Oakley Down Cemetery 6000 Years of History

Oakley Down Cemetery, nestled in the picturesque landscape of Dorset, England, is a prehistoric site that provides a unique window into the ancient past of this region. This ancient burial ground, dating back thousands of years, stands as a statement and testament to the rituals, beliefs, and societal structures of the people who once inhabited this area.

Oakley Down Cemetery is on the Dorset/Wiltshire boarder of the Cranborne Chase. The Chase is known for its vast number of archaeological sites of major importance. The sites include Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Romano-British sites.

It is blessed with one of the largest concentrations of burial mounds in England. Added to that, is the Dorset Cursus which is the largest and longest Neolithic cursus in the country which stretches for over 6 miles.


We are fortunate to have such a high survival rate of such archaeological remnants is mainly due to the later history of the Chase. A Chase had the same purpose as a Forest – both were royal hunting grounds and as such had different laws within its jurisdiction and boundaries.


Forest Law saved the archaeological sites from the plough and other destructive land uses. The Norman kings would have galloped past these barrows that we see today in this shot. More than likely, it was also used for the same purpose by Saxon nobility.

Power of LiDAR: Fascinating history in this shot. YELLOW: Neolithic Long Barrow. RED: Roman road that is as straight as a gun barrel, and is part of the London to Exeter Roman road. This particular stretch runs from Badbury Rings (Wimborne, Dorset) to Old Sarum (Salisbury). The height of the agger (embankment) of this section is incredible. BLUE: A very rare Disc Barrow that has a section sliced off as the Romans built the road through the cemetery – the same happened to the Disc Barrow opposite . GREEN: The Neolithic, and Early Bronze Age Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery, Dorset. BLACK: A354, the modern day Blandford to Salisbury road. I just adore the continuity of mankind – we still use this landscape, the landscape our ancient ancestors used. We just have different needs today.

Approximately 30 barrows are situated primarily at the junction where the A354 road intersects with the Ackling Dyke Roman road, some you can see in this drone shot.

Read More: Ancient Trackways: Walking in the Footsteps of Neolithic People

This principal cluster comprises bowl barrows, varying in diameter from 36 to 85 feet (11 to 26 metres) and in height from 1 to 11 feet 2 inches (0.3 to 3.4 metres). Additionally, the group contains five or six disc barrows, each measuring 39 to 95 feet (12 to 29 metres) in diameter, alongside two oval barrows and a single bell barrow.

Prehistoric Context of Oakley Down Cemetery

This region, characterised by its rolling chalk hills, fertile valleys, and strategic coastal access, has long been a hub of human settlement and ceremonial activity, with Oakley Down serving as a significant testament to these ancient practices.

Mesolithic Beginnings

Dorset’s prehistoric timeline commences in the Mesolithic period, a time when the area was predominantly forested, and hunter-gatherer groups exploited the rich natural resources.

These early inhabitants left behind flint tools and evidence of temporary camps, hinting at a nomadic lifestyle closely attuned to the natural environment. The presence of such artifacts in the vicinity of Oakley Down suggests a long-standing human presence, setting the stage for the later developments of the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery consists of a collection of Bronze Age round barrows located on Cranborne Chase, roughly 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of Sixpenny Handley village in Dorset, England. This site is recognized as a scheduled monument.
Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery consists of a collection of Bronze Age round barrows located on Cranborne Chase, roughly 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east of Sixpenny Handley village in Dorset, England. This site is recognised as a scheduled monument.

Neolithic Transformations

The Neolithic period marked a transformative era in Dorset, as communities began to adopt farming, leading to a more settled way of life.

This era saw the construction of monumental structures, including long barrows and causewayed enclosures, reflecting new religious beliefs, social structures, and the need for communal gathering spaces.

Read More: Ridgeways, our Prehistoric Road System Before Roman Roads

Oakley Down, situated within this evolving landscape, would have been part of a world where the relationship with the land, ancestors, and the spiritual realm was expressed through monumental architecture and ritualistic practices.

