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A clue….
DeepPlough

An interesting English Heritage document, Heritage Crime Research: The Size of the Problem seeks to evaluate the damage caused by various crimes and in our particular sphere of interest (scheduled monuments and other designated historic sites) simple antisocial behaviour is the single most common heritage crime. Illegal detecting and off-roading are also problems but metal theft is less common than it is with other types of heritage assets.

However, viewing damage through the narrow prism of heritage crime can distort the reality and none of the crimes quoted in that research document cause anything like as much damage as is caused legally by agriculture, as highlighted in another English Heritage document from 2003 – Ripping up History.

Some quotes:

Modern ploughing has done more damage in six decades than traditional agriculture did in the preceding six centuries. Among the sites being actively ploughed are nearly 3000 scheduled monuments, sites recognised as being of national importance to our heritage.

We are, quite literally, ripping up our history.

Farmers are not at fault.They have done what society has asked them to do and past agricultural policy has dictated. However, if this important inheritance is to be better protected in future, it is essential that government, archaeologists and farmers now work together to find a new and more sensitive approach.

Over 10,000 wetland monuments are estimated to have suffered damage in the last 50 years …….. An estimated 94% of East Midlands ridge and furrow has been destroyed …….. Ploughing is damaging over 100 Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Norfolk and Suffolk …….. Fewer than 10 out of 1200 burial mounds in Essex now survive as earthworks …….. Over a quarter of the nationally important scheduled monuments in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site are under damaging arable cultivation.

At that time EH suggested 3 key actions were needed: an expansion of Environmental Stewardship schemes, further protection legislation and further policies to lessen the amount of grassland over protected archaeology being turned over to arable cultivation. That was almost ten years ago and some progress towards those aims has been made, particularly a big expansion of the Stewardship schemes (70% of agricultural land is now in schemes). However, perhaps the best hope for greater protection in the next few years will come from something that wasn’t specified back then: the Government is to move towards paying farmers to adopt “min til” (minimum tillage) – the low impact farming system that replaces ploughing.

The Government this morning have announced that due to the impending fuel shortage, farmers are being urged to increase food production for sale at local markets, thus reducing the need for shoppers to travel for fresh produce.

To this end, any barrows or ‘tumuli’ existing on farmland will be allowed to be ploughed flat to increase the available land, and thus yield for crops. A government spokesman stated “It’s well known that the antiquarians robbed out all the barrows in the 18th and 19th centuries, these ‘lumps’ in the fields are just getting in the way now, we may as well make them profitable. We’re in a recession and every little helps!”

In an effort to reduce the inevitable arguments from archaeology societies concerned about the loss of heritage, local metal-detecting clubs will be urged to contact their local farms and scan over the remains, ‘just in case something of historic interest is found’. The spokesman said that as the farmers will be benefiting from increased yield, then it’s only right that the metal detectorists be allowed to retain 100% of anything they find that is later saleable, after recording the finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

In this short series we hope to provide an insight into the many types of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrow dotted around our landscape. But let’s start with a simple question:

What is a Barrow?

The English Heritage Monument Type Thesaurus  defines a Barrow as an “Artificial mound of earth, turf and/or stone, normally constructed to contain or conceal burials.” This is of course a very general description, there are many types of barrow within this definiton, and we’ll be providing examples of some of these in forthcoming articles. The first barrows appeared around five to five and a half thousand years ago (c3500-3000 BCE), and were of the Long Barrow type. Barrow construction lasted for some two thousand years and by c 1500 BCE, barrows in the Neolithic/Bronze Age style were no longer being used, although there are some later Roman (Six Hills  in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Thornborough Mounds  in Buckinghamshire, Bartlow Hills  in Essex), Viking (Repton in Cumbria and Ingleby in Derbyshire) and Anglo Saxon (e.g. Sutton Hoo) barrow constructs remaining.

Six Hills in Stevenage © Alan S.

