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Chapter 9

Round Barrows

Around 2500BCE we see a new type of monument in the landscape. This is an individual burial under a round barrow (Ashbee) and it signals a departure from the common older neolithic custom of depositing the remains of the ancestors in repositories like earthen and megalithic barrows. A round barrow is essentially a single grave albeit a rather grand one that could only have been afforded by the better-off at the time. The fact that people who could afford it wanted solitary burial in a very obvious mausoleum suggests that individuals were beginning to consider themselves more important than the community and signals a social change. It also suggests that wealth was being accumulated in individual hands rather than in the community and that society was becoming stratified so that a wealthy segment of society breaks surface for the first time.

A map of the distribution of early round barrows in Britain and Ireland would show up the areas of greatest prosperity around the beginning of the second millenium BCE. Two areas prominent on the map would be the Wessex region and Yorkshire.  

All sorts of burials crowned the departed with a mark of social standing. Burials in grave-pits, in cists, simply placed on the ground surface, cremations in urns and inhumations in tree-trunk coffins could all be dignified with a barrow that was simply a mound of material dug out of an encircling ditch or, when described as a cairn, a pile of stones collected from the surrounding area. Sizes of the mounds described on British Ordnance Survey maps as tumuli (singular - tumulus) vary a good deal from some that cover the entire area within a ditch to small piled of material in the middle of the ditched circular enclosure or even a number of small piles scattered around inside. In ditched monuments, any space left between the mound and the ditch is described as a berm.

When ploughed out, as many, or perhaps most have been in the more fertile areas of the country, barrows can be identified from the air by the ditches which show up as dark marks in ripening crops and are described as ring-ditches. In chalk landscapes, ploughing can sometimes bring the concealed chalk remains of the ploughed-out mound to the surface where it shows up as a white smudge for a short time before fading under the crop.

We have suggested that the burials dignified with a mound were those of the families of leaders of society. This could be by virtue of their wealth, by their status either in the field of religion or in society or by accident of birth as a member of an elite family.

Certainly we can point to many burials that contain grave-goods that seem to be those of the wealthy. Some of the first gold and copper objects in Britain appear in the barrow graves at this time and these novelties cannot have been cheap. It may be that some unusual grave-goods identify people who were concerned with ritual like the grave at South Newton in Wiltshire which contained a necklace of sixteen wolves’ and two dogs’ teeth. The fact that barrow burials are found in groups described as barrow cemeteries suggest that they are burials of members of the same group such as an upper crust family.  One thing is certain and that is that women ranked alongside men because some of the finest and largest barrows were raised over the graves of women who must have played an equal part in the society of the time.

Near Amesbury in north Wiltshire, a recent discovery was a grave dubbed that of the ‘Amesbury Archer’ dating from around 2000BCE (Wessex Archaeology). However, tests have showed that he hailed from Central Europe. He was probably buried under a barrow mound that has disappeared and he was accompanied by three copper knives, sandstone wristguards, barbed and tanged arrowheads, Beaker pots (see below) and two small gold hair tresses amongst a collection of some hundred objects.  

In the earlier period when long barrows were in use, they may have been used as territorial markers of ancestral territory. When round barrows appear, they are sometimes arranged in groups around ceremonial central-site locations like Stonehenge or Avebury. It seems that the septal territory was no longer important or had been absorbed into larger territorial agglomerations. Certainly barrows are no longer used to delimit communal territory. Essentially, they have become private things, used to indicate personal status.

A good deal of attention has been paid to the pottery of the period from the last centuries of the third millenium for the next eight hundred years or so. This was because in the past the study of the pottery was the chief method used to establish a chronology and most investigation was done in the Wessex area. Unfortunately it has become clear in recent years that the pottery styles of this period do not form a very neat chronological succession and the main types of pottery can be found together in contemporary contexts.                

However, we can probably be confident that Beaker ware was the first of these new styles to appear around 2,500BCE. Flat-bottomed with a variety of forms but usually with the sinuous profile that makes it the best-known of all prehistoric pots, it introduces a range of new motifs to British pottery and, like the Mortlake ware, is sometimes decorated all over the exterior surface. As Beakers are usually found in graves or associated with ritual monuments like stone settings or with the use of henges like Mount Pleasant in Dorset, it may belong to a class, along with the Mortlake and some other wares of the period, of ceremonial pottery. Our poverty of settlement sites, which is not remedied until the second half of the second millenium BCE, makes it difficult to say anything significant at this time about domestic pottery.

