Long Barrows and Broken Bones
What the atmospheric, evocative long barrows of the Cotswold Hills and Marlborough Downs reveal about burial practices and attitudes to death in the early Neolithic period.
Long barrows – elongated stone monuments to the dead – belong to the oldest surviving architectural tradition in England. Between 3800 BC and 3500 BC almost every community in the Cotswold–Severn area built one. More than 150 survive, including the quaintly named Hetty Pegler’s Tump in Gloucestershire (also known as Uley Long Barrow).
Extending up to 100 metres from end to end and 20 metres across, these mounds are impressive structures, even in the modern landscape.
RITUALS AND REMAINS
Each long barrow comprises a formal trapezoidal mound of stone, with soil dug from adjacent quarries and piled high around the stone structure. A neat drystone wall around the outside contained this rubble, while at the higher and wider end of the mound there are projecting ‘horns’ defining a ‘forecourt’ in which rituals and ceremonies were played out, fires lit, and animals celebrated.
Some forecourts provide direct access to a chamber containing ancestral remains. Others have chambers accessible from the sides of the mound. In all cases these chambers were built from large stone blocks and occupied just a fraction of the area covered by the mound.
Three elements are recognisable in every chamber: a vestibule or entrance area; a passage leading into the mound; and one or more cells accessible from the passage.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
How long barrows were used varied a little between communities. A common theme is that the chambers contain the broken-up remains of between five and 50 individuals – men, women and children of all ages.
Grave goods were few – just the occasional pot and selected personal ornaments. But careful excavation suggests that these barrows were opened from time to time for the addition of corpses and parts of bodies that had been stored or buried elsewhere. As the number increased it became necessary to make room for new additions by moving the remains of earlier depositions deeper into the chamber. It must have been an emotionally charged, uncomfortable experience, squeezing into the narrow spaces, moving bones about, and manoeuvring bodies into their new resting places.
Perhaps the barrows were opened at auspicious times of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead were understood to be at their most permeable.
TOMBS FOR THE LIVING
Long barrows not only entombed the dead but also embodied meanings for the living that we can still dimly perceive.
Their trapezoidal form mimics that of the stone axes common at the time, for example, while forensic studies show that at least some of those interred had been killed with a blow from such an implement. The barrow-form may also represent the human torso, and placement of the dead in the darkness of the chambers might have been seen as a symbolic way of returning people to the womb, thereby completing the cycle of life.
As robust and enduring monuments, long barrows may also have been territorial markers: the physical representation of a community fixed for ever in the landscapes of the living.
Uley Long Barrow is the most evocative long barrow on the Cotswold Hills. It can be visited at any time, but take a candle in order to experience for yourself a little piece of prehistory.
Other Cotswold–Severn long barrows in the care of English Heritage include Belas Knap, Nympsfield, Windmill Tump, Rodmarton, and Notgrove, all in Gloucestershire; West Kennet, Wiltshire; Wayland’s Smithy, Oxfordshire; and Stoney Littleton, Somerset.
By Tim Darvill