Coldrum Long Barrow
|Coldrum Long Barrow
The eastern side of the monument.
The Coldrum Long Barrow, also known as the Coldrum Stones, are the remains of a chambered long barrow located near to the village of Trottiscliffe in the English county of Kent. Constructed in circa 4000 BC, during the Early Neolithic period of British prehistory, the Stones represent a part of an architectural tradition that was spread across Western Europe during this era.
One of the Medway megaliths constructed in the vicinity of the River Medway, the Coldrum Stones are located close to five other surviving chambered long barrows: Addington long barrow, Chestnuts long barrow, Kit's Coty House, the Countless Stones and Coffin Stone. Of these, the Coldrum Stones are in the best surviving condition, and are furthermore considered to be the best preserved of all the megalithic tombs in Kent.
Built out of about 50 megaliths as a tomb to house the remains of the dead, the Coldrums have been interpreted by archaeologists as representing a ritual site used by Early Neolithic peoples as a part of an ancestor cult. The remains of 20 human skeletons have been unearthed from within the tomb, one of whom notably shows evidence of having suffered a violent death.
Millennia after it was abandoned as a tomb, it became heavily dilapidated, with the stones falling over and the chamber collapsing, while local folklore grew up around the site. The ruin attracted the interest of antiquarians in the 19th century, while archaeologists have excavated at the site on various occasions, also being responsible for a partial reconstruction. The monument has been under the ownership of heritage charity The National Trust since 1926, who dedicated it to the memory of local historian Benjamin Harrison. It is open to visitors all year round.
The Coldrum Stones lie in a "rather isolated site" north-east of the nearby village of Trottiscliffe, about 500 metres from a prehistoric track known as the Pilgrim's Way. The tomb can be reached along a pathway known as Coldrum Lane, which is only accessible on foot. The nearest car park to Coldrum Lane can be found off of Pinesfield Lane in Trottiscliffe.
Owned by heritage charity The National Trust, the site is open to visitors all year round, free of charge. On their website, the Trust advises the visitor to look out for what they consider to be "Stunning views from the top of the barrow".
The Early Neolithic was a revolutionary period of British history. Beginning in the fifth millennium BC, it saw a widespread change in lifestyle as the communities living in the British Isles adopted agriculture as their primary form of subsistence, abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had characterised the preceding Mesolithic period. Archaeologists have been unable to prove whether this adoption of farming was because of a new influx of migrants coming in from continental Europe or because the indigenous Mesolithic Britons came to adopt the agricultural practices of continental societies. Between 4500 and 3800 BCE, all of the British Isles came to abandon its former Mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, to be replaced by the new agricultural subsistence of the Neolithic Age.
There is archaeological evidence of violence and warfare in Early Neolithic Britain from such sites as West Kennet Long Barrow and Hambledon Hill, with some groups constructing fortifications to defend themselves from attackers. Contemporary archaeologists have no direct proof of gender relations on the island at this time, although most believe that it was probably a male-dominated society, in keeping with all recorded societies that practice large-scale animal husbandry.
Across Western Europe, the Early Neolithic marked the first period in history when humans began to build monumental structures in the landscape. These monumental structures were tombs designed for holding the physical remains of the dead, and while they were sometimes built out of timber, many were instead constructed out of large stones, known as "megaliths". Individuals were rarely buried alone in the Early Neolithic, instead being interned in collective burials with other members of their community. The construction of these collective burial monumental tombs, sometimes wooden but often megalithic, began in continental Europe before being adopted by people in Britain.
The Early Neolithic people of Britain placed a far greater emphasis on the ritualised burial of the dead than their Mesolithic forebears had done. Many archaeologists have suggested that this is because Early Neolithic people adhered to an ancestor cult that venerated the spirits of the dead, believing that they could intercede with the forces of nature for the benefit of their living descendants. It has furthermore been suggested that Early Neolithic people entered into the tombs – which doubled as temples or shrines – to perform rituals that would honour the dead and ask for their assistance.
In Britain, the tombs themselves were typically located on prominent hills and slopes overlooking the surrounding landcape, particularly at the junction between different territories. Archaeologist Caroline Malone noted that the tombs would have served as one of a variety of markers in the landscape that conveyed information on "territory, political allegiance, ownership, and ancestors."
Archaeologists have differentiated these Early Neolithic tombs into a variety of different architectural styles, which were typically associated with specific regions within the British Isles. Passage graves, characterised by their narrow passage made of large stones and one or multiple burial chambers covered in earth or stone, were predominantly located in northern Britain and southern and central Ireland. Alternately, across northern Ireland and central Britain long chambered mounds predominated, while in the east and south-east of Britain, earthen long barrows represented the dominant architectural trend. These earthen long barrows were typically constructed of timber because building stone was scarce in southern Britain; archaeologist Aubrey Burl argued that these timber tombs might have been "even more eye-catching" than their stone counterparts, perhaps consisting of "towering carved poles, flamboyantly painted", but that evidence of such sculptures has not survived. Nonetheless, there are five known examples of stone tombs having been built in this southern region during the Neolithic, termed the "Medway megaliths" because of their proximity to the River Medway, and the Coldrum long barrow is the best surviving example among them.
The Coldrum Stones represent the surviving remnants of a chambered long barrow, a style of architecture found across much of Early Neolithic Britain. It had been built using about 50 stones. The barrow is sub-rectangular in plan, and about 20 meters in length. In the west, its width is about 15 meters, while in the east, its width is a wider 19 meters. As such, the barrow is a "truncated wedge-shape". The megalithic builders responsible for the Coldrum Stones positioned it on the top of a small ridge adjacent to the North Downs, and constructed it facing eastward, towards the River Medway.
All of the surviving megalithic tombs from the Early Neolithic period have suffered from neglect and the ravages of agriculture. The Coldrum Stones is no exception, having become dilapidated and fallen apart over the six millennia since its original construction. Most prominently, the eastern side has largely collapsed, with the stones that once helped to hold up the side of the barrow having fallen to the bottom of the slope.
Folklore and folk tradition
Local folklore first recorded in 1946 recounts the story that it is impossible for any human being to successfully count the number of stones at Coldrum. This "countless stones" motif is not unique to this particular site, and can be found at various other megalithic monuments in Britain.
It is a local tradition that the Hartley Morris Men, a morris dancing side, travel to the stones at dawn every May Day in order to "sing up the sun". This consists of a number of dances performed within the stones on top of the barrow, followed by a song performed at the base of the stones.
Antiquarian and archaeological investigation
The Coldrum Stones have been excavated on multiple occasions. The monument has been greatly affected by 19th century treasure hunters and chalk extraction but the kerb of 31 peristaliths largely survives, meaning that it is often mistaken for a stone circle. It measures 27m in length and 16.5 in width and is oriented east-west.
When the barrow itself was excavated in 1910, the remains of twenty two people were found in the central chamber, including the skull of one which had been placed on a raised shelf. Many of the long bones appeared deliberately broken and some have been diagnosed with rheumatism. Further investigations took place in 1922, 1923 and 1926 which found a flint 'saw' and several pieces of pottery including a Saxon sherd.
- Philp and Dutto 2005. p. 1.
- The National Trust directions.
- The National Trust.
- Hutton 1991. p. 16.
- Hutton 1991. p. 17.
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- Grinsell 1976. pp. 63, 123.
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