A burial perhaps dating to about 2200BCE with a beaker was uncovered at Barnack in Cambridgeshire where, under a mound, a large grave-pit, 1.8m deep, contained the skeleton of an adult male, wrapped in a shroud and perhaps lying in a wooden coffin. At his feet was a beaker with a metal dagger and a bone pendant lay by his side. Underneath the body was a broken wristguard made out of greenstone with perforations at each end covered with thin gold sheet. This was the first phase of burial and was followed by an enlargement of the mound with a new ditch and a double stake circle and fifteen new burials. Two adults were buried in coffins, a male and female double burial was found in the same grave and one child was accompanied by a food vessel. It seems that the original grave of an important individual became the focus of the burials of his descendants.

Urns are familiar pots in cremation burials, and are referred to as collared (a deep exterior rim; wide distribution in the British Isles) or cordoned (with cordon decoration; highland distribution) or enlarged food vessels (a confusing term since there also are food vessels which are classified as an entirely distinct form of pottery). Biconical urns have a lowland distribution and are sometimes found in settlements while Cornish urns have a regional distribution in the south-west and are also sometimes found on settlements and there are bucket-shaped urns which form a rather amorphous group.

Then there are food vessels, so named because they are thought to have been placed in graves as containers for food for the after-life or the journey to it. A good many different ceramic forms are lumped together in this category but a broad sub-classification is made by describing the squatter vessels as bowls and the taller as vases. Vases are commonest in England, bowls in Ireland while Scotland has a mixture of the two. Enlarged, relief decorated forms are sometimes referred to as encusted urns. Wessex pottery is only known from graves and includes varieties of pygmy pots, some with lids (Aldbourne cups) mainly in southern England. The final late Bronze Age class is Deveril-Rimbury ware, often associated with cremations, ranging in date from round about 1700BCE to about 800BCE.

Burials in which these pottery types are found also include a range of other goods. Some graves have a large assemblage and these are referred to as rich graves and usually have barrows heaped above them. The richest are found in southern England dating from a short period around 1400BCE, contemporary with the richest period of Breton burials that provide a number of parallels for the British material. This group of rich graves in England is sometimes called the Wessex Culture as they were first identified in that area but now similar early Bronze Age burials are being found in Kent and central England and as far afield as north-eastern Scotland and eastern Ireland.

Grave goods during the period include shale buttons, flint knives, bone pins, stone-bracers (small stone plates for protecting archers’ wrists from the bow-string), flint arrowheads, axe-hammers of hard rocks, small shale or jet rings, pendants of shale or jet, beads of shale, jet or similar materials, amber pendants, bone tweezers, bone belt hooks, whetstones, boars’ tusks, antler tines, animal teeth necklaces, necklaces of beads, faience and amber beads, gold-wire binding on various decorative articles, thin gold sheet objects, gold belt hook, discs of sheet gold, gold beads, small gold decorative cones, copper and bronze knives and small daggers, bronze awls, copper and bronze flat axeheads, copper, bronze and gold rivets, copper and bronze pins.

Poorer graves would have few or none of the cheapest items on the above list. But most would include a pot, sometimes only a cremation vessel that could be placed in a hole in the ground or as a secondary burial in the mound of an already-existing barrow.  One might call this an example of borrowed status!

Perhaps one of the most striking features of the above list is the presence of items that could either have come from abroad or could only have been produced in this country as a result of influences from abroad. This would include faience, amber (although possibly picked up along the Yorkshire coast) and copper and gold articles while the similarities of the goods with Breton objects suggests some sort of liaison there.

