‘Beautifully turned artificial hills’
Jo Draper examines the proliferation of barrows in Dorset
Published in November ’13
Barrows are distinctly Dorset things, pimpling the hilltops (especially on the chalk) with their neat mounds. The county has three times as many as it should on average – there are over 2000 in Dorset out of 30,000 in the country. William Stukeley, the antiquarian, was impressed by the chalk south of Dorchester in the 1720s – ‘for sight of barrows, I believe, not to be equalled in the world’. Locals must have always known that the barrows were there, but it was not until the 17th century that anyone really thought about them and wondered what they were for, who had made them, and when.
In the 1720s William Stukeley very cleverly noticed that the Roman road in the north-east of Dorset cut across a barrow at Oakley Down, neatly proving that the barrow was earlier. The idea of prehistory, history before the Roman invasion of 43AD, was a hard one to work out, and until the 18th century (and even beyond sometimes) barrows were thought to be ‘Danish’, ie. Viking, or even Roman. This was plausible – barrows are quite big and very common, surely too much effort for prehistoric ancestors.
In 1806 Thomas Stackhouse published one of the earliest books on barrows, wherein he coined as pithy a description as exists: ‘These beautifully turned artificial hills, which are so copiously scattered over the downs, in different parts of this island, particularly in Wiltshire and Dorsetshire, seldom fail of exciting the admiration, even of the ordinary traveller; but to the antiquarian they have long been objects of particular attention.’
Typically a barrow is a round mound, originally with a ditch right round it. The mound was built from the soil taken out of the ditch, maybe supplemented by scraping around the area. Barrows are mostly five to six metres across, but there are larger and smaller ones. They can survive up to two metres high but most are under one metre. We know a lot about barrows from excavations, although barrows do vary a great deal. Earlier excavations were not very sophisticated and barrows were much more complex than the excavators expected, so it is only from the late 20th century that the digs are really informative.
Barrows were constructed for burials, although modern archaeologists do wriggle a bit, suggesting that barrows were for all sorts of ceremonies. Burial is the ceremony that shows most clearly in the archaeological record, as either skeletons or cremated bone. Cremations are sometimes in pots, which helps with the dating. Barrows date from what is usually known as the Bronze Age because bronze, the first metal to be used in Britain, was being used for weapons, jewellery etc. Modern archaeologists don’t like the name because it suggests that bronze was the most important thing about the period, which is certainly not true. Agriculture, also a new development, was much more important.
Modern techniques like radio-carbon dating mean that it is possible to fix real dates to barrows. Small barrows start to be built about 2250 BC, or more than four thousand years ago. Ordinary barrows date from around 2150 to 1850 BC, and the fancy barrows, like disc barrows, are some of the latest barrows, running as late as 1500 BC. Basically, they are all very ancient, and the way they look today is due to three to four thousand years of natural decay and weathering.
A typical round barrow started as the burial-place of a single person. A pit was dug in the centre of where the barrow was to be built and the burial placed there. Some of these primary burials are inhumations, often with the skeleton in a crouched position, sometimes with a pot or worked flint tools like arrowheads. Some of these primary burials were cremations, with the ashes placed inside a big pot. Occasionally the cremation fire has marked the land surface, but usually it seems that the body was cremated elsewhere. Most barrows had more burials added later, often towards the sides of the barrow. These are usually cremations in pots, and generally when these were buried the mound was added to as well. Very occasionally a new burial was dug down close to the first one, in the middle.
In stone areas like Purbeck, the cremation or skeleton was likely to be in a stone box, usually called a cist. In such areas, the slabs of stone removed to make the ditch were sometimes also used to line the sides of the mound. Sometimes even on the chalk, the grave was capped with a stone slab, and sometimes there is a heap of stones. Presumably on the chalk these mounds were originally white and so very prominent. Indeed, many barrows are carefully positioned not on the top of the hills but on the crest of the ridge, where they are most visible when looking from the valleys.
Building the barrow preserved the ancient ground surface because it was totally covered. When carefully excavated, this often shows a puzzling collection of small stake-holes which may have been left by some sort of ceremony on the site which was to be the barrow. The pollens preserved in the ancient ground surface can also give information about the prehistoric environment and agriculture.
Who is buried in the barrows? Construction would have taken a long time with no metal tools, and this huge amount of effort shows how important barrows were to the people of the time. There is no way that barrows could be useful: they are purely for burial or ceremonies. We might expect all burials to be male, some sort of chieftain, but this is only true of very early barrows. A round barrow might contain a male or a female, and sometimes even a child.
Barrows are usually found in groups, although the odd single one is often large. The chalk ridge north of Weymouth (the South Dorset Ridgeway) is the most densely populated, with almost 250 barrows, some now ploughed away. Some are on the top (or apparent top) of the ridge, others down the slopes. There is a footpath all along there with barrows all the way from Kingston Russell to Chaldon Herring (15 miles). The Poor Lot group on the A35 west of Winterbourne Abbas is particularly good, with at least 25 barrows. Oakley Down in Wimborne St Giles parish, off the A352 Blandford-Salisbury road, has 31 barrows including six disc barrows, one cut by the Roman road. These barrow ‘cemeteries’ must have been built over a wide span of time.
Dorset is very lucky because the barrows of the county have been well surveyed. Anyone interested in more information, or who wants to find out about an individual barrow, should look at Leslie Grinsell’s books Dorset Barrows published in 1959, and Dorset Barrows Supplement (with all the newer information) published in 1982. Visit Dorset County Museum to see pots and many other things excavated from Dorset barrows.