Types of Barrow

Barrows fall into two main forms, the Long Barrow and Round Barrow. Although earlier in date, Long barrows are often more complex and may have one or more stone chambers within to hold the burials. Round barrows are later and much simpler, often being a mound of earth thrown up over a central inhumation, though there are several sub-types of round barrow, such as bowl, bell, disc, pond, saucer  etc.

West Kennet Long Barrow © Jane Tomlinson

Where are they found?

Quite simply, just about anywhere from the Shetlands to Lands End in Cornwall. Barrows and associated monuments seem to be pretty ubiquitous in the UK. If an area appears to be lacking in barrows, it’s probably because they’ve been ploughed out – many barrows are damaged by modern farming practices. Whilst some cannot be missed due to their size, such as the Kenwyn Four Barrows straddling the A30 northwest of Truro in Cornwall, others are barely discernable as minor ‘lumps and bumps’ and can disappear completely from view when fields are in crop.

What were they used for?

The obvious answer is burials, but research suggests it was more complicated than that. There are various theories as to barrows being used not only as sepulchral monuments, but also as delineators of territory or waymarkers for trade routes. Many barrows show no signs of ever being used for holding burials or cremated remains, whilst in others, where bones have been found, they have been much younger in age than the monuments, suggesting either continued use, or a much later re-use of an existing monument.

 Further Reading

We shall be continuing this series over the next couple of weeks, but for more in depth reading, we can recommend the following books, available via Amazon:

Useful Links

NMR Monument Type Thesaurus
Wikipedia article
H2G2 article
Barrows in Wiltshire

The barrow cemetery at Therfield Heath in Hertfordshire (Grid Ref TL3440) is a true multi-period site. Situated approx 1.5 miles south of the Icknield Way ancient trackway, just to the west of the modern market town of Royston, it contains a Longbarrow and a group of up to 12 Round Barrows, several of which show signs of more recent re-use. And today the site is an SSSI, part of a golf course and picnic site and leisure complex(!), with good views to the north across Cambridgeshire.

Therfield Heath Longbarrow © AlanS

The Longbarrow has been dated to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) – c.4000-c.2300 B.C. – and the round barrows to Bronze Age dates – c.2300-c.750 B.C. Many of the Therfield barrows have been excavated, and found to contain the ashes of a single cremation, often in a pottery vessel, and sometimes accompanied by objects intended for use in the afterlife. Some also contained evidence that the mounds were re-used for pagan burial in the early to middle Anglo-Saxon period (A.D. c.410-870).

The Longbarrow is oriented E-W and measures 38 x 26m at its broader E end diminishing to 15.5m at the W. The maximum height is 2.2m at the E end maintaining slight slope down to 1.7m at the W end. This accentuates the natural slope.

The Longbarrow has been excavated twice, and the results of both investigations are published in Phillips’ 1935 paper1. The longitudinal trench excavated by E Nunn in 1855 is still prominent on the summit of the barrow as a regular depression 2.25m wide and 0.25m deep. Nunn described digging the barrow in the 19th Century2 thusly:

‘April 26th 1855, Opened the Long Hill on Royston Heath. Made a cut about 7 feet wide to the base of the hill throughout its length. Found in the east end at about 1 foot from the top a small heap of calcined human bones, and a small piece or two of iron very much corroded, a few pieces of flints. At the depth of 4 feet a human skeleton lying with its legs crossed, the internment was Head NE by SW, at the base of the hill a bank of flint lying NW-SE the portion above described relates to portion no.1 on ground plan. In portion no. 2 a cyst was found cut in the chalk at the base of the hill about 2 feet depth being 18 to 20 inches, containing ashes, at 6 yards farther west another cyst was found of the same description and dimensions. At about 2ft farther west a skeleton was found, the bones being placed in a kind of heap or circle. This was also on the base of the hill. Nothing more was found.’

Therfield Heath, looking north. © AlanS

Whilst in the general area, which due to the proximity of the Icknield way is scattered with reminders of our ancient past, drop into Royston to view the ‘Roy Stone’; a 2 tonne glacial erratic placed at ‘time immemorial’ at the crossroads of the Icknield Way and the Roman Ermine Street. There is also Royston Cave across the road from the stone, an underground chamber carved into the chalk with strange pagan/christian carvings of uncertain date but for some reason associated with the Knights Templar.

