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Bronze Age barrows under excavation by Cotswold Archaeology’s Andover team. Source: Cotswold Archaeology

Excavations Near Stonehenge Reveal Early Bronze Age Barrow Cemetery


A team of archaeologists digging at the site of a planned housing development near Salisbury, England got quite a shock when they unearthed the remains of a sprawling cemetery that could be anywhere from 3,500 to 4,000 years old.

While performing exploratory excavations at the Netherhampton Road construction site on the outskirts of the suburban town of Harnham, experts from Cotswold Archaeology found the unmistakable remnants of several round burial mounds that they knew had been built in prehistoric times. These types of mounds are known as barrows or round barrows, and they were most commonly made as tomb covers and grave markers during the Beaker and Early Bronze Ages (2,400 to 1,500 BC). The archaeologists found enough clues to conclude these barrows had been made during the latter period, meaning they were installed 1,000 years or more after the monuments at Stonehenge were erected on the Salisbury Plain just 10 miles (16 km) to the north.

View of the Bronze age barrows near Salisbury, South England, under excavation. (Cotswold Archaeology)

View of the Bronze age barrows near Salisbury, South England, under excavation. (Cotswold Archaeology)

The Round Barrows of Salisbury and the People who Built Them

Round barrows normally consist of a central tomb, the mound and a surrounding ditch. They come in a variety of sizes, but most are between 65 and 100 feet (20 and 30 m) in diameter. Barrows may cover a single burial chamber or several, and multiple mounds were often constructed on the same site.

“Our cemetery is made up of about twenty or more barrows that spread from the very edge of Harnham on the Nadder valley floor, up and across the adjacent chalk hillside on what is the northern edge of the landscape of Cranborne Chase,” the Netherhampton site discoverers wrote in a Cotswold Archaeology press release.  “The cemetery is arranged in small clusters of barrows—either pairs or groups of six or so—and we’ve so far excavated just five.”

Inside the five ditches they’ve dug up so far the Cotswold archaeologists have found 10 burials and three piles of buried cremation ash. Two of the barrows at the site show signs of having been significantly enlarged at some point, offering more evidence of how popular this burial ground must have been with the people who lived in the region around Salisbury 4,000 years ago and beyond. 

Unfortunately, several centuries of cultivation in the field where the housing project will be built have totally destroyed the mounds themselves. What remains are the circular surrounding ditches that ran around the perimeter of the mounds, and the skeletal remains of the occupants who were laid to rest in the center of these elaborately prepared burial sites.

Ancient barrows were constructed in different shapes. Those known as bell barrows featured large circular central mounds, while the so-called disc barrows had small central mounds surrounded by outer banks. Some barrows even had hollow areas in the center of their mounds, which may have been filled with water (and hence their name, pond barrows).

Because the mounds found in Harnham have been leveled off by centuries of agricultural activity, there is no way to tell what their shapes might have been.

Aerial imagery of Area 2, showing the two ring ditches and swathes of pits. (Cotswold Archaeology)

Aerial imagery of Area 2, showing the two ring ditches and swathes of pits. (Cotswold Archaeology)

Interestingly, one of the burial mound ditches the archaeologist’s unearthed showed clear signs of having been altered. Its shape had been changed from slightly oval to almost perfectly circular, with the latter representing the normal British Bronze Age preference. Based on the changed design, the Cotswold archaeologists speculate that the oval shaped barrow may have been originally constructed during the British Neolithic period (4,100 to 2,500 BC). This suggests the cemetery actually predates the Early Bronze Age, and that burials may have taken place there for several centuries before the first Bronze Age tomb was installed.

The formerly oval burial site is significant for another reason. At its center the archaeologists excavated a mass grave that contained the remains of both adults and children. The archaeologists note that this type of group burial is most uncommon, and they are anxious to complete radiocarbon dating on the remains found there to learn more about when the people in the grave lived and died.

In addition to the mass grave, the altered oval barrow also included two individual graves that have been linked to the enigmatic Beaker culture. The Beaker people could be found all across Europe in the third millennium BC, and in England they bridged the gap between the end of the Neolithic (2,500 BC) and the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (2,000 BC).

Archaeologist Jordan Bendall, excavating antler picks. (Cotswold Archaeology)

Archaeologist Jordan Bendall, excavating antler picks. (Cotswold Archaeology)

Interestingly, the Neolithic pits contained a collection of red deer antlers. The antler of deer held great value and served various purposes. It was utilized in the creation of handheld picks or attached to straight wooden handles to form pitchforks and rakes. Additionally, it was fashioned into combs, pins, tools, and weapons such as mace heads and mattocks. Moreover, deer antlers played a role in ritualistic activities.

Tracing a Complex History along Netherhampton Road

The site of the new construction project was apparently occupied for a long time by a variety of cultures.

During some of their excavations the Cotswold archaeologists found ruins and cultural objects linked to the Saxon period, which lasted from around 400 AD until the end of the first millennium. The Saxon ruins and artifacts include parts of a building that was partially sunken into the ground, some well-preserved wooden timbers, shards of ceramics and several iron knife blades.

Adding further texture to their findings, the archaeologists unearthed a cultivation terrace that dates to the British Iron Age (750 BC to 43 AD). They also uncovered a few anomalous pits that could have been dug in either the Bronze or Iron Ages.

Left; Late Neolithic arrowhead and part of a Late Bronze Age spindle whorl. Right; Saxon waterhole under excavation by Chris Ellis (Cotswold Archaeology)

Left; Late Neolithic arrowhead and part of a Late Bronze Age spindle whorl. Right; Saxon waterhole under excavation by Chris Ellis (Cotswold Archaeology)

And there is no doubt the site was occupied during the Neolithic period. In addition to the ancient oval barrow, the archaeologists excavated many samples of a type of Late Neolithic pottery known as Grooved Ware. This pottery was first made by settlers on the Orkney Islands off the northeastern coast of Scotland around 3,000 BC, and its manufacture spread to the British mainland sometime after that. The archaeologists also recovered other Late Neolithic period artifacts, including three arrowheads, a scallop shell, a small flint saw and a clay ball that was made for an unknown purpose.

Excavations at the Netherhampton site are currently winding down but have not yet ceased, meaning that more artifacts and ruins could still be discovered. But even if they aren’t the experts from Cotswold Archaeology will have an abundance of exciting finds to analyze in the months ahead, as they attempt to put together an accurate timeline that describes who occupied the area around ancient Salisbury and when.

Top image: Bronze Age barrows under excavation by Cotswold Archaeology’s Andover team. Source: Cotswold Archaeology

By Nathan Falde

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Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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