What are Long Barrows?

Built in the three centuries between 3800 and 3500 BC and marked on some maps as tumulus, long barrows were found across Western Europe. In the UK they are some of the oldest surviving manmade stone constructions today.

Barrows of other shapes and sizes continued to be constructed long after this Early Neolithic period but long barrows are generally thought to be amongst the earliest.


With a length of up to a hundred metres, although fifty metres is more usual, and a twenty to twenty five metre width, even today there are places where they still stand out. In fact they are among the best known and most easily recognisable monuments on the British landscape.


Neolithic long barrow
The long barrow, situated along the modern Broadmayne-Bincombe road, along the Ridgeway. The barrow stretches approximately 180 meters in length, although its eastern portion has been affected by road construction.

To build a long barrow, locally dug soil was piled around a framework of stone or timber. The actual materials used depending on local availability.

Many men would have had to work together to do this and they had no metal tools, so the construction would have taken a considerable amount of time.

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Some long barrows have a more oval form than others and often one end of the barrow would be higher and wider. Here ‘horns’ would project out to define a ‘forecourt’, where fires would be lit and ceremonies and rituals took place. There were almost always ditches around the edges, presumably from where much of the soil was taken.

Ancestral Remains

Even if the mound has long since been flattened and disappeared, these ditches can still sometimes by picked out on aerial photographs and are an indication of where a barrow once stood.

long barrow on Gussage Down
A well-preserved earthen long barrow on Gussage Down in the Cranborne Chase area of Dorset, England

Over time some long barrows were lengthened and built higher and would have been more impressive than others. The longest, those stretching up to a hundred metres, may actually have been two placed back to back.

The forecourt of many barrows provided access to an interior chamber, which was a resting place for ancestral remains. Those with a chamber inside are referred to, probably not surprisingly, as ‘chambered long barrows’. Those without are ‘unchambered long barrows’ or earthen long barrows.

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Some with chambers were constructed so that the interior was accessed from the side. Whether entered from the forecourt or side of the long barrow, the chambers commonly had an entrance area with a passage going into the mound and small cells leading off it.

Although usually made from large stone blocks, the chambers when present only took up a small part of the total area of the mound.


Long barrows are thought to have been first built in the regions that we know today as Spain, Portugal and Western France.

The practise gradually spread north, to Britain, Southern Scandinavia and the low countries, today’s Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Each area developed variations, incorporating their own architectural innovations.

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

As long barrows became widely spread across the whole of Western Europe, the different languages meant they were known by different names.

Even in Britain, there were regional variations. ‘Barrow’ is a Southern English dialect word for earthen tumulus, which was first used as an encompassing term for the monuments in the seventeenth century. In Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, the term ‘low’ was used.

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In Gloucestershire and Herefordshire they were known as ‘tumps’, and ‘howes’ in Northern England and Scotland, where they were also referred to as ‘cairns’. ‘Dolmen’ is a term which used internationally.

This Breton word means stone table, a reference to the stone chambers found in some long barrows. There were also regional variations in the preferred design of a long barrow and the materials used. In the north and west of Britain, they were more likely to be stone mounds with chambers inside, while in southern and eastern Britain, they were typically built of earth.


Long barrows are often thought of as tombs or ‘houses of the dead’ because of the human remains interred inside. This was not always the case, but where it did happen, the chambers would typically contain the broken up remains of between five and fifty people, including men and women of all ages, along with children.

West Kennet Long Barrow
The chamber of West Kennet Long Barrow

Few material things were interred with them, perhaps just a pot or some personal possessions. The bones and remains of  individuals were often mixed together and it is thought that this was to show that wealth and status had no meaning amongst the deceased.

Sometimes bones were sorted and allocated to a particular chamber depending on type, or the age and sex of the person they originated from.

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Modern day excavation suggests that the barrows were opened up occasionally, so that more bodies and body parts which had previously been kept or buried somewhere else could be placed inside.


Over time, as the chamber began to fill up, the earliest remains would be moved deeper inside to free up space. For the men and women who were given this task, it wouldn’t have been a pleasant experience.

Space was limited, there would have been the stench of decaying corpses to deal with and the beliefs and superstitions of the time, regarding the moving of the dead from their resting place, rarely predicted a happy outcome for those responsible.

