What are Prehistoric Barrows? You Have Passed Many

Almost all travellers taking the scenic route along the A303 to Cornwall will at some point be greeted with a view of one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world: Stonehenge.

Standing in all its glory in an otherwise unassuming landscape of light rolling hills and copses, Stonehenge has been numerously identified as an astronomical calculator, an observatory to demarcate the seasons, a place of healing or spiritual activity, and even as a place of sacrifice.

Stonehenge, forever a mystery?

Understandably, this site has attracted a lot of attention over its 4,500 year history but has in the process overshadowed lesser-known, but no less important, archaeological sites in its vicinity.

Running in a two mile radius around Stonehenge, more than 300 Bronze Age burial mounds, or “barrows”, are located. These mounds are mostly clustered into “cemeteries”, or groups of barrows, often within sight of the famous stone circle.

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Sadly, almost all of these were excavated by archaeologists and treasure hunters prior to the 20th century and their grave goods removed, though a number are still undergoing investigation by modern-day archaeologists.

What is a barrow?

Marked as “tumuli” on early maps, barrows are mounds of earth or stone of various shapes and sizes that are characteristic of prehistoric earthwork monuments. Most barrows date to between 3,800 and 1,400 BC, with some even being created (though more intermittently) up to 800 AD.

Tumuli are significant archaeological sites that provide a glimpse into the lives and customs of our ancestors.

The construction of each site varies, often being made up of combinations of turf, stone, timber, small platforms, enclosures and ditched structures, and more often than not incorporate deposits of stone and pottery artefacts, as well as animal and human bone.

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While sometimes isolated, burial mounds can most often be found in groups (“cemeteries”) and close-by to a monument of some kind. Due to their construction and use, it is often assumed that barrows served a ceremonial or ritual purpose during the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Today, records from the Ordnance Survey indicate that there are around 20,000 barrows or tumuli scattered across the landscape of the UK.

bincombe down long barrow
Bincombe Down Long Barrow, in the back ground with Round Barrow in the foreground with the road running between them

The earliest burial mound mentioned in literary records is that of Patroclus, friend of the mythical Achilles, in Homer’s epic tale, The Iliad. After Patroclus is burned on a pyre, his bones are collected into an urn which is buried under a barrow. To mark the sombre occasion, funeral games, including a chariot race, boxing, wrestling, running, and duels are held.

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Similarly, in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, the protagonist is burned on a funerary pyre and buried under a barrow. Lamenting the death of their lord, the Geats tribe circumambulate the barrow singing dirges.

Following this, a mound is built on top of a hill overlooking the sea and filled with treasure. This mound is also circled by singing individuals, this time a band of the tribe’s best warriors.

Spotting a barrow in Britain

Barrows fall into two main categories: the long barrow, dating from the earliest Neolithic farming communities (3,800-3,500 BC) and the round barrow, from the later Bronze Age (2,000-1,500 BC). Each of these can be subdivided into five distinct shapes – bowl, saucer, pond, bell, and the disc barrow (a well-defined disc-shaped ditch and bank).

round barrow cemetery
Some prehistoric barrow identification -) This is the Winterbourne Stoke Crossroads round barrow cemetery, Stonehenge.

Only at West Kennet in Wiltshire was one of the longest barrows in the country used up to around 2,500 BC, with many going out of use or being blocked up before 3,000 BC.

Though long barrows are the oldest of the two they are the more complex, being rectangular or lozenge-shaped and made up of passages and stone chambers which held the remains of up to 50 people at a time. To date, the longest found was measured at 394 feet in length, though they range from 65 feet upwards.

Read More: Crop Marks, Natures’ History Trail

As well as being a funerary site to honour the dead, archaeologists now think that they were also used as shrines for the living. Archaeologists excavating long barrows have also found evidence for their being opened from time to time in order to add corpses or body parts that had been stored elsewhere.

Long barrows

Long barrows typically consist of three elements: a forecourt likely used for rituals, an entrance way or atrium, and a passage leading into the mound with one or more cells leading off it.

In these chambers, the remains of deceased loved ones were laid, including men, women and children. Often they would be accompanied into the after-life with a pot or an ornament.

Belas Knap is a neolithic, chambered long barrow situated on Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham and Winchcombe, in Gloucestershire, England

At Belas Knap near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, a false door was discovered by archaeologists on one of the barrows. It is now thought that this was intended to act as a “spirit door” which would allow the dead to come and go as they please.

You can find the densest concentration of long barrows in the Cotswold Hills and the Marlborough Downs, where over 150 have so far been discovered.

