A long barrow is a prehistoric monument dating to the Neolithic period. They are rectangular or trapezoidal earth mounds traditionally interpreted as collective tombs.
Around 300 are known from Scotland and England with a concentration of the monuments in southern and eastern England. Elsewhere in the British Isles Neolithic people buried their dead in Megalithic tombs
Archaeological excavation indicated that the construction of the earth barrow was the last phase in a complex sequence connected with the ritual inhumation of the dead that took place in British society between around 4000 and 2400 BC. Many long barrow sites started off as small rectangular enclosures of earth banks topped by a timber palisade, constituting a mortuary enclosure. Within this was built a wooden room-sized mortuary chamber with large supporting posts. Sometimes a grand timber entrance was also built along with an avenue of wooden posts. Human remains were placed in this chamber, sometimes all at once and sometimes over a period of time. Often the bones found in them are disarticulated, implying that the bodies were subjected to exposure and excarnation prior to burial or that they were buried elsewhere and exhumed for the purposes of placing in the barrow. Rarely are whole skeletons found and it seems that only long bones and skulls survived until the final interrment. Up to fifty separate individuals were placed in each enclosure, males, females and children. There is only limited evidence for grave goods in these collective interments. The chambers were then surrounded and covered by large stone cairns or were set alight in the case of examples in Yorkshire. Only after these procedures was the earth barrow constructed over the top of the dead. The barrow was often far larger than the original mortuary enclosure and used material excavated from ditches dug along the long sides of the enclosure. Some barrows when excavated produced evidence of the mounds being partitioned by wattle fences which served no structural purpose.
A similar group of chambered long barrows contain stone burial chambers, constructed from slabs. These may come from a different tradition or may indicate a differences in design caused by the availability of usable materials.
In many cases, weathering and ploughing during the invervening centuries along with early archaeological excavations and looting have left only the stone parts of the chambered monuments extant whilst some earth and timber long barrows may only survive beneath the surface. Others however are still visible in the countryside as barrows between 15 and 125m long and surviving to heights of 4-5m.
It has been conjectured that long barrows are derived from the timber long houses built by the continental Neolithic European Linearbandkeramic culture which was contemporary with the British Mesolithic. Archaeologists including Ian Hodder have noted similarities between the two forms although a significant number of long mounds in southern England have been demonstrated more recently to have limited primary evidence of burial at all. Traditionally, these structures have been interpreted as 'houses' for the dead and that barrow builders may have continued this old idea in the Neolithic and later periods. In those long barrows that do contain appreciable quantities of human remains, their concentration in just one small part of the overall structure has led some to argue that the long barrow was not merely a repository for the dead but also a general monument acting as a territorial marker, a place of religious offering and a community centre. Some appear to have been built over pre-existing occupation sites which may support this interpretation. Chambered long barrows however do appear to have been primarily intended as burial sites.
Examples of long barrows include Julliberrie's Grave in Kent, Hazelton North in Gloucestershire, Fussell's Lodge and West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire, Foulmere Fen long barrow in Cambridgeshire and Street House near Loftus in West Yorkshire.
References and further reading
- Hodder I, 1984, Burials, houses, women and men in the European Neolithic in D Miller and C Tilley (eds), Architecture and Order, Oxford, Basil Blackwell
- Lynch, F, 1997, Megalithic tombs and long barrows, Shire
- Russell, M, 2004 The treachery of images: deconstructing the early Neolithic monumental architecture of the South Downs in Cotton, J and Field, D (eds) Towards a New Stone Age, CBA Research Report 137, York, Council for British Archaeology.