The occurrence of exotic goods and influences from across the sea suggests the presence of people like traders or perhaps itinerant craftsmen who bargained their particular skills for food and lodging. If this is so, it seems that the British farmers were worth a night’s or several nights’ lodging and the concomitant food. Does this indicate a growing personal prosperity? Perhaps it does if we associate it with the fashion for raising personal barrows rather than communal and the disappearance of the habit of spending large surpluses on conspicuous construction like stone circles. Wealth was going into personal consumption rather than that of the community. Most of the prosperity appears to be in the south, judging by the appearance of the metal goods in graves in southern England.  Metal was the prestigious material of the time and therefore could only be afforded by the prosperous

By 2000BCE copper was beginning to be mined in a variety of places in Britain as it was in Europe. In the British Isles there were mines at Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork and Ross Island near Killarney in southern Ireland and probably in other parts of Ireland too. In Britain copper and tin were both available on Dartmoor. Copper mines have been identified at Great Orme and near Parys Mountain in North Wales, Cwymystwyth in central Wales and Alderley Edge in Cheshire. They were all in use between c1900 and 1200BCE. Trace elements in the metal can be used to identify it to its source and point to the earliest metal production from mines in south-western Ireland (Rosenfeld).

Copper, like gold, is an attractive metal but also soft and not suitable for making edge-tools or weapons so that copper objects were more in the nature of trinkets or ornaments. However, it could be hardened by alloying it with tin or arsenic to make a form of bronze. With the advent of bronze, the manufacture of really practical objects could get under way. As can be imagined the demand for these practical articles was intense all over Europe and bronzesmiths appeared wherever there were deposits of tin and copper. In places where neither was available, like Denmark, metal goods were traded in but even in areas where smiths could produce bronze objects, there was a lively trade in new designs and forms that were imported and so fertilized native production and stimulated innovation.

Earliest bronze making is difficult to investigate since experiments demonstrate that no slag is produced at the low temperatures involved, the single-use clay furnaces would swiftly disintegrate and any tiny bits of remaining metal would quickly disappear so that no traces remain for archaeologists to identify. At Butser Ancient Farm experimenters built several types of furnace and successfully smelted malachite, the hydrous copper carbonate, and casserite-tin oxide together. Malachite by itself smelted at c800 degrees Celsius while copper and tin did not pool until 1,000 degrees.

We can see in Britain how the original flat copper axeheads and daggers were being copied in bronze and innovations like rivets for fixing handles instead of a tang were being introduced from abroad. Early bronzes were of poor quality. A proper 10% tin/90% copper ratio for the alloy was not observed and it was not really until the middle of the Bronze Age that a true bronze was being regularly achieved by British smiths. The best bronzes of this early period were being made in Ireland where the objects were often decorated. Some of these daggers and axeheads were traded across the Irish Sea.

It is easy to overrate the appearance of the first metal. Compared with the traditional materials, wood and, above all, stone, the amount in this country was infinitesimal and continued to be so for a long time. Part of the reason for this exaggeration is the use of the term Bronze Age that suggests that folk dropped their stone technology overnight and enthusiastically took up metal. This was manifestly impossible in view of the paucity of sites from which the ores could be obtained and the lack of smiths. Although bronze is a fine metal for edged tools and weapons, unsurpassed until the invention of carbon-steel during the nineteenth century AD, it was expensive and, for most applications, good-quality flint was just as practicable and usually a good deal sharper. So flint and stone continued in use throughout the Bronze Age and throughout a good part of the succeeding Iron Age as well.

Where we find metals, we find wealth at this time. Usually this is in graves or in hoards that are deposits in holes in the ground. Very little metal is ever found in settlement sites. We have seen that deposits in the ground were being made for ritual purposes as far back as the early Neolithic period but in the Bronze Age two types of deposits that contained metal are described by archaeologists as a founder’s hoard (smith’s hoard) deposited by the smith to save having to lug large amounts of scrap metal about on his round, for he was peripatetic, like a tinker, and a merchant’s hoard  deposited by the merchant as a cache to which he could return to renew his stock of new implements. It is probable that the founder and the merchant were one and the same person so the distinction between the two hoards may be not very important.

The reason for the deposit is the same in both cases for neither individual had transport and had to carry what he wanted on his back. These pedlars surely devised regular rounds to reach the scattered farmers who were their customers. It is unlikely that many smiths actually made the metal. Most probably recycled broken and worn-out articles and operated on the ‘Aladdin’ basis – ‘new lamps for old plus a night’s lodging and food.’

But there were craftsmen attached to the households of the wealthy who acted as their patrons. It may be that it was these ‘domestic’ smiths who were responsible for most of the original manufacture and the technological innovations of the period.                     

