Monumental 6000-Year-Old Long Barrow Unearthed in England
Excavations have begun at a 6,000-year-old long barrow found northeast of Cirencester in the Cotswolds, England. The prehistoric burial monument was created by some of the first farmers in the area.
According to Heritage Daily, the summer 2016 dig led by archaeologists at Bournemouth University is the first real excavation at the site - even though the long barrow was found about ten years ago. It measures 60 meters (196.9 ft.) long by 15 meters (49.2 ft.) wide.
Aerial shot of students at the long barrow excavation site. (Bournemouth University)
During the recent excavations, the team of 80 students, graduates, and archaeologists were working to identify the structure’s stonework and possible burial chamber locations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the structure was made up of soil and stone.
A Bournemouth University press release says that “Traditionally, up to 50 men, women and children were buried in such monuments over a period of several centuries.” However, as things are still in the early stages at the site, there are no details provided on any human remains found there to date.
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Dr. Martin Smith, senior lecturer in Forensic and Biological Anthropology at Bournemouth University, described one of the more interesting discoveries at the site to Heritage Daily, he said, “We had a cattle skull placed in what we call the ‘forecourt’ of the monument – a wide arena edged by a tall façade at the front of the structure where we think various sorts of ceremonies and communal rituals would have been performed. This seems to be a theatrical space.”
Prehistoric long barrows can be found all over the British Isles and became more popular around 4000 BC with the advent of more intensive farming and more permanent settlements – which promoted population growth. However, new challenges also arose with these changes, one of which being the disposal of the dead.
Reconstruction of a 4000 BC farmer’s hut. Irish National Heritage Park. (David Hawgood/CC BY SA 2.0)
The Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum points out that the long barrow was one solution.:
“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.”
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The Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum says that the thickest concentration of long barrows is in the Cotswolds. Together they make up a group which is known as the Cotswold-Severn tombs. The most famous of these sites are Belas Knap, Notgrove and West Tump. Now another long barrow may be added to the list.
One of the excavated burial chambers at Belas Knap, a Neolithic long barrow situated on Cleeve Hill, near Cheltenham and Winchcombe, in Gloucestershire, England. (Pahazzard/CC BY SA 3.0)
Professor Tim Darvill, director of the Centre for Archaeology and Anthropology at Bournemouth University explained the importance of finding the recent long barrow near Cirencester:
“It's very exciting to have found this barrow because of the opportunities it offers for researching the first farmers on the Cotswolds. Long barrows were amongst the first substantial structures to be built in Britain – the earliest monumental architecture we know of. Previously unknown, examples do not turn up very often and no barrow like this has been excavated for more than 20 years. It really is a fantastic opportunity to bring to bear some of the recent advances in archaeological and anthropological science in order to find out more about these sites.”
Picture of the front Chamber of Belas Knap, a famous Cotswold-Severn tomb. (Public Domain)
For example, one creative second year archaeology student has tried out a new form of archaeological exploration at the site. Luke Jenkins used “an auger to bore small holes that allow measurements of what lies below the ground surface. Data taken from the holes is then interpreted and used to create a 3D model of the below-ground structures.” [Via Bournemouth University]
He emphasized how the technique can allow archaeologists to extract information while conserving a site:
“It differs from a formal excavation in that you’re not taking out large trenches: you’re effectively doing keyhole surgery using the archaeological equivalent of a large drill. You don’t see the end picture until it is uploaded into a computer. The idea is that it doesn’t ruin archaeology – you’re building up a model without doing anything destructive.”
Work will resume at the prehistoric long barrow near Cirencester in the summer of 2017.