Further to the West is the village of Weston, home to the grave (in the churchyard) of the legendary giant, Jack o’ Legs. Also Weston Henge, a rare monument type for Hertfordshire,  is a short distance from the village though very little remains to be seen on the site there today.

Notes:

  1. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1935 (C W Phillips) 1 Page(s)101-7
  2. Nunn, EB 1855 MSS Notebook Palmer Collection, Cambridge University Library

English Heritage has just published its annual Heritage at Risk report. Prehistory enthusiasts will note that of nearly 20,000 at risk monuments more than two thirds are threatened by either “arable cultivation” or “unrestricted plant, scrub and tree growth” - and a large number of them are likely to be prehistoric.

Considering the law is clear that it is an offence to damage a scheduled monument, it shouldn’t be happening at all - in an ideal world. But in reality it is hard to prevent damage as mostly it isn’t dramatic like at Priddy Henges but slow and incremental – but with the same result.

One of many thousands of ploughed out burial mounds

It seems the authorities are doing as much as they can do within the current financial constraints - English Heritage inspects monuments (albeit very infrequently in most cases), makes landowners aware of their responsibilities and has offered grants this year totalling £357,000. DEFRA pays out millions to those farmers that are willing to adopt conservation-friendly farming methods. As a result 399 sites have been removed from the Register since 2009 due to “positive reasons” (though how many have been added or removed for “negative reasons” isn’t clear).

EH has just issued tender documents for an outside organisation to undertake a national assessment of monuments vulnerable to arable cultivationso so their and DEFRA’s resources can be better targeted. But at risk of nagging, as we said in August, there may be some value in…

“…harnessing and collating the efforts of the hundreds of ordinary members of the public that visit all the sites in question on a regular basis and who could be relied upon to provide accurate (and very up-to-date and entirely free!) structured eye-witness accounts. The sort of people that use websites like The Modern Antiquarian, The Megalithic Portal and others. Needless to say there would be additional advantages… the opportunity to foster a sense of public engagement and stimulate public involvement in monument guardianship on an ongoing basis.”

And as we said again in September

Isn’t this a golden opportunity for English Heritage to demonstrate that “Public Engagement” is more than just a slogan?”

The Wrekin in Shropshire is visited by countless thousands of people and erosion due to footfall is an ongoing problem. Particularly affected is “The Barrow between Heaven and Hell’s Gate” close to the summit. Volunteer restoration teams have recently been at work to protect it.

               (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

Pete Lambert, from Shropshire Wildlife Trust explained: “We are covering it with matting and then sowing it with grass seed to protect it from further damage. It was starting to become very exposed so we needed to seal in that bit of archaeology.”

The Wrekin was once home to the Celtic Cornovii tribe which built the fort and called it their capital. It sprawled the summit of the hill and covered about 20 acres. Mr Lambert added: “Hell Gate, the earthwork entrance created by the Cornovii, has also suffered extensive erosion and is being restored“.  More here.

A guest article by David Aspinall. The views expressed are those of the author not of Heritage Action, its individual members or others outside Heritage Action, some of whom remain unconvinced of Mr Aspinall’s claims. The area in question however is poorly investigated and further study may substantiate Mr Aspinall’s findings. Text and images © David Aspinall.

The area of Britain named the North Pennines is now tranquil but has been very busy in the past. Although lead was the main product, other ores have been exploited and most of the seams are recorded. The Rev. Michael Taylor, of Penrith, came into the possession of a broken two-piece stone mould in 1883. He elaborately reconstructed it and described how the removable core, for the leaf-shaped spearhead, dated to the Late Bronze Age, was made and used. Croglin, where the mould was found, is on the western margin of the North Pennines, five miles north of Long Meg and her Sisters, and just three miles west of the Bold Venture copper mine, which is believed to have worked out in the 1920s.
 