The ‘Wessex Culture’ (Gerloff) is a term sometimes applied to the archaeological evidence provided during the Early Bronze Age in southern England by material from about a hundred burials. No settlements relating to this material have yet been identified. It was defined as long ago os 1938 by Stuart Piggott (Proc Prehist Soc iv 1938) and there is no up-to-date account of it apart from that of Gerloff. During this time, people seem to be gathering into their own hands wealth that previously was being expended on public ritual monuments.  This tendency is accompanied by the appearance of metal, a prestige material that, at first, inevitably was the province of the powerful and the wealthy.

Burials are characterised by metal daggers with grooved blades, pygmy cups, halberd pendants, perforated whetstones, bone tweezers, sheet-gold objects and dress pins that have their origin in Central Europe. One can suggest that the wealth that provided these expensive objects had in the past been used for building the great Wessex monuments like the henges, Silbury Hill and the stone settings. Now it was largely released from these duties and was being used by individuals for personal purposes like (possibly) acquiring  more land or expensive personal possessions and, presumably, a more comfortable life-style although the evidence for this is not yet forthcoming.  Part was used for these purposes and part for building the large number of ‘personal’ barrows that appear in the Wessex landscape around special ‘central places’ like Stonehenge. Does this mean that the ‘community’ was becoming less important or was ritual and/or religion no longer so significant?

By what mechanism could this change have been achieved? This is difficult to say at the moment but we can visualise the gradual growth in power of families rather than individuals (since the evidence of the grave goods is of a recurrenr phenomenon), perhaps those who had been the instigators in the past of the construction of the ritual monuments.  Judging by the unfinished condition of several of these great monuments (c.f Stonehenge) the enthusiasm for building them and the switch to personal wealth took place before they were completed. We can also say that this change took place mainly in the south of England in the ‘Wessex’ region and hardly at all elsewhere.

But this upsurge in personal wealth was not sudden; evidence of its gradual accumulation appears in the earlier round barrow graves like those containing beakers, a few of which were accompanied by a little gold and some copper objects. Most rich graves were covered by barrows but not all barrow burials were rich which means that we cannot equate one with the other. We have already suggested that the barrow signalled high status that could be attached to individuals who were not always well endowed with worldly goods. 

So what we are looking at in the Wessex Culture is not a complete culture in itself but the most obvious archaeological facet of prosperous areas of Britain which shared their basic Neolithic culture with other parts of Britain of the time. Its ’death-style’ is pretty clear to us but not the ‘life-style’ for we have little in the way of settlement sites apart from those in the far north. Much the same situation obtained across the Channel in places like Brittany where barrows cover graves that contain objects that are very similar to those in Wessex and where settlement sites are also very elusive.

Dating for these richest graves is within the bracket of the first few centuries of the second millenium BCE and after that we see a gradual decline in the quality and number of grave goods although barrows were still being used to cover burials.  At the same time cremation becomes more common.  Here we have the advantage of some radiocarbon determinations that provide calibrated dates of around 1400BCE for three Wessex cremation burials.

The best-known example of the richer inhumation burials is Bush Barrow, one of a barrow cemetery on Normanton Down overlooking Stonehenge. It was vandalised and the grave goods removed by Colt-Hoare, an early nineteenth century antiquary, but most of the objects recovered are in the Devizes and British Museums. They include the possible remains of a shield, a flanged axehead, two daggers, one of copper and one of bronze, a mace and the mountings from its haft, a small knife, a gold belt-hook and two sheet-gold plaques. We can suggest that the burial was made at about the time when copper was beginning to give way to bronze for efficient weapon-making and a suggested date is around 2000BCE. Other rich graves in the same cemetery were those of women who ranked with the men both in the wealth of their grave-goods and the status of having an impressive barrow over their graves. The presence of metal is matched by exotic materials like amber, faience and minute gold pins for decorating wooden dagger handles from the Únëtice region of Central Europe.

