Authors: Chris & Rachel
Following on from last week we continue our history of round mounds…
There is currently much debate over the introduction of Beaker pottery and a set of associated artefacts, including copper objects, into the British Isles between c. 2500 and 2300 BC, but the same kinds of objects were found across large areas of Europe in these centuries and the decades before. A small number of burials have been found very widely dispersed across Britain during this period –some of the most famous are the Amesbury ‘archer’ (who grew up on the Continent) and the Boscombe ‘bowmen’, found near Stonehenge. We’ll say more about Beaker and Early Bronze Age burial practices in another blog, but for now its worth noting that these early Beaker burials were seemingly not usually covered with a round mound. This new burial practice, in which bodies were buried in the ground unburnt, seems to have kick-started a range of other local new local burial practices – most notably for our project, across northern Britain people started to bury their dead in what we call ‘short cists’ (boxes averaging about 1m long, made from slabs of stone) with a style of pottery that was inspired by those early Beakers. Many, but not all, of these cists contained just the burial of just one person. Occasionally these were covered with low mounds. Sometimes they formed small groups of two or three burials, and sometimes such groups were then covered with a single round mound.
In Ireland burial practices involving Beaker pottery were very different to in Britain, but a tradition of burying cremated remains in cists had also developed, associated with a new style of pottery – which archaeologists call Food Vessels. Similar vessels were adopted in parts of Britain too, particularly the north. After c. 2100 BC round mounds often covered small groups of such burials. These mounds were generally around 10-12m in diameter, but could be as large as 24m, and increasingly they were added to and enlarged. Such enlargement seems to have often happened when later burials were added to their periphery in the early second millennium BC, and by this time cremation had become predominant again across much of Britain. The recently-excavated burial cairn at Low Hauxley, Northumberland, which Chris worked on, gives a good example of this sequence.
Not all round mounds necessarily covered burials, although this was the case for the vast majority in most regions. Some Early Bronze Age round mounds in the south-west of England seem to have been built without covering any human remains, and some ‘ring’ or ‘kerbed’ cairns in upland parts of Britain had open ground in the middle (imagine a doughnut made of stone) which might have been used for other purposes before human remains were buried in their interiors. Mounds also cover a range of features left by activity other than burying the dead. In the south of England, for instance, circles of stake-holes have been found buried under mounds. These may derive from circular fences, for instance, enclosing a central area which was then used to bury the remains of the dead, before a mound was built over the top. We are therefore very interested in what else may lie under the round mounds on the Isle of Man. Furthermore, the material used to make round mounds is highly worthy of study. In a few cases excavators have noted the special selection of different types of soil, clay, and other materials in layers within a mound. There are a couple of intriguing mentions of layers of different materials in some nineteenth and early twentieth century reports of excavations of Manx round mounds that we will consider, for instance. The use of different materials may have been meaningful in varied ways – for instance, perhaps bringing soil from a place where a person grew up to a place where they lived and died after marrying into a different family, or perhaps significance derived from the colour of the material.
Finally, exactly where mounds were built in a local landscape is also very interesting, and again this varied regionally and sometimes more locally. In some parts of Britain, for instance, Early Bronze Age mounds clustered into groups around major monuments (as at Stonehenge), sometimes arranged in lines along hill ridges. In other areas mounds were more dispersed. In some cases mounds were built in prominent landscape locations such as hilltops, in others they were on the gentle slopes of hills or placed just below a hilltop. One of our next steps is to use mapping software to consider where the Manx mounds were and were not built, what kinds of views they had, and which ones are visible from which others. We will then compare the characteristics of each mound with other factors in the construction of that mound and its burials, so see if any patterns emerge.
It is only possible to summarise the history of round mound building like this because a great deal of work has been done on the chronology of activity at burial mounds across the British Isles in the last few decades. It is becoming possible to trace changing connections between regions over time at better resolution, and we hope to be able to compare patterns in the construction and use of round barrows on the Isle of Man with other regions during the course of this project. If you are interested in reading archaeological studies of round mounds in more detail, these are some key sources to start with:
Garwood, P. 2007. ‘Before the hills in order stood’: chronology, time and history in the interpretation of Early Bronze Age round barrows, in J. Last (ed.) Beyond the grave: new perspectives on barrows. Oxford: Oxbow, 30-52.
- Leary, T. Darvill and D. Field. 2010. (eds), Round mounds and monumentality in the British Neolithic and beyond. Oxford: Oxbow.