Long barrow

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View of Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow, a remarkable long barrow near Uffington
View of West Kennet Long Barrow, a striking example of the long barrow structure

A long barrow is a rectangular or trapezoidal tumulus; that is, a prehistoric mound of earth and stones built over a grave or group of graves. They are traditionally interpreted as collective tombs.

Early Neolithic long barrows are generally about 5,500 years old and are among the oldest architectural structures ever assembled. In addition to the Neolithic examples, they are also typical of several Celtic, Slavic, and Baltic cultures of northern Europe of the first millennium AD. A few have been constructed in recent years.


A view of an entrance at Stoney Littleton Long Barrow

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[by whom?] that they also had cultural roles linked to the re-assignment of roles. For example, domestic-type roles such as child rearing may have often needed to be re-assigned in settings with high rates of death in child birth, and also farming and other practical tasks would have required redistribution to different members of the community upon the death of one of its members[citation needed].

Barrows contain bones of many individuals, which often show evidence of regular moving around or sorting. This is known to have happened at West Kennet Long Barrow in Wiltshire, for example. 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. In the present day there is a parallel custom observed in the Famadihana tradition found in Madagasgar.

Survival of ancient long barrows in England

A well-preserved earthen long barrow on Gussage Down in the Cranborne Chase area of Dorset, England
A well-preserved earthen long barrow on Gussage Down in the Cranborne Chase area of Dorset, England
Grans Barrow on Toyd Down, Hampshire, U.K. The long barrow mound is 60 metres long, 20 metres wide and over 2 metres high.
Grans Barrow on Toyd Down, Hampshire, U.K. The long barrow mound is 60 metres long, 20 metres wide and over 2 metres high.
Examples of ancient long barrows

Modern tillage techniques have done much damage to barrows. According to English Heritage, the last six decades have done as much damage to them as traditional tilling did in six centuries.[1] Specifically, it is thought that 50% of the long barrows in Gloucestershire, 66% in Hampshire, 80% in Lincolnshire, and almost all 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.

Geographic distribution

The distribution of known examples of these structures across the British Isles is not uniform. There is 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 and 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.

These structures are thought to be under-recorded in the West Midlands.[2]

Modern revival

Outside and entrance to the All Cannings long barrow
Exterior and entrance to the modern long barrow at All Cannings
Inside one of the Chambers of the barrow
Inside one of the Chambers of the barrow
The Modern Barrows

In 2015 the first long barrow in thousands of years, the Long Barrow at All Cannings, inspired by those built in the Neolithic, 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.[3] 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.

This was followed soon after by new barrows at:

Cultural references

Beowulf battles a dragon at the end of the poem and a barrow is raised over his ashes.

J. R. R. Tolkien included barrow-wights in his world of Middle-earth based on Old Norse beliefs such as Draugr or vǣttr (wights).


Notable examples of surviving long barrows include:



  1. ^ England, Historic. "Search All Publications - Historic England". English-heritage.org.uk. Retrieved 19 August 2017. 
  2. ^ "NEOLITHIC ENCLOSURES AND LANDSCAPES IN THE WEST MIDLANDS". Webcache.googleusercontent.com. Retrieved 2017-08-19. 
  3. ^ "Stonehenge steward builds his own burial chamber". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-08-19. 
  4. ^ Makey, Julian (23 October 2016). "First burial barrow in thousands of years is completed at Hail Weston". Cambridge-news.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-08-19. 
  5. ^ "'Stone age' burial mound could be built in Shropshire". BBC News. Retrieved 19 August 2017. 
  6. ^ "'A beautiful place for loved ones to rest': New round barrow to be built for burial ground". Bridport and Lyme Regis News. Retrieved 2018-04-27. 

Further reading

  • 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. 
  • Hogan, C.Michael (2008). Catto Long Barrow. The Modern Antiquarian. 
  • 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

External links

  • Long barrow search results from Megalithic Portal.
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