Entrance to Kennet Long Barrow
Entrance to Kennet Long Barrow

Perhaps most impressive of these is the Cotswold Severn cluster. The barrows in this group are typically trapezoidal in shape and are located on prominent hills and slopes where they likely served as markers in the landscape along herding pathways.

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While today they are impressive sites to behold, at their newest these barrows would have had a “brutal and hard” appearance, and would have acted as imposing, dark and shadowy presences on the green landscape.

Round barrows

The other category, round barrows, were simpler structures, often only consisting of a mound of earth over a single inhumation and a few grave goods. The most common artefact found in round barrows is the Beaker style drinking vessel, fashioned in a bell shape.

Round barrow on Came Down golf course
One of many Bowl Barrows on Came Down golf course, Dorset. Many survive here preserved because of the golf course. The area next to the course has ten barrow destroyed by ploughing.

In some mounds, however, no burial has been discovered at all. Isolated round barrows have so far been found in every parish in Britain, such as the Shrewsbury Tumulus in the centre of a south London residential estate, though they do also appear in groups of 30 or more.

Some are more distinctive than others. For example, in Wiltshire isolated barrows are often crowned with a copse of beech trees. Around 10,000 round barrows are thought to survive across Britain, ranging from a barely discernible swell in the landscape to mounds in excess of 9 feet high.

Barrows around Stonehenge

The area around Stonehenge is one of the busiest sites in Britain for burial mounds. The closest barrows to Stonehenge are within easy walking distance (between 10 and 20 minutes form the stone circle).

round barrows near stonehenge
Beautiful Bell Barrow cemetery, Stonehenge

Travelling less than one mile to the east, one would come to the King Barrows, located under the beech trees which sit on the horizon to the north of the A303. These are amongst the mounds as yet unexcavated, and are the largest and the oldest in the area, having been built in the Early Bronze Age and Neolithic periods.

The trees planted along their ridge at a later date now make it difficult to appreciate their importance in the Stonehenge landscape to which they belong. Their location was undoubtedly carefully selected by pre-historic settlers.

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To the northwest of Stonehenge via a short and accessible walk, ramblers will find the Cursus Barrows made up of 18 round barrows. Originally excavated by William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare in the early 19th century, these barrows contained some highly impressive grave goods.

In 2010, while mapping a 14km2 area around Stonehenge using ground-penetrating radars and magnetometers for the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, archaeologists found what they described as a “henge-like” monument.

round barrows near stonehenge
Burial cemetery next to Stonehenge

Naming this location “Amesbury 50”, the mass media hailed this as a second Stonehenge, though this time it was made from wood. The central burial mound on the site was added at a later date and as such is now thought to be “just a peculiar Bronze Age barrow”.

Among the richest of Britain’s richest Bronze Age barrows is the Bush Barrow located a short distance from Stonehenge. Within the finds, a gold-studded dagger pommel set with thousands of microscopic gold studs thinner than a human hair was found.

1,950 B.C.

Using gold now known to have originated in Ireland, a highly skilled craftsman fashioned the precious metal into a pommel around 1,950 BC, and it was some short time after buried alongside the body of a Chieftain in a burial mound.

The pommel is of a type found in both Britain and France at this time. The skill required to make the dagger was higher than used in any other goldwork in Britain or France at this early date.

ploughed out round barrows
Sadly many round barrows have been destroyed over the last two hundred years by the plough

At the time of this Chieftain’s burial, Stonehenge was at the centre of an internationally important ceremonial landscape.

The sarsen stone trilithons were erected in around 2,500 BC and the bluestones from Wales placed in their final positions in around 1,600 BC, 100 years before the site is thought to have gone out of use, placing this ceremonial burial in the midst of the henge’s busiest period.

And, as we now know, was one of the last to be erected in Britain as the practice gradually went out of use.


The many secrets held in Britain’s barrows are slowly being revealed, and the human bones collected so far have indicated that Neolithic humans had a protein rich diet, but suffered from arthritis, tuberculosis and scurvy.

A very rare Disc Barrow with the bottom third destroyed by farming
A very rare Disc Barrow with the bottom third long since levelled by cultivation but clearly
visible from the air. You can see the crop mark in the wheat field.

For example, DNA analysis of bones and teeth from the 35 bodies buried in the Cotswolds’ Hazleton North long barrows has revealed five generations from the same extended family, making it the world’s oldest family tree.

Such assemblages show the unique and important insights that tumuli can provide about Britain’s first farmers up to 6,000 years ago, but only time will tell if the humble barrow will be brought out of the shadow of Stonehenge in the years to come.

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