The mineshaft enters a steep riverside bank beside where two brooks converge. The spoil has, presumably, just been tipped into the river, and has now mainly gone, but the remnant of a burial cist is just forty yards from the entrance. There’s no lid or cairn left but similar intact cairns and mounds have survive. The mineshaft enters a steep riverside bank beside where two brooks converge. The spoil has, presumably, just been tipped into the river, and has now mainly gone, but the remnant of a burial cist is just forty yards from the entrance. There’s no lid or cairn left but similar intact cairns and mounds have survived, in the pastures above, and these are unexplored. A short distance upstream from the mine are the foundations of a hut or shelter beside a bed of slag. The river spates have removed the lighter fractions of material from this spoil heap and there’s no identifiable crucible fragments or charcoal. An ancient track to Croglin used to bridge the river here and the nearest hamlet is called Slaggyford. Two open copper working sites nearby are also known to geologists.
 
Even further upstream is a large dome-shaped stone cairn. The stones are weathered and the mound is overgrown with grass and lichen. Casual examination suggests that there may have been a passage into the mound from the north east and that this has been filled with rubble and topped by several hefty boulders. At the front of the cairn are the ruined foundations of a rectangular fold, with a doorway broad enough for sheep or young cattle. The cairn commands an impressive panorama of the valley, with a distant view to the Cheviots. Behind the mound is a long tapering ‘tail’ of stone, perhaps seventy yards long. Some stone has been taken from this to build a recent sheepfold nearby and the small quarry pits show as pale areas in the grey lichen-covered stones.
 
The tail of the cairn is shaped like a spearhead and points upward, into the hillside. A few hundred yards behind it there’s a drystone construction built into an outcrop of free stone. A simple rectangular enclosure, about three yards by two, is butted into the hill and is fronted by a now-decrepit concave wall. There’s a flat area before it with enough space for a couple of people to sit or stand. Looking down the hill, the eye is drawn over the tail and the cairn itself to the horizon and a low round hill. This is the alignment of the southernmost moonrise and, perhaps, the shadow from the cairn in moonlight, is designed to fall over the cairn tail. Perhaps the large boulders that now top the cairn trimmed its outline for a closer fit, of the shadow to the tail. It has simply never been tested.
 
There are other large cairns in the area. One is a sausage-shaped mound of collected stones ninety to a hundred yards long which appears to be completely undisturbed. It has a distinctive limpet-shaped satellite cairn not far away. Another long cairn overlooked the valley and was crushed to make a moorland road a few years ago. This new road, the first of three, is about a kilometre long and was built without planning consent in a Site of Special Scientific Interest within the Area Of Natural Beauty. On the hillside below this lost monument, near a stream called the Hut Burn, are the remains of a roundhouse. The low ruined wall, with a diameter of about five yards, has some of the wall plates in place and has been protected by the incursion of bracken. The entrance doorway faces the southeast.
 
Almost impossibly a pair of drystone cairns, each just a couple of paces in diameter, have survived. They have a domed profile and casual excavation shows that they are seated deep into the peat. They would have been prominent from below and perhaps were intended to frame the setting sun or moon from a site that has now been lost. Sandwiched in the peat, on the southern slope of the Knar valley, is a profusion of bog oak pieces. Most are the roots and knotty parts of Scotch pine and they usually have the mark of a cutting tool at both ends. They may be scraps left over from the extraction of roundwood – a single complete piece of bog oak four foot long has been recorded and it is of interest that firewood is still sold in four foot lengths in the US.
 
The main South Tyne river valley held substantial monuments at several sites. Within living memory is the practise of decorating north-facing fieldwalls with an ochre wash – several examples survive – and an old railway bridge has also been decorated in just the same way. The Kirkhaugh gold ornament was excavated from a hillside cairn in 1935 and in the riverine meadow, below these cairns, are substantial heaps of jumbled stones. Some show signs of being alternately burned and chilled by water, to break them, but a large section of a double stone circle has been positively identified. The low stones that remain in the Kirkhaugh true stone circle are all prone with many partially or entirely covered by turf. Near the centre of the circle is a rectangular feature directed toward the northernmost moonrise. Three sides of the rectangle survive, perhaps twenty or thirty yards in length and four or five wide. Little stones have been set into a narrow bank, which appears to have at least one formal entrance, and there is also a hint of an external ditch. The double stone circle, with an approximate diameter of seventy to eighty yards appears to have had an entrance portal, formed by four stones. It may be only be recognised from the railway embankment.
 
