A brief introduction to Archaeology Conservation Listed places

A Brief Introduction to Bronze Age Barrows

Round barrows were created in every part of England, mainly between 2200BC and 1100BC, but many have been destroyed. They can be identified as round mounds, often surrounded by a ‘ring ditch’ from which the earth and stone for the mound was dug.

There are many famous groups of Bronze Age barrows within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS). The Stonehenge WHS Landscape Project was able to reconstruct the history of the barrows by combining a new survey of the surviving mounds with antiquarian, aerial photographic, geophysical and excavated evidence.

An illustrated reconstruction of a burial within a round barrow, around 1900 BC, during the Early Bronze Age © Peter Lorimer
A digital reconstruction of a burial within a round barrow at Normanton Down in Wiltshire, around 1900 BC during the Early Bronze Age. Please note, Normanton Down is under private ownership and not open to the public © Historic England

This research helps us understand how and why barrows were constructed. They were burial places but were also used by the living for carrying out the many rituals that cemented the relationships of their communities (just as parish churches are places of burial but also used for other regular rituals of Christian life).

The barrows near Stonehenge are well known, but many more have been scheduled (protected) to help conserve these significant ancestral monuments. Here are a few examples which can be visited today:

The Cursus Barrows: Amesbury Down, near Stonehenge

Amesbury barrow 1 mortuary house
An illustration of a mortuary house sheltering a grave, set within a Curcus Barrow at Amesbury. This would have been covered over by an earth mound and surrounded by a ring ditch © Historic England

Like most barrows, the Cursus Barrows have a more complicated story than is first apparent.  A thousand years before any barrows were built, a small circle of posts within an enclosing ditch was constructed on the flank of the down.

Much later (c. 2000BC), a small round barrow was raised on the site. This is one of about 18 barrows arranged along the ridge of the down. Some are large and imposing, others small. Some are on their own, others clustered together or even touching. Several show signs of modification, both in antiquity and more recently. Most of them were raised over the burials of individuals and have other human remains within them, presumably members of the same family or clan.

People returned to this area over several hundred years, burying or cremating their dead, building and altering monuments and carrying out many other ceremonies.

The Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows: South Dorset Ridgeway

An aerial photograph of the Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows © Historic England
An aerial photograph of the Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows © Historic England

The Winterbourne Poor Lot Barrows are one of many groups of barrows along this high chalk ridge above the south coast. They show as much variety and complexity as the Stonehenge barrows and evoke the historical depth of this landscape.

Numbering around 44 barrows across the whole site, they include rare and fragile disc, bell and pond barrows dating to the Early Bronze Age (2000-1500BC). Many of them are scheduled to preserve their potential to reveal chronological and cultural links between prehistoric communities.

Priddy Nine Barrows: Mendip Hills, Somerset

A view of Priddy Nine Barrows along the Mendip plateau horizon © Historic England
A view of Priddy Nine Barrows along the Mendip plateau horizon © Historic England

The eye-catching Priddy Nine Barrows, strung along the skyline on Ashenhill and North Hill on the Mendip plateau, comprise two distinct lines of bowl barrows. Recently studied by HE, their prominence is due to their construction over earlier, much lower, stone cairns (see our Commemorative and Funerary Guide for more on these distinctive features).

Round barrows can be found in many other places, such as the South Pennines. For more information see our Introduction to Prehistoric Barrows and Burial Mounds, and search Pastscape for barrows and other prehistoric monuments in your local area.

Our new publication, The Stonehenge Landscape, describes how research undertaken by archaeologists has led to identification of previously unknown monuments, as well as re-interpreting known sites like Stonehenge itself.

Curious about arts and crafts, mystified by medieval settlements or intrigued by industrial heritage? Our “Brief Introduction to” series is for those who want to find out more about the historic environment. From buildings and monuments to art and landscapes, we summarise our knowledge using examples from the National Heritage List for England.

3 comments on “A Brief Introduction to Bronze Age Barrows

  1. Barrows are such fascinating yet hair pullingly annoying things! I found one ins local park, myself and another classmate even surveyed it for a project during our masters, and with all the data, we still don’t know what it is.. Maybe you’d like to take a look some time? Archaeofox.com

  2. Annette Clarke

    Beautifully and concisely informative, thank you!

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