History of Stoney Littleton Long Barrow
Stoney Littleton is a fine example of a chambered long barrow built during the Neolithic period (about 4000–2500 BC).
Probably dating from about 3500 BC, it is about 30 metres (100 feet) long, and features multiple side chambers in which human remains were once buried. The approach to the barrow – down a long narrow lane, across a stream and through fields – takes the visitor across a landscape that has probably been farmed continuously since Neolithic times.
Chambered long barrows mark an important stage in the evolution of prehistoric society in Britain.
They seem to represent the emergence of élites among the early farming communities – élites whose status may have led them to develop ideas about ancestry and posterity that required impressive and durable structures for their expression.
Although usually considered to have been tombs, it is possible that many long barrows were in fact shrines – places where the presence of the ancestral dead helped the living to contact their gods, much as a medieval church contains graves while being primarily intended for the living community that built it. Some barrows have provided evidence that use continued even after burials were no longer made.
Stoney Littleton has yielded very little evidence for the date of its construction or the number of people originally buried there.
The barrow seems to have survived intact until about 1760, when the owner of the site, a local farmer, broke into the chambers in search of building stone. In the years that followed, most of the contents were stolen.
The Revd John Skinner described some burnt bones and parts of two or three skeletons, which he found while excavating the barrow in 1816, but these have since been lost. A plaque beside the entrance records, rather smugly, that the restoration of the barrow in 1857 was carried out ‘with scrupulous exactness’.
The barrow at Stoney Littleton is considered one of the finest accessible examples of the ‘true entrance’ type of long barrow, where an entrance leads via a vestibule into a gallery or central passage with pairs of side chambers radiating from it.
As is usual in long barrows, the entrance here is in the middle of the wider (south-east) end: the entrance portal is 1.1 metre (3 feet 9 inches) high. Beyond the vestibule, the gallery is about 12.8 metres (42 feet) long, and varies between 1.2 and 1.8 metres (4–6 feet) high. It has dry stone walls with a frontage of upright slabs, and the roof consists of overlapping courses of stone converging to a final covering of small slabs.
There are three sets of paired chambers, and a seventh chamber at the far end – the only known example of such an arrangement. In some later barrows the chambers open directly from the sides of the barrow, with the main entrance being a dummy, like the false doors in some Egyptian tombs.
Grinsell, LV, Stoney Littleton Long Barrow (HMSO guidebook, London, 1978)
Grinsell, LV, Barrows (Shire Publications, 1984)
The text on this page is derived from the Heritage Unlocked series of guidebooks, published in 2002–6. We intend to update and enhance the content as soon as possible to provide more information on the property and its history.