Bronze Age Flourishing

By the Bronze Age, the region around Oakley Down was characterised by significant developments in metalworking, burial practices, and landscape organisation.

The construction of round barrows, indicative of individual or family burials, became prevalent, showcasing a shift in societal structure and spiritual focus. These barrows, often placed in prominent landscape positions, could signify the territory, status, and ancestral claims of the emerging elite.

A rare Bronze Age disc barrow that has had the bottom sliced off by a Roman Road. This is the Old Sarum to Badbury Rings Roman road cutting through the Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery on the Cranborne Chase, Dorset.

The cemetery at Oakley Down, with its complex of burial mounds, aligns with this tradition, providing a sacred space for commemorating the dead and reinforcing social bonds.

The strategic location of Oakley Down within the Dorset landscape suggests its importance as a ceremonial site, possibly chosen for its visibility, natural features, or ancestral significance.

Read More: Iron Age Roads: There’s no Such Thing as a Modern Road

The area’s prehistoric inhabitants might have imbued the landscape with symbolic meaning, using it as a space to perform rituals, honor their ancestors, and mark the changing seasons or celestial events.

The ceremonial activities conducted here would have reinforced the community’s cosmology, rooted in their understanding of the world and their place within it.

Connectivity and Cultural Exchange

Oakley Down’s prehistoric context is also a story of connectivity and cultural exchange. Positioned within a landscape crisscrossed by ancient trackways and near river valleys that facilitated travel and communication, the site likely played a role in networks of trade, exchange, and interaction that extended beyond the local area.

Read More: Iron Age Trackways That You Can Still Walk Today

Objects found in the burial mounds, such as pottery, flint tools, and ornaments, could reflect wider connections, indicating the movement of goods, ideas, and people across the region and perhaps even farther afield.

Ackling Dyke is a significant Roman Road that runs through the cemetery. This view is from the cemetery looking south. It disappears over the horizon.
Ackling Dyke is a significant Roman Road that runs through the cemetery. This view is from the cemetery looking south. It disappears over the horizon.

The inhabitants of prehistoric Dorset, and by extension Oakley Down, had a profound connection with their environment, shaping and being shaped by it.

The choice of burial sites, the construction of ceremonial structures, and the placement of settlements were all influenced by the topography, resources, and natural features of the landscape. This interdependence underscores the holistic worldview of prehistoric communities, where the physical and spiritual realms were intricately connected, and the land was imbued with significance. We are lucky to have it.

Initial Discovery of Oakley Down Cemetery

The discovery of Oakley Down Cemetery was a significant archaeological milestone, sparked by initial findings that hinted at a rich, buried history beneath the serene Dorset landscape.

Read More: What are Long Barrows?

Often, such discoveries are the result of systematic surveying, chance findings by locals, or the keen eye of an archaeologist noticing anomalies in the terrain, such as unusual mound formations or patterns in the vegetation that suggest human alteration.

In the case of Oakley Down, the initial clues might have been subtle, leading to a more focused archaeological investigation to uncover the extent and significance of the site.

Disc barrows – These funeral relics are so rare with only 250 known to exist here in England. The current thought in academia that these barrows were exclusive to high-ranking women. They are from the early Bronze Age, with most dating to a much shorter 200 year period, possibly between 1400-1200 BC. These are my favourite.

Following its discovery, Oakley Down underwent extensive archaeological excavations, which were meticulously planned and executed to unravel the site’s historical layers. Archaeologists, equipped with a range of tools and methodologies, from traditional digging to advanced geophysical surveys, worked to unearth the secrets held within the cemetery.

Oakley Down Cemetery

The excavation process likely involved careful removal of soil layers, with each stratum meticulously recorded to provide a chronological framework for the artifacts and human remains uncovered.

Read More: The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

The excavations at Oakley Down revealed a complex of burial mounds, each varying in size and construction, pointing to a long period of use and differing burial practices over time. These mounds, or barrows, are key features of the prehistoric landscape and were used for communal or individual burials.

