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Encyclopedia > Tumuli
Alternate meanings of barrow: see Barrow-in-Furness for the town of Barrow in Cumbria, England; also Barrow, Alaska in the U.S.; also River Barrow in Ireland.
Alternate meanings of mound: see mound (creature) or Mounds for further meanings.

Noge-Ōtsuka Kofun tumulus, Tokyo, early 5th century.

A tumulus (plural tumuli) is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds or kurgans and can be found throughout much of the world. A tumulus composed largely or entirely of stones is usually referred to as a cairn.

The method of inhumation may involve a cist, a mortuary enclosure, a mortuary house or a chamber tomb. Examples of barrows include Duggleby Howe and Maes Howe.




Burial mounds were in use until the 11th century in Scandinavia. In their undamaged state they appear as small, man-made hillocks, though many examples have been damaged by ploughing or deliberately damaged so that little visible evidence remains.


In Britain, early references to tumuli were made by William Camden, John Aubrey, and William Stukeley. During the 19th century in England the excavation of tumuli was a popular pastime amongst the educated and wealthy middle classes who became known as "barrow-diggers". This leisure activity played a key role in laying the foundations for the scientific study of the past in England.


Near the western city limits of modern Jerusalem in Israel, 19 tumuli have been documented (Amiran, 1958).

Jerusalem Tumulus #2 (in 2004)

Though first noticed in the 1870s by early surveyors, the first one to be formally documented was Tumulus #2 in 1923 by William Foxwell Albright, and the most recent one (Tumulus #4) was excavated by Gabriel Barkay in 1983. Since 21 kings reigned in Jerusalem during the Israelite monarchy from David to Zedekiah (who was conquered and humiliated by the Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar), it is not unreasonable to suspect that these mounds were the locations of ceremonies to mourn/honor them after they had already received proper burial in the royal tombs (probably located in the heart of the city where they could be continuously guarded). See 2 Chronicles 16:14, 21:19 (which states that King Jehoram was not given this honor), 32:33, the book of Jeremiah 34:5 (a conditional promise for Zedekiah that he did not earn), and Biblical archaeology. Gabriel Barkay popularized this theory after studying tumuli near Salamis in Cyprus. More than half of these ancient Israeli structures have now been threatened or obliterated by modern construction projects, including Tumulus #4, which was excavated hastily in a salvage operation. The most noteworthy finds from this dig were two LMLK seal impressions and two other handles with associated Concentric Circle incisions, all of which suggests this tumulus belonged to either King Hezekiah (Barkay, 2003, p. 68) or his son Manasseh (Grena, 2004, p. 326).


In Japan, powerful leaders built tumuli known as kofun. The Kofun period of Japanese history takes its name from these burial mounds. The largest is over 400 meters in length. In addition to other shapes, kofun include a keyhole shape.


In the prehistoric and early historic southern and eastern United States, mound building was a central feature of the public architecture of many Native American cultures. Such mounds were used for burial, to support residential and religious structures, to represent a shared cosmology, and to unite and demarcate community. Common forms include conical mounds, ridge-top mounds, platform mounds, and animal effigy mounds, but there are many variations. Mound building is believed to date back to at least 1200 B.C. in the Southeast (see Poverty Point), and recent research shows that it may predate that as well. The largest construction is at the Mississippian culture site of Cahokia, a vast World Heritage Site sporting the largest earthwork north of Mexico built before the arrival of Europeans.

Types of barrows

Archaeologists often classify tumuli according to their location, form, and date of construction. Some British types are listed below:

  • Bank barrow
  • Bell barrow
  • Bowl barrow
  • D-shaped barrow A round barrow with a purposefully flat edge at one side often defined by stone slabs
  • Fancy barrow A generic term for any Bronze Age barrows more elaborate than a simple hemispherical shape.
  • Long barrow
  • Oval barrow A type of Neolithic long barrow consisting of an elliptical, rather than rectangular or trapezoidal mound.
  • Platform barrow The least common of the recognised types of round barrow, consisting of a flat, wide circular mound, which may be surrounded by a ditch. They occur widely across southern England with a marked concentration in East and West Sussex.
  • Pond barrow a barrow consisting of a shallow circular depression, surrounded by a bank running around the rim of the depression. Bronze age
  • Ring barrow a bank which encircles a number of burials.
  • Round barrow a circular feature created by the Bronze Age peoples of Britain and also the later Romans, Vikings and Saxons. Divided into sub classes such as saucer and bell barrow. The Six Hills are a rare Roman example.
  • Saucer barrow circular Bronze Age barrow featuring a low, wide mound surrounded by a ditch which may be accompanied by an external bank.
  • Square barrow A burial site, usually of Iron Age date, consisting of a small, square, ditched enclosure surrounding a central burial, which may also have been covered by a mound

List of notable barrow diggers


  • Amiran, Ruth. (1958). The tumuli west of Jerusalem, Survey and Excavations, 1953. Israel Exploration Journal (http://www.hum.huji.ac.il/ies/iej.htm) 8 (4), 205-27.
  • Barkay, Gabriel. (2003). Mounds of mystery: where the kings of Judah were lamented. Biblical Archaeology Review (http://www.bib-arch.org/) 29 (3), 32-9, 66, 68.
  • Grena, G.M. (2004). LMLK--A Mystery Belonging to the King vol. 1. Redondo Beach, California: 4000 Years of Writing History. ISBN 0-9748786-0-X.
  • Grinsell, L.V., 1936, The Ancient Burial-mounds of England. London: Methuen.

External links

  • English Heritage Monument Class Descriptions (http://www.eng-h.gov.uk/mpp/mcd/intro2.htm)

  Results from FactBites:
Tumulus - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1692 words)
A tumulus (plural tumuli or tumuluses) is a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves.
Tumuli are also known as barrows, burial mounds or kurgans and can be found throughout much of the world.
During the 19th century in England the excavation of tumuli was a popular pastime amongst the educated and wealthy middle classes who became known as "barrow-diggers".
  More results at FactBites »



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