Monuments to the ancestors; the sun, the moon and the earth.  The archaeology of religion and spirituality.

 


The Living and the Dead

Introduction

A small ring cairn under excavation at Stannon Downs on Bodmin Moor. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service A small ring cairn under excavation at Stannon Downs on Bodmin Moor.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

The transition from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age is traditionally associated with an influx of immigrants to the British Isles from continental Europe. These are known as the Beaker People, so called because of the distinctive pottery vessels which they buried with their dead.

 

The actual numbers of new settlers who came to Britain may have been quite small but they brought with them new ideas and customs (including the knowledge of metalworking) which were adopted by the indigenous population. What is certain is that cultural change was significant and the emergence of the round barrow and round cairn as the favoured forms of ceremonial and burial monument is one manifestation of that change.

 

Round barrows and cairns are widespread and abundant monuments in Cornwall and Scilly’s landscape; more than three thousand examples are known. There is great variety in the size and design of round barrows (earthen mounds) and round cairns (stony mounds). Some mounds incorporate a revetting wall or kerb; some are dough-nut shaped – these are known as ring cairns. Many are complex sites with long histories of use and re-use.

 

Traditionally barrows are synonymous with burial mounds. In Cornwall, however, the disposal of the dead was just one of many rites performed at these sites; many Cornish barrows did not contain any human remains.  Barrows and cairns may well have served as the ritual centres for the living as much as for the dead and the mounds served to seal and mark the site where rituals and ceremonies had taken place.

 

Brane entrance grave, Sancreed.  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Brane entrance grave, Sancreed. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

Barrows and cairns were often sited in prominent locations such as on hilltops and ridges; places where the barrows could be seen from other points in the landscape. Like long barrows before them, they are likely to have been used as territorial markers; confirming the ancestral rights of individual families and communities to the tracts of land in which they lived.

 

Entrance graves are ceremonial monuments broadly contemporary with round barrows and cairns, but their distribution is confined to West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly. They share some structural characteristics with megalithic chambered tombs in that they consist of stone chambers roofed with large capstones. They are, however, much smaller in scale.

 

Burial was their primary function and the cremated remains of many individuals were deposited in their chambers over a considerable period of time. Entrance graves probably fulfilled wider social and ritual functions and may have served as territorial markers or places where offerings were made to ensure good harvests.

 

Start of page^

Round Barrows and Cairns

By far the most abundant of Cornwall’s ceremonial monuments are round barrows and round cairns which date from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (2500 to 1500 BC).

 

More than three thousand of these monuments have been identified in Cornwall and many survive as low earthworks or stony mounds.  As the favoured form of ceremonial and burial monument for a period spanning more than a thousand years there is, not surprisingly, considerable variety in the size and design of round barrows (earthen mounds) and round cairns (stony mounds).

 

A ring cairn on Showery Tor, St Breward. The summit of Showery tor is marked by an impressive Cheesewring of weathered granite slabs. This has been surrounded by a massive cairn of piled stones. This is a clear example of how ritual monuments were conceived as part of the landscape; the rock is being venerated and the natural world encompassed into the works of people. Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 18502/36 Showery Tor, St Breward. The summit tor is marked by an impressive cheesewring of weathered granite slabs. This has been surrounded by a massive cairn of piled stones. This is a clear example of how ritual monuments were conceived as part of the landscape; the rock is being venerated and the natural world encompassed into the works of people.  Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 18502/36

 

Four Burrows, Kenwyn. This group of barrows has been mutilated by the modern roads and by ploughing.  A fifth barrow has been destroyed; a possible sixth barrow was identified during Cornwall's National Mapping Programme (this barrow is not visible on this photograph). Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Four Burrows, Kenwyn. This group of barrows has been mutilated by the modern roads and by ploughing. A fifth barrow has been destroyed; a possible sixth barrow was identified during Cornwall's National Mapping Programme (this barrow is not visible on this photograph).  Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

 

The diameters of Cornish barrows and cairns range from only two metres to forty metres; most are simple mounds of earth, turf or stone resembling upturned bowls; others have more complex profiles with low platforms and outer banks. Many apparently simple bowl-shaped mounds have been found to cover complex sites with long histories of use and re-use.

 

The mounds were constructed from material excavated from ditches which surrounded the monuments. Some mounds incorporate a revetting wall or kerb; some are dough-nut shaped – these are known as ring cairns; some incorporate natural outcrops of rock or tors; some mounds, but by no means all, contain a stone burial chamber or cist in their centre.