Excavating these structures provided critical data on the burial customs, including the orientation of the graves, the positioning of the bodies, and the types of grave goods deposited alongside the deceased.

Artifacts and Ecofacts

The grave goods and artifacts unearthed from Oakley Down Cemetery provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives, beliefs, and cultural practices of the prehistoric inhabitants of Dorset.

Bell barrow, they date from early to middle Bronze Age, most of them belong to the 1600-1300 BC period.
Bell barrow, they date from early to middle Bronze Age, most of them belong to the 1600-1300 BC period.

These items, carefully interred with the deceased, range from everyday objects to items of significant ceremonial importance, each contributing to our understanding of the community’s way of life, social hierarchies, and spiritual observances.

Pottery fragments found at the site, often intricately decorated or bearing distinctive markings, suggest a community engaged in complex crafting and artistic traditions. These vessels, possibly used for storing food, water, or ceremonial offerings, highlight the skill and aesthetic sensibilities of the artisans.

Read More: Uncovering the Past with Iron Age Pottery

The presence of such pottery in burial contexts might also indicate rituals involving food and drink, perhaps symbolising sustenance for the journey to the afterlife or serving as offerings to appease ancestral spirits or deities.

Flint tools and weaponry, meticulously crafted and often showing signs of use, speak to a society that valued skill and craftsmanship.

These objects not only served practical purposes in daily life but also held significant value in death, perhaps ensuring the deceased were equipped for the afterlife or commemorating their skills and accomplishments in life.

Bracelets Discovered at Oakley Down Cemetery

The inclusion of such items in graves underscores their importance in the community’s economic, social, and possibly ritualistic activities.

Personal ornaments like beads, pendants, or bracelets discovered at Oakley Down suggest a culture that took pride in personal adornment and possibly used such items to convey social status, identity, or affiliation.

Another context from LiDAR of Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery. The cemetery is book ended by, top left of the scan of Neolithic Long Barrow, and the Roman road that is as straight as a gun barrel, right of the image. I can get lost in this sort of study and research for days
Another context from LiDAR of Oakley Down Barrow Cemetery. The cemetery is book ended by, top left of the scan of Neolithic Long Barrow, and the Roman road that is as straight as a gun barrel, right of the image. I can get lost in this sort of study and research for days

The materials chosen, the craftsmanship, and the context in which these items were found can offer insights into trade networks, social stratification, and the symbolic meanings attributed to different materials and designs.

The presence of ritualistic items or ceremonial artifacts within the graves indicates that the burials were conducted with considerable care and adherence to ritual, reflecting the community’s spiritual beliefs and practices.

Read More: Ackling Dyke: A Significant Roman Road?

Such artifacts could have been intended to protect the deceased, serve as offerings to deities or ancestral spirits, or facilitate the individual’s journey to the afterlife, embodying the community’s cosmological views and ritual practices.

Moreover, the diversity of the grave goods and the varying levels of opulence observed in different burials could reflect the societal structure of the community, indicating differences in status, occupation, age, or gender.

Styles of Pottery at Oakley Down Cemetery

High-status individuals might be accompanied by more elaborate or numerous grave goods, while simpler burials could suggest lower social standing or different roles within the society. The artifacts from Oakley Down also provide a lens through which to view the interactions of this community with their wider world.

You will see some people next to this Bell Barrow, turn out they are archaeologist, and shared some great information with me.

Variations in material culture, such as styles of pottery or types of imported goods, can hint at connections with distant communities, trade routes, and the movement of ideas and cultural practices across regions.

In essence, the grave goods and artifacts from Oakley Down Cemetery are not mere remnants of the past; they are vibrant storytellers, offering narratives of a community deeply rooted in its landscape, engaged in meaningful social and ritualistic practices, and connected to a broader network of prehistoric peoples.

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Each artifact, whether a simple tool or an intricate ornament, plays a part in piecing together the complex mosaic of prehistoric life in Dorset, providing a direct, tangible link to the individuals and communities that lived millennia ago.

