A long barrow is a prehistoric monument usually dating to the early Neolithic period. They are generally about 5,500 years old and among the oldest architectural structures ever built. They are traditionally interpreted as a collective tomb.
In recent years the construction of barrows seems to have undergone a revival.
The totality of the function of long barrows is not known, and perhaps can never be known.
It is clear they were used as funerary monuments at the time they were built.
It is also understood that this use continued more or less formally for many thousands of years after, remains being placed at the sites or into the earth of the monuments for many centuries.
It has been speculated that they also had cultural roles linked to the re-assignment of roles, for example within the domestic-type roles that existed (such child rearing) in setting of high rates of death in child birth, and also the farming and other practical tasks which would have required redistribution to different members of the community upon the death of one of its members.
It appears the structures were accessed regularly, not just to inter newly deceased bodies but also to make use of the old bones there. It is possible that bones were taken out of the barrow for some purpose and returned later. Some authors speculate that this was part of an ancestor veneration practice.
Survival of ancient long barrows in England
Specifically, it is thought:
- 50% of the long barrows in Gloucestershire;
- 66% in Hampshire;
- 80% in Lincolnshire;
- and, almost all the burial mounds in Essex
have been damaged.
It is also thought that barrows have been re-purposed and otherwise incorporated into subsequent structures which has masked their existence.
The distribution of these structures across the British Isles is not understood to be uniform. There is thought to be a concentration along in the lower reached of River Severn and in the Cotswolds, and examples in Wales, the southeast of England and some examples along the Welsh border an into the north west.
However, it is not understood whether or not this is function of different rates of survival rather than a result of their concentration being localized to certain areas at the time the structures were raised.
For example the record in the West Midlands is thought to under-record the presence of these structures.
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Various early cultures globally seem to have raised barrows over time.
In 2015 the first long barrow in thousands of years, inspired by those built in the Neolithic Period, was built on land just outside the village of All Cannings. The project was instigated by Tim Daw, a local farmer and steward of Stonehenge. The barrow was designed to have a large number of private niches within the stone and earth structure to receive cremation urns.
The structure received significant media attention, with national press writing extensively about the revival of the structures, and various episodes of filming, for example by BBC Countryfile as it was being built. It was fully subscribed within eighteen months.
Beowulf battles a dragon at the end of the poem and a barrow is raised over his ashes.
Notable examples of surviving long barrows include:
- West Kennet Long Barrow
- Belas Knap
- Coldrum Long Barrow
- Uley Long Barrow
- Stoney Littleton Long Barrow
- Grønsalen on the island of Møn, the largest long barrow in Denmark
Belas Knap Long Barrow
West Kennet Long Barrow, inside.
Grønsalen Long Barrow.
Side view of Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow.
Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow.
- http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/ripping-up-history-archaeology-under-the-plough/030725rippinguphistory.pdf/ July 2003 English Heritage - Ripping Up History
- Ashbee, Paul (1984). The Earthen Long Barrow in Britain: An Introduction to the Study of the Funerary Practice and Culture of the Neolithic People of the Third Millennium B.C. Geo Books. ISBN 0-86094-170-1.
- Darvill, Timothy (2004). Long Barrows of the Cotswolds and surrounding areas. Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2907-8.
- Lynch, Frances (1997). Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain. Shire Publications Ltd. ISBN 0-7478-0341-2.
- 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
- 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