Neolithic Burial Mound Uncovered Near Stonehenge
A Neolithic burial mound near Stonehenge that experts refer to as the “House of the Dead” has been discovered in Wiltshire, England. According to archaeologists, the newly found tumulus in the Vale of Pewsey could possibly contain human remains that are more than 5,000 years old.
“House of the Dead” Discovered
A team of students and staff from the University of Reading’s Archaeology Field School, with the help of volunteers from the area, has examined the site of a Neolithic long tumulus in a location known as Cat’s Brain – the first to be fully explored in Wiltshire in more than fifty years. The Cat’s Brain long tumulus, discovered in the heart of a farmer’s field halfway between the legendary prehistoric monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge, consists of two trenches edging what seems to be a central building. Researchers speculated that this could have possibly been covered with a rounded mass created naturally by the earth dug from the ditches, but has been cultivated flat over the centuries. The monument that researchers have referred to as the “House of the Dead” dates to the early Neolithic period and is the first barrow to be fully examined in Wiltshire since the 1960s.
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Possible Neolithic burial site in a wheat field near Stonehenge, UK. (Screenshot Credit: Andy Burns)
The research team believes that this memorial could possibly contain human remains – hence the nickname “House of the Dead – which were buried there around 3,600 BC. The memorial was first noticed by aerial photos of the location and followed up by geophysical survey imagery.
Dr. Jim Leary, Director of the Archaeology Field School, said as Heritage Daily reports, “Opportunities to fully investigate long barrows are virtually unknown in recent times, and this represents a fantastic chance to carefully excavate one using the very latest techniques and technology. Members of the public now have the chance to visit us and see prehistory being unearthed as we search for human remains on the site. Discovering the buried remains of what could be the ancestors of those who lived around Stonehenge would be the cherry on the cake of an amazing project.”
British Long Barrows
Long barrow style burial mounds are found throughout the British Isles, with a high concentration being found in the Cotswolds, a hill range which rolls gently through the picturesque countryside of 5 counties in central England, including Wiltshire. The need for long barrow style burial sites was explained in an Ancient Origins article when a similar site was excavated near Cirencester last year.
According to Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum:
“Faced with the problem of disposing of the remains of their dead, many Neolithic communities chose to inter the bodies (or sometimes the cremated remains) in chambered tombs constructed inside distinctively shaped stone and soil mounds. These burial chambers and the access passages to them from outside were built of large slabs of stone (orthostats) and dry-stone walling. The covering mound was usually pear-shaped or roughly trapezoidal, often with a shallow ‘horned’ forecourt at one end, the whole surrounded by a low dry-stone wall. It has been estimated that each barrow could have taken 10 men some 7 months to build.”
Entrance to the West Kennet Long Barrow, in the same region as the new excavation in Wiltshire. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Long barrows were the earliest examples of monumental architecture to be found in Britain, some dating back six millennia, although the one being explored at Cat’s Brain is thought to be around 5,000 years old, the same age as Stonehenge. Previous such monuments have been found to contain as many as 50 men, women and children. For example, the West Kennet long barrow nearby the latest excavation, contained 46 persons from babies to the elderly.
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An interesting development in the county occurred in 2014 when a newly constructed long barrow was opened to be used as a tomb for modern use. It has the capacity to hold 1000 urns of cremated remains.
The modern, functioning long barrow at All Cannings in Wiltshire started its use in 2014 (CC BY SA 4.0)
After clearing the surface of the monument, the clear outline of the long barrow ditches is visible, as well as the footprint of the building. Next step for the team is to conclude the three-year Archaeology Field School project by excavating the site and unearth artifacts, bones, and other objects, that will be later analyzed closely. Experts suggest that this analysis will offer very important information and evidence for the residents and society in Britain during this remote period. Furthermore, the University of Reading’s Archaeology Field School is working at Marden henge, the largest henge in the country, constructed around 2,400 BC, also within the Vale of Pewsey.
Amanda Clarke, co-director of the Archaeology Field School, stated as Heritage Daily reports, “This incredible discovery of one of the UK’s first monuments offers a rare glimpse into this important period in history. We are setting foot inside a significant building that has lain forgotten and hidden for thousands of years.” Members of the public will be able to visit the site to see up close the archaeologists at work during an open day on Saturday 15 July.
Top image: Archaeologists looking at aerial photography found a hidden long barrow, or Neolithic burial chamber, hidden beneath a wheat field Credit: Archaeological Field School, University of Reading