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