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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

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