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Summary Article: barrow
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Burial mound, usually composed of earth but sometimes of stones. Examples are found in many parts of the world. The two main types are long, dating from the Neolithic period (New Stone Age), and round, dating from the Mesolithic period (early Bronze Age). Barrows made entirely of stones are known as cairns.

Long barrow Long barrows may be mere mounds, typically higher and wider at one end. They usually contain a chamber of wood or stone slabs, or a turf-lined cavity, in which the body or bodies of the deceased were placed. Secondary chambers may be added in the sides of the mound. They are common in southern England from Sussex to Dorset. Earthen (or unchambered) long barrows belong to the early and middle Neolithic, whereas others, such as the Neolithic West Kennet barrow near Avebury, Wiltshire, were constructed over megalithic (great stone) tombs which generally served as collective burial chambers. The stones are arranged to form one, often large, chamber with a single entrance, and are buried under a mound of earth. The remains of these stone chambers, once their earth covering has disappeared, are known as dolmens, and in Wales as cromlechs.

Round barrow Round barrows belong mainly to the Bronze Age, although in historic times there are examples from the Roman period, and some of the Saxon and most of the Danish invaders were barrow-builders. In northern Europe, round barrows were sometimes built above a tree-trunk coffin in which waterlogged conditions have preserved nonskeletal material, such as those found in Denmark dating from around 1000 BC.

In Britain the most common type is the bell barrow, consisting of a circular mound enclosed by a ditch and an outside bank of earth. Other types include the bowl barrow, pond barrow, saucer barrow, ring barrow, and disc barrow, all of which are associated with the Wessex culture (early Bronze Age culture of southern England dating from approximately 2000–1500 BC). Many barrows dot the Wiltshire Downs in England.

Barrows from the Roman era, such as the Six Hills at Stevenage, Hertfordshire, and the Bartlow Hills at Ashdon, Essex, have a distinctive steep and conical outline, and in southeast Britain usually cover the graves of wealthy merchant traders. They are also found in Belgic Gaul, where the traders had commercial links. Not all burials in the Roman era were in barrows; cemeteries were also used.

The Saxons buried the remains of important chieftains in large conical barrows, such as Taeppa's law which gives its name to Taplow, Buckinghamshire, but clusters of small burial mounds are more commonly found. Many examples of these graves of ordinary people are found in east Kent.

In eastern European and Asiatic areas where mobility was afforded by the horse and wagon, a new culture developed of pit graves marked by a kurgan, or round mound, in which a single body lay, often accompanied by grave goods which might include a wagon. These date from around 3000 BC.

Boat burial The placing of a great person's body in a ship is seen in Viking burials, such as the Oseberg ship in Norway, which was buried and sealed around AD 800. Barrows were erected over boat burials during the Saxon period, and the Sutton Hoo boat burial excavated in Suffolk during 1938–39 was that of an East Anglian king of Saxon times.

Burial rites Burial is an important area in archaeology, although reconstruction of ritual may be problematic. It is extremely difficult to reconstruct the society of an individual in a burial, and evidence from burial mounds is subject to differing interpretations. However, grave objects, such as a folding iron chair discovered in a barrow from the Roman period at Holborough, Kent, may offer useful clues to understanding the peoples of the past, suggesting status (perhaps by the presence of imported materials, or of particular styles of artefacts) or showing (by the type and number of objects), the different values placed by a society on old and young, male and female.

Funerary practices varied according to place and social organization. Use of anthropological theory is important in the development of processual archaeology pioneered by the US archaeologist Lewis Binford, which looks at processes of cultural change such as dealing with the dead. The placing of cemeteries and tombs – for instance, their relationship to the homes of the living – is also important. Evidence suggests that Neolithic society gave way to the less egalitarian Bronze Age, and this may be read in the manner of burial – the move from communal graves to those defining an individual as a chief, with associated grave goods. There is also not necessarily a direct link between a simple society at the level of a tribe, and its funerary remains. The elaborate landscape of Neolithic megaliths in Europe arose out of a ‘simple’ farming-based society.

Burial in the Bronze Age was by inhumation (burial of the body), but later cremation became usual, with the ashes being placed in a pottery cinerary urn. The burial was always a single one. Recent excavation has shown frequent evidence of a complicated funeral ceremony based on seasonal rites and centred round a ‘mortuary house’ in which the remains were placed. Cremation replaced inhumation in Iron Age Greece in the 11th century BC.

Historical writing Descriptions of grave mounds from the classical period include that of Hector in the Iliad, and a detailed account of the burial mounds of Scythian chieftains written by the Greek historian Herodotus. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf ends with a vivid depiction of burial rites, including the erection of a barrow over the ashes from the funeral pyre.

Current terminology The term barrow is often associated with the 19th-century practice of ‘barrow digging’, looking for valuables, a practice that caused considerable damage to and often loss of archaeological material. In some cases, however, it led to more careful and systematic excavation. The term burial mound or grave mound is more commonly used in archaeology today, because it gives an indication of the purpose of the structure in the landscape, but ‘barrow’ continues to be used. The generic name tumulus is often applied to a round barrow.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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