Pygmy cups found with both inhumations and cremations are of a variety of shapes and three of the types are described as ‘grape’ cups because their bowls are covered with spherical ‘bumps’ like a bunch of grapes, Aldbourne (sometimes with a lid) and the ‘slashed’ type with vertical slits all round the belly of the vessel. They were decorated with motifs that date back to the designs on beakers that were common between 2600 and 1800BCE.  In view of the lack of these objects outside graves at this time, it has been suggested that they were made for burial and not for daily use. Certainly, this custom seems to become commoner later on for, by the later second century BCE, some of the grave goods look as though they would have been pretty useless for practical tasks so there may be something in this point of view. Examples of these later grave-goods are the minute socketed bronze axeheads in the graves of the period. But by that time, by the close of the millenium, the practice of raising barrows had ended. They next appear in the archaeological record during the Iron Age.

There has been a good deal of discussion about foreign contacts during the period of the first half of the second millenium BCE. This has revolved around certain objects and materials. They are amber, faience, pendants, pins, bronze daggers and jadeite axeheads. All, (including particular type of pins - ring or crutch-headed), are materials that could only have been afforded by the well-to-do.

Amber (fossilized pine resin) can be found along the Yorkshire coast where it is washed across the North Sea from the Baltic so the discussion here is whether the amount of amber found in British graves is enough to justify a connection with the amber trade that we know operated along routes southward across Europe from the Baltic to the Únętice area of Hungary, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. 

Faience is made from a mixture of silicate-rich clayey sand and salts of copper heated to a high temperature and it appears that it could have been manufactured in Britain, either in Cornwall or Scotland and made into blue beads. The traditional source of the material is Egypt but doubt has been cast on whether it supplied Britain.

Pendants, pins and bronze daggers are metal types that originated in central Europe in one of the Únętice cultures. Pendants are halberd-shaped, like the shafted halberds of central Germany and so, the argument runs, the shape and the amber (derived from the amber routes of Europe) could suggest an origin in central Europe. In the case of the bronze daggers, the attribution to central Europe rests on the decoration and the manner in which the dagger is fitted to its haft. It is rivetted to the handle which can be decorated with little bronze or gold nails. Many of these daggers were exported by the Únétice bronzesmiths to the copper-using peoples of Europe so that the appearance of daggers of this sort, perhaps quickly copied by British bronzesmiths, is not surprising.

Jadeite is a form of greenstone which can take a polish and if made thin enough is almost translucent. It is very hard and makes a good quality axe. More than seventy examples have been found in Britain and more in Brittany but so far no source has been identified for them. However, it is likely to be somewhere in Europe. As far as in known, despite their more attractive appearance, there is no contextual evidence to suggest that jadeite axeheads in prehistoric Europe were used for purposes different from those made out of more common rocks.

This evidence certainly suggests that there were several foreign contacts but the objects/materials were those that were commonly traded across Europe at this time and there is no reason to believe their appearance in Britain makes Britain a special place. It should be thought of as one of the areas in Europe in which agricultural prosperity was producing a modicum of wealth that was being concentrated in the hands of an aristocracy who could thus afford to acquire some of the things that contemporary aristocrats in other parts of Europe were able to possess.  These are the sorts of circumstances that could arouse the interest of an interprising trader from Europe.                                                

Certain terms are used to distinguish different forms of Beaker and Wessex barrows. They include the bowl barrow, the commonest type right through the Bronze Age period from Beaker times, characteristically in the form of an inverted bowl and usually with a surrounding ditch that nowadays may be completely filled with plough soil. Bermed barrows have a considerable space surrounding the mound between it and a ditch. Bell barrows have the narrowest berm, the disc the widest berm. In the case of the disc there is sometimes more than one mound and disc barrows often have a bank surrounding the ditch on its outer edge. Saucer barrows have very low, flat mounds usually between 18 and 27m in diameter surrounded by a ditch with an external bank. The ring barrows are simply a ring-ditch with an external bank and seem to be associated in Northumberland with cremation burial in urns.

Pond barrows have been recognised principally on the chalk in southern England and appear on the surface as regular circular depressions, anything from 9 to 30m in diameter, surrounded by a low bank. However, an excavation, an example near Stonehenge, at Wilsford, turned out to be a filled-in shaft over 30m deep in which a variety of materials was deposited, presumably as a ritual connected with a belief in subterranean spirits. It was not a well even though it did contain ropes and a bucket. If this discovery is true of other pond barrows then they are certainly wrongly classified as barrows. Other shafts are known from the period. A shaft at Swanwick in Hampshire contained a wooden stake with traces of animal blood; at Kimpton in the same county an empty shaft stood alongside an urnfield.