 
Kirkhaugh
 
A little stone circle was known at Featherstone, several miles to the north, and the circle, which comprised of eight low stones is shown on old large scale OS maps. This circle was uprooted in the nineteen eighties and the stones have been unceremoniously dumped beside a ditch. This destruction has continued until almost the present day. Another site, overlooked by a spectacular hill, has remnants both of what are probably stone rows and a Roman marching camp. One row can be identified, though the stones, again, are all prone. It has an elongated Z- shape and has a very eroded cup and ring stone amongst its debris. Stones lie all about this site which leads to a prominent hill the shape and size of Newbrough. The local tradition is that this big mound, named Amos Hill, is a barrow. From the footpath above it’s easy to surmise a stone facing to the round hill and it’s still possible to identify a putative southern oriented entrance. This well-placed mound has never been investigated in any way, of course.
 
 
Amos Hill long barrow
 
The area has many simple cupmarked stones as well as standing stones of all sizes. One standing stone, that is very eroded, has an entire face pecked out in micro-cups. It does seem that the Upper South Tyne valley was at its peak in the prehistoric era and that the Industrial Age just saw a temporary reprieve. The farmers and gamekeepers that work every day in this landscape protect it fiercely and actively discourage visitors with hostile behaviour, misleading directions and plain obfuscations. Consequently the rich history of the first metalworkers here is both undisturbed and unexplored. All of the moorland is managed with Right To Roam access and this is unlimited except for a couple of fields where there is the restriction that dogs must be kept on a lead. Farmers are very used to visitors travelling up and down the main valley, following the Pennine Way originally, and the South Tyne Trail, subsequently. It is very rare that tourists step off this beaten track but that is the only way they can find the many prehistoric monuments that remain here.

We featured the fascinating long barrow of Belas Knap some time ago – see here – but a recent video of a visit by Mark Horton gives a fuller flavour of just how arresting it is. 

(Please adjust your volume!).

The Bartlow Hills, Cambridgeshire

Context and “setting” are almost everything in the world of megaliths but unfortunately no-one told the twenty first century.  Although Hetty Pegler’s Tump (or Uley Long Barrow) was placed with great care at the summit of the Cotswold scarp, its magnificent 40 mile views to the West across the Severn Estuary to the Brecon Beacons are entirely lost due to a narrow belt of trees. At the same time the opposite outlook, that could well have once been bursting with variety and life, is today victim to soulless monoculture, 30 acres of barley so chemically tweaked that hardly a weed or bug is allowed.

Barley!

Trees!

The actual setting of the Monument, but for the belt of trees

However, as can be seen in the photograph below, the setting is the least of Hetty Pegler’s problems right now. During repairs in the 19th Century the massive chamber capstones were placed on drystone walls rather than on the large upright stones that would have originally supported them and these have failed (partly due to the weight and partly due to more recent under-digging by vandals). Consequently the barrow has been out of bounds for a long time while finance was secured and rectification work was started. The 19th Century backfilling has been excavated so as to access the chambers from above and provide temporary support to the chamber capstones during consolidation of the supporting walls. The scale of the work can be seen from the volume of stonework on display in the foreground and it is to be hoped that the projected date for completion, next month, doesn’t prove unattainable. The cost must be horrendous and Gloucester County Council and English Heritage are to be commended for undertaking and (hopefully) persevering with the project until it is completed.

Once the chambers are re-opened the monument will once more become one of the most rewarding of all prehistoric destinations. In the meantime, despite the renovation works and the fact the setting is not what it once was it is still a powerful place. As our late and much-missed friend Rebecca van der Putt (Treaclechops) wrote after her visit in 2003: 

“This is something else. Magnetic, compulsive, binding. Lie back within its grassy bank on summer’s afternoon, and discover a portal to the cosmos.”

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