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The Neolithic 4200 - 2000 BC

Return to Neolithic Burials Display

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Neolithic Burials
Link - Longbarrows

What is a barrow
Houses of the dead
Earthen longbarrows
The end of longbarrows

Neolithic Burials

Link - Longbarrows
The Kings Wood Earthen longbarrow, Challock
Kings Wood Earthen longbarrow, Challock, Kent


What is a barrow

A barrow is a monument built to house the remains of the dead. It generally comprises a focal structure or pit which contains the body (or bodies) and this is covered by a mound of earth. The earth is gained from the excavation of a ditch (or ditches) around the burial.
The Kings Wood Earthen longbarrow, Challock

Kings Wood Earthen longbarrow, Challock, Kent

Houses of the dead

The Neolithic longbarrow echoed the form of the houses in which our Neolithic ancestors first lived.
These houses were generally rectangular structures built of wooden posts and planks.

Earthen longbarrows

These are the type of Earlier Neolithic burial monuments which we would expect to find on Thanet (should any have been built here). They were generally constructed in two distinct phases.


Phase I


The first phase would have seen the creation of a narrow, rectangular burial chamber (generally between 2-6m long and 1m wide) formed by pits or post-holes. This was probably the setting for a wooden, box-like structure which may or may not have been roofed. An example at Thickthorn Down in Dorset had a chamber built of turves (Lynch 1997).

The burial chamber is the heart of the monument and would store the disarticulated (ie. jumbled) remains of a Neolithic family or community's dead.  Whether they initially interred the bodies whole  and then subsequently moved these remains about to make room for new burials is not clear.
Inside the West Kennet Megalithic longbarrow or Chambered tomb, Wiltshire

Inside the West Kennet Megalithic longbarrow


The excavation of some stone-built chambered tombs (which had a much longer life-span) have revealed that different chambers could be used to store different body parts. It is thought that some pieces (such as skulls and long-bones) could have been removed for use in ritual practices, for example at Causewayed Enclosures.

Excavations at these large, likely seasonal meeting-places have uncovered isolated bones and human skulls which had been placed at the base of the ditches. It has been noted that skulls and child burials occur less frequently or are 'missing' from chambered tombs, but are more common finds at Causewayed Enclosures.
It is hoped to illustrate this display further with some (specially commissioned) explanatory line drawings in the near future

The burial chamber is usually surrounded by a long, rectangular wooden fence (a close-set palisade - Lynch 1997). This boundary often defines the extent of the covering mound which is erected during the later, final phase of construction. It is normally orientated east-west (Lynch 1997).

The palisade usually has two straight stretches which front either side of the burial chamber. The depth of the foundations sometimes suggest that the palisades may have been particularly high at this point.
Excarnation: the practice of exposing a dead body on a (raised) platform to decay and perhaps be 'picked-clean' by scavenging birds

It is thought that this process may have been viewed as allowing the spirit or soul of the dead person to be freed from the body


At some sites the presence of more post-holes in front of this facade suggest that another structure or 'mortuary house' may have been constructed. Here the funery rituals could have taken place and perhaps the dead bodies were exposed in the practice of excarnation, prior to later burial. These structures are characteristic of Southern British sites and are not a regular feature elsewhere in Britain (Lynch 1997).
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Phase II



At some point it would be decided that the burial chamber was to be closed and this would instigate Phase II in the construction of the monument. Two side ditches would be excavated and this would provide material for a mound to be raised over the burial chamber and palisade.

In some cases the wooden structure would first be destroyed by fire and at Nutbane the mound was thrown over the smoldering embers (Darvill 1987; Lynch 1997).
Facade of the West Kennet Megaithic tomb, Wiltshire
Facade of the West Kennet Megalithic tomb, Wiltshire

These wooden structures likely had a much shorter lifespan than the Megalithic tombs. The chambers of the latter were made of huge stone slabs and could have remained accessable within the mound for generation after generation.

While the longbarrows may have remained in use (in one form or another) for many years, it appears that no new monuments were being built in Southern England after 3000 BC (Lynch 1997).
Julieberrie's Grave Earthern longbarrow, Chilham

Julieberrie's Grave
Earthen longbarrow, Chilham, Kent

The end of the longbarrow

In the Late Neolithic there was a profound cultural change in our ancestor's attitude to the disposal of their dead. There was a move away from the idea of communal burial and instead they began to build monuments that generally focused attention on a single individual and often included grave goods.


Many variations of these rites exist of course, but the move to an emphasis on building round structures (encompassing houses, Henges and barrows) in the Late Neolithic appears to be a universal phenomena throughout Britain. The presence of some multiple burials and the inclusion of additional disarticulated human remains in both roundbarrow and flat-grave burials may hark back to ancestral traditions of the Earlier Neolithic.

It has been suggested that late forms of the longbarrow monument may show a more oval plan to the barrows, or feature a ditch which begins to encircling the monument (taking on a ‘U’-shape), or see the inclusion of single burials (or sometimes no burials at all). These features may be seen as transitional between Neolithic traditions and the evolving roundbarrow rite. There is great variety in longbarrow forms however and some have questioned whether these characteristics can really be considered 'late'.


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Abbreviations

TSMR - Thanet Sites and Monuments Record.


Bibliography

Ashbee P. 1966. The Fussell's Lodge Long Barrow Excavations, 1957. Archaeologia C.

Darvill T. 1987. Prehistoric Britain. Routledge.

Morgan F. De M. 1959. The Excavation of a Long Barrow at Nutbane, Hants. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society XXV.

Lynch F. 1997. Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain. Shire Publications Ltd.

Vyner B. 1984. The Excavation of a Neolithic Cairn at Street House , Loftus, Cleveland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 50.


Acknowledgements

Some of the specific information on longbarrows presented here has been taken from Frances Lynch's excellent book 'Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain', published in 1997 by Shire Publications Ltd. Shire produce a wide range of accessable and invaluable archaeological books (please take a look at their website if you would like to learn more).


The text is the responsibility of the author; the photographs are by the author unless otherwise stated.


Paul Hart

Version 1 - Posted 26.09.06
Version 2 - Posted 16.12.06
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