During the last hundred years, the sequence of metal objects found in this country, mainly in graves and hoards, has been used as a means of dating. Unfortunately the metal objects date very little apart from the graves or hoards in which they are found for metal in other contexts like settlements where its presence would be more useful is rare.

Phases of type-development of objects through time allows archaeologists to build up a relative chronology for each model which is assigned a chronological position in the sequence. In the same way that we can recognise an age of a car by its styling so the archaeologist can do the same with a Bronze Age metal object. These sequences are referred to as typological series. Relative chronologies are limited in their usefulness but it has been possible to relate some of the objects in them to similar objects on the Continent which have been found in dateable contexts. This type of cross-dating allows a date to be transferred from the Continent to Britain.

When the various modifications in an artifact have been identified and classified by typology, the arrangement of them into a chronological succession is known as seriation. A classic sequence that is often quoted is that for axeheads in the Bronze Age. Flat axeheads give way to palstaves which yielded place to the socketed axeheads of the Late Bronze Age. Similar sorts of sequences have been worked out for spearheads and other artefacts. These chronological sequences for metal objects are, of course, related to technological advances in metallurgy that take place during the period. Copper of the early period gives way to experimental bronzes, then to true 10% tin bronzes, then to leaded bronzes which enabled bronze sheet to be produced and used for shield coverings and cauldrons from the ninth century BCE onwards.  (Bronze Age metal types figure) A rough sequence of copper and bronze metal objects is as follows:


c2400-c1800BCE (Beaker period) Mainly copper.  West European daggers, riveted knife-daggers, thick-butted flat axeheads.

c1800-c1650BCE (Early Wessex period) Experimental bronzes. Bush Barrow dagger, halberds, thin-butted flat axeheads.

c1650-c1400BCE (Later Wessex period) True bronzes. Ogival daggers, flanged azeheads, tanged spearheads, pegged spearheads.

c1400-c1000BCE  (Middle Bronze Age) True bronzes.  Palstaves, rapiers, looped spearheads. Scanty evidence from burials

C1000-c600BCE (Late Bronze Age) Leaded bronzes.   Socketed axeheads, leaf-shaped swords, leaf-shaped spearheads with peg-holes instead of loops, socketed sickles, woodworking gouges and knives, razors, carp’s tongue swords, Hallstatt swords, cauldrons, shields.

C600BCE onwards  Iron Age and later. Decorative and prestige bronze articles.


In Britain the sequence of dating of Middle Bronze Age metalwork is done using hoards and foreign parallels and it is difficult to relate to the scanty evidence for burials and domestic life in Britain. From about1000BCE new contacts with Europe led to more activity amongst native bronzesmiths who began to adopt the new metal types mentioned in the sequence above and to add lead to their alloys for most metalwork apart from beaten work where ease of casting was not so important.


An area where waterlogging has preserved timber materials is in the Levels of north Somerset where the distribution of trackways suggests a well-ordered system of communication. Major tracks were better-built and more sophisticated in design than the minor ones. Amongst them is the Eclipse Track (c1500BCE) which comprised over 1000 hurdles laid down to form a route between the island of Meare and the Polden Hills. Meare Track was a little earlier and is of heavy construction with transverse bearers pegged into place on the raised mire surface by long stakes driven through holes in the planks with a substructure of birch and alder brushwood.  It ran for two kilometres. Tinney’s A Track, later, dating to c1200BC, consisted of a walking surface of bundles of brushwood which was pegged into place along the sides and in the middle. It may be that the lack of crannogs (see below) in the Somerset Levels is due to the presence of the numerous low hills that dot the marsh and provided convenient sites for villages. Certainly the hilltops were nodal points for the arterial tracks and some, like Glastonbury are still centres of population.  One cannot suggest that it was an area of constant trading activity and this was the reason for the tracks so, apparently, good communications between adjoining communities was a necessity in any area and should be a factor taken into account whenever searches for the locations of the ephemeral occupation sites of the Middle Bronze Age is undertaken.

Approaching the Second Millenium
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