Belas Knap is a fine example of a Long Barrow
Belas Knap Long Barrow, dating from about 2,500 BC. It is thought to have been used for several centuries and used to bury successive generations. Image Credit: Philip Halling

Not only were some of the bones probably already old when put inside the long barrow, it might have been done long after the barrow was built. One theory suggests that they replaced bones that were already there and which were then removed.

There wasn’t long barrow burial for everyone who died in Early Neolithic times, but it’s not known what determined who was placed inside and who wasn’t.

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Those who weren’t chosen probably far outnumbered the people who were and we can’t be sure what happened to the bodies of those who weren’t interred. It may be that they were just placed somewhere in the open air. Long barrows weren’t just tombs for the dead. They incorporated symbolism for the living.


They are similar in shape to the stone axes of the period and modern day forensics have shown that many of the bodies inside were killed by a blow from one of these same weapons.

West Kennet long barrow
West Kennet long barrow

It’s possible that the barrows were also built to resemble a human body. Placing the dead in the dark chamber inside could have represented a return to the womb and completion of the circle of life.

Archaeological excavation has shown that many long barrows were not used as tombs, as there is no evidence of human remains ever being placed there.

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Theories suggest that they had religious and social roles for the people who built and used them, with a significance similar to the churches of later medieval times. They were certainly built to last and could have also served as markers of territory.

long barrow on Gussage Down
A well-preserved earthen long barrow on Gussage Down in the Cranborne Chase area of Dorset, England

The builders of the barrow were making a claim to the land on which it sat. The effort that was put into the construction and the fact that it often contained ancestral remains indicated that the people had settled and wouldn’t be moving on.

Although we can define what a long barrow is in terms of its physical structure, archaeologist’s opinions still differ on their purpose.

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Some think they were primarily religious sites, while others favour the territorial marker theory, which would have been important as people and communities were beginning to transition from being hunters gatherers to farmers.

Dating Long Barrows

Today, determining an accurate date for the construction of a long barrow can be difficult if not almost impossible. Modification and alteration began in the Neolithic Period and was carried on over many centuries of continuous use.

These changes, and inevitable damage and deterioration over time, mean the original design can no longer be determined. Simply deciding whether a monument was originally a long barrow can be problematic in itself.

Dorset Cursus
A view northeast from Gussage Down towards Bottlebush Down – the approximate course of the Dorset Cursus banks are superimposed in white.

Other types of structure such as bank barrows had common features. The bank barrows were similar in appearance, but a lot longer. Cursus monuments have the same parallel ditches and were longer still, stretching sometimes up to six miles.

Northern England and Scotland have long cairns and although these have a lot in common with the long barrow, there is no evidence of them ever having internal chambers.

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Whatever the reason for their initial construction, long barrows continued to be used for many centuries afterwards. Many were reused as cemeteries both in Roman times and the early Middle Ages.

By the sixteenth century archaeologists were realising their historical importance and the first excavations began. Some have since been restored and can be visited, while others are seen as sacred sites by modern day pagans and used for rituals.

Long Barrows Today

Wherever you live in Britain, the chances are there will be a long barrow within travelling distance. Many were built on accessible land, so have been preserved and are open to the public.

Probably the best known long barrow inn the UK is Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Now looked after by the National Trust, there is an exhibition hall which tells the story of it’s excavation.

West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire is one of the best preserved and most impressive in the country. It’s a hundred metres in length and not far from the county’s stone circles. Wayland’s Smithy in Oxfordshire is actually two barrows, as one was later built on top of a first. The second larger barrow can be visited today.

Street House long barrow in North Yorkshire is thought to be an early Neolithic cairn which had an early Bronze Age burial structure built over it. There’s not much left, but you can still see stone walls and outlines in the ground.

Somerset’s Stoney Littleton long barrow is smaller than most, but still impressive with multiple side chambers.Longman Hill cairn in Aberdeenshire is on the crest of a hill and can be seen from many miles around.

An oval of stones marks the mound of Coldrum long barrow in Kent, where every May Day local Morris Men still dance the sun up. However much is left of the original long barrow, the sites on which they were built all share a discernible atmosphere. Maybe that’s why the site was chosen in the first place, or have centuries of ritual left their mark?