for beating up pesky Scotsmen:

    • Thanks for the clarification. The guy who proposed creating those detailed maps of the Highlands in 1747 went on to develop the techniques employed by the Board of Ordnance some years later around 1790 (for those who are interested in this early history, the wiki page)

      Which suggests that they’ll be in good stead if they ever need to conduct a house-to-house search for rebel Scots in Nether Stowey.

  4. Pingback: Elisha Magus Book Day! With footnotes. . . | E. C. Ambrose

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