Human Remains at Oakley Down Cemetery

The human remains and associated mortuary practices unearthed at Oakley Down Cemetery provide a profound insight into the prehistoric inhabitants of Dorset, offering a direct link to their physical presence, health, social structures, and spiritual beliefs.

The skeletal remains discovered offer a wealth of information about the individuals themselves, including their age at death, gender, physical health, and possibly even their life stories, in terms of nutrition, workload, or injuries sustained during their lifetimes.

Disc barrows, a comparatively uncommon type of Bronze Age burial mound, are predominantly found in the Wessex region of southern England.

The analysis of these remains can reveal patterns of disease, dietary habits, and the physical demands of their daily lives, contributing to a more nuanced understanding of their existence and the challenges they faced.

Studying the mortuary practices sheds light on the community’s attitudes toward death, the afterlife, and the commemoration of the deceased.

Read More: Burial Mound, Only one of Three in the Country

The way in which the bodies were laid to rest—whether inhumed in simple pits, placed within constructed tombs, or subjected to cremation—reflects a range of beliefs and customs surrounding death and the treatment of the dead. These practices often reveal a community’s spiritual beliefs, its cosmologies, and its notions of an afterlife, providing valuable insights into the social and religious fabric of the time.

Symbolic or High Value

The orientation of the graves, the positioning of the body, and the inclusion of specific grave goods or offerings can indicate ritual significance and demonstrate the community’s collective efforts to honour, remember, and possibly aid the deceased in their journey to the afterlife.

Such practices might also reflect the societal status of the individual, differentiating between commoners, elites, or individuals with specialised roles within the community.

bronze age burial urn
Bronze Age burial urn, now in The Salisbury Museum

Grave goods accompanying the human remains further illuminate the mortuary practices. The selection of items placed with the deceased—ranging from everyday objects to items of symbolic or high value—suggests beliefs in the utility of such goods in the afterlife or their importance in commemorating the life of the deceased.

These goods can indicate the individual’s role in society, their personal or familial relationships, or their achievements during their lifetime.

Read More: What are Cross Dykes?

Additionally, the spatial arrangement of the graves within the cemetery can offer clues about the social organisation of the community, familial ties, and the existence of hierarchical structures. The presence of larger, more elaborate graves might signify individuals of higher status or importance, while simpler burials could indicate common members of the society.

Archaeological Context

Isotopic analysis of the bones can provide data on the individual’s diet, migration patterns, and even their place of origin, offering a broader picture of the community’s lifestyle, subsistence strategies, and interactions with their environment and neighboring groups.

This information, coupled with the archaeological context, allows for a reconstruction of life courses, social identities, and community dynamics.

Ackling Dyke, the Roman road running over the downlands into the cemetery. Its grand scale would have been visible from afar.

The human remains and mortuary practices at Oakley Down thus serve as a powerful testament to the community’s way of life, their beliefs about death, and their respect for the deceased. They narrate a story of a community’s connection with their ancestors, their cultural practices, and their existential beliefs, offering invaluable insights into the very essence of their humanity.

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Through these remains, we gain a profound understanding of the people who once walked the lands of Dorset, how they lived, how they died, and how they were remembered by the generations that followed.

Contribution to Prehistoric Scholarship

The discovery and excavation of Oakley Down Cemetery have made a substantial contribution to the field of prehistoric archaeology, particularly in the context of Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain.

The findings from the site have helped to fill gaps in our understanding of prehistoric burial practices, social hierarchies, and cultural expressions, offering a more nuanced view of the past.

The site has also underscored the importance of such cemeteries in the broader landscape of prehistoric research, providing comparative data that enhances our understanding of regional variations and wider prehistoric networks.

The excavation of Oakley Down is not just a historical exercise but a continuing project of research and conservation. The data gathered from the site feeds into a larger corpus of prehistoric research, contributing to ongoing debates and studies in archaeology.

Furthermore, the conservation of the excavated materials, along with the site itself, ensures that this window into the ancient past remains available for future generations of archaeologists and historians, who may have new technologies, methodologies, or questions that can further illuminate the history of Oakley Down Cemetery.