Sunday, February 8, 2009


Beckhampton Longbarrow

But the masons leave
for the lime-pits of time, with flowers, chaff, ashes,
Their plans are spattered with blood, lost,
And the golden plumb-line of sun says; the world is leaning,
Bedded in a base where the fingers
Of ancient waters touch the foundation.

But feel the walls; the glow stays on your hands.

From the House of the Dead - Part one; taken from Richard Bradley's book The Significance of Monuments. The actual poem is from Ivan Lalic, 1996 'Of the Builders'

These late neolithic long mounds can be very complex, yes they may have burials in them but sometimes they do not - such as South Street and Beckhampton, both having a similar design pattern - Paul Ashbee in his book The Earthen Long Barrow highlights the different types to be found. Some can be extraordinarily long, and are often described as bank barrows, such as the one found in Maiden Castle.
It is the practical mode of construction that is so intriguing, archaeology is good at highlighting the methods used, sometimes we drift into an abstract notion of ritual and sacred landscape, our minds wallowing in some far away land of our own making; physical evidence, although scant, gives us a reality check.
South Street and Beckhampton when excavated, showed a framework of hurdles, set on an axial line with further offset hurdles creating bays. At the eastern end the hurdling was used to form a spurred convex or facade.
Ashbee says of South Street, that because of Stukeley's drawing it was thought to be stone built, the only stones found though were, small boulders (thought to form a core) in two of the bays, whilst at the end there was a cluster of large sarsen stones which did not form any pattern. A large capping of chalk rubble may have been added, remains of such were found.
The two barrows may have been tribal monuments, a 'clan' system is often postulated, perhaps delineating territory, West Kennet and East Kennet longbarrows both seem to have the same function in the landscape as does the one on Windmill Hill.
Its fascinating to think that the later Silbury also has some of these building properties captured in its make-up. Dean Mereweather mentions 'strings' radiating from the central primary mound, he also mentions stones round this mound, and in the latest foray into the heart of Silbury small sarsen boulders were found.
The other interesting thing to be found in some longbarrows are of course mortuary 'houses'; Wayland's Smithy had one, Ashbee says of this mortuary house that at....

..."the proximal end, two considerable flat-sectioned sarsen stones had been pitched together, an arrangement that was apparently continued by timbers set against a ridge supported at each end by the trunks, which seem to have projected above the barrow."

and Ashbee quotes Atkinson's account of his excavation in 1965...

"As finally revealed, the evidence leaves no doubt that the burials were deposited within a wooden chamber resembling a low ridge-tent, with a massive post at either end, between which a ridge-pole was supported by mortised joints. The combined sides and roof were presumably formed of close-set timbers resting at their inner and upper ends on the ridge-pole, and at their lower and outer ends on the ground immediately outside the lateral banks of sarsen stones, where there is on each side a significant linear gap separating the base if these banks from the basal sarsen cairn."

Wayland's Smithy seen from the back

The ' lateral' stones that may have faced the original timber mortuary house

Here we have another intriguing facet, large 'pits' often termed as ritual, found in longbarrows, could be seen as housing large timber posts, wood before stone, or perhaps another way of looking at it wood and stone, think Stonehenge and Woodhenge, and the flexibility of these two materials in construction and ritual use.

Fussell's Longbarrow contained the remains of a mortuary house, and though I can't show the detail of the isometric drawing in the book I can refer to Ashbee's article in 1998 in BA....

"What did barrows look like when first raised? At Fussell's Lodge long barrow, near Salisbury, the discovery of post-holes in a lengthy, trapezoidal structure showed that initially there had been a structure resembling a Neolithic long house of the type found widely on the Continent. Subsequent long barrow excavations showed that this formula was widely followed. These surrogate long houses contained deposits of human bone that were added to and subtracted from, for more than a millennium, and rites pertaining to ancestors and fertility were no doubt performed. Long barrows, the long houses of the dead, should be regarded as shrines rather than mausolea."
The idea that longbarrows are the houses of the ancient dead can best be explored through reading Richard Bradley's The Significance of Monuments, in it he puts forward the theory that the longhouses in certain parts of Europe, were left to decay after their inhabitants died, presumably the male, and that these 'dead' houses were left in the settlements alongside the contemporary'living' houses, so giving rise to the conceptual idea of a death house.. As ideas progress, and there is movement away from the original idea because it has become pared down movement of people and ideas through time and space evolve, so we can look at Wessex longbarrows as evolving in a similar fashion.

West Kennet longbarrow

West Kennet longbarrow, the thing that strikes the eye, or indeed the camera lense, is the stone facade, we are overwhelmed by the symbolism of their shapes, as well as the physical effort needed to bring such stones to a particular place. Yet we forget, that we are looking at a 'restored' forecourt, and that behind the stones there are tons of earth, something was 'created' in the eyes of the builders, it may not necessarily be what we have in our minds.
If West Kennet is a 'death' house, than the removal of bones from Windmill hill to the barrow will signify to us that it is indeed the place of the ancestors. An emphasis on certain types of bones is also to be found in some longbarrows. Yet down the hill Beckhampton and South Street show no evidence of human bone, Beckampton of course has three ox skulls placed symbolically in its length, and up on the earlier Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure there are child bone burials with ox bones, one small human burial cradled inside the 'crown' of oxen horns.

The' stalls' of Stoney Littleton longbarrow

Stoney Littleton also has a stone facade, and a stone decorated with an ammonite on the left hand side, which can just be seen in the above photo. As at West Kennet we can imagine a forecourt in front of this longbarrow, a place where the ritual activities would take place.
Further reading has taken me to David Field's Earthen Longbarrows, strangely he doesnt say much about Wayland's Smithy, except to point out that the barrow we see today was built on the wooden mortuary house which is fairly obvious. What he does say is that West Kennet and East Kennet might have been added to, given that EK has a slightly 'waisted' side and that WK's ditches curve at one point at about 35 metres from the facade, and that there maybe in fact two 'contiguous barrows. This could well be so, a couple of miles from where I live there are two round barrows that seemed joined, and in fact several barrows on the Lansdown are paired in such a fashion.

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