 

A cairn at Alex Tor, St Breward consisting of a natural tor or rock outcrop enclosed by a ring of upright granite slabs.  Cairns built in this way are known as tor cairns.  Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 18503-25 A cairn at Alex Tor, St Breward consisting of a natural tor or rock outcrop enclosed by a ring of upright granite slabs.  Cairns built in this way are known as tor cairns.   Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 18503-25

 

Start of page^

Aerial Photography and Barrows

More than a thousand new barrows and cairns were identified during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme. In upland parts of the county and in areas of rough ground these new barrows generally survive as low earthworks. In lowland areas many barrows have been levelled by ploughing over the centuries but are visible as cropmarks or soilmarks on aerial photographs.

 

A cropmark ring ditch at Porth Mear near Padstow. The cropmark shows the plough-levelled surrounding ditch of a round barrow. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service A cropmark ring ditch at Porth Mear near Padstow. The cropmark shows the plough-levelled surrounding ditch of a round barrow. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Trecrogo, South Petherwin.  This quadruple ditched enclosure is unique in Cornwall.  It lies in close proximity to two Bronze Age round barrows and is likely to be a contemporary ceremonial monument. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Trecrogo, South Petherwin. This quadruple ditched enclosure is unique in Cornwall. It lies in close proximity to two Bronze Age round barrows and is likely to be a contemporary ceremonial monument. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

 

Map showing the distribution of round barrows and cairns discovered during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme (NMP). A high proportion of these are in areas where many barrows had been previously identified, such as the Lizard Peninsula and West Penwith, but large numbers of new barrows were recorded in lowland areas of the county. Map showing the distribution of round barrows and cairns discovered during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme (NMP). A high proportion of these are in areas where many barrows had been previously identified, such as the Lizard Peninsula and West Penwith, but large numbers of new barrows were recorded in lowland areas of the county.

 

 

Typically soilmarks will reveal the subsoil material which once formed the barrow mound; this will be visible as a pale circular mark in darker freshly ploughed soil. Cropmarks are more common and these generally show the line of the surrounding circular ditch as a darker line in a field of ripening cereal. These circular cropmark ditches are traditionally known as ring ditches.

 

Whilst most cropmark ring ditches consist of a single ditch, examples with two concentric circles are not unusual. One unique site recorded during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme is that at Trecrogo in east Cornwall which consists of four large concentric circles. Although this site cannot be described as a barrow, it is most probably a ceremonial enclosure from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

 

 

 

Start of page^

How Were Bronze Age Barrows Used?

Remains of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery at Tichbarrow, Davidstow.  The barrow nearest to the road was partially excavated in 1972 and holed and cup-marked stones were recovered from it. Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 24163.32 Remains of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery at Tichbarrow, Davidstow. The barrow nearest to the road was partially excavated in 1972 and holed and cup-marked stones were recovered from it.  Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 24163.32

 

Barrows are traditionally thought of as burial mounds. This perception has its foundation in the many hundreds of Bronze Age barrows excavated throughout England, but particularly in Wessex, in which burials were found frequently accompanied by a rich array of grave goods. Research into Cornish barrows, however, has shown that the disposal of the dead was just one of many rites performed at these sites. Many Cornish barrows did not contain any human remains and to assume all barrows are burial mounds would be a misconception. It appears that in Cornwall barrows and cairns may well have served as the ritual centres for the living as much as for the dead.

 

Where burials do occur they illustrate fundamental cultural changes which occurred during the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age. The Beaker period, as this phase is known, coincides with a change from communal burials in long barrows and megalithic chambered tombs to the burial of individuals in round barrows and cairns. This change is an expression of a new belief system with a shift in focus from the community ancestry of the Neolithic to a new social hierarchy where the lives of individuals were celebrated after death.

 

A typical beaker from this period. © Wessex Archaeology A typical beaker from this period. © Wessex Archaeology

 

This shift in focus from the group to the individual is reflected in the use of beakers themselves. Earlier Neolithic vessels were large enough to have been used as communal drinking vessels whereas the smaller beakers are more likely to have been used by individuals. It has been suggested that they were each made by the person who used them and pollen deposits found in beakers at excavated barrow sites may indicate that they were used for the consumption of the earliest known alcoholic drinks made from fermented honey.

 

In many parts of the country Beaker burials in barrows consisted of crouched inhumations – bodies buried in the foetal position. Burials in Cornwall seem to have been different; most human remains found during excavations are cremations placed in small stone chambers known as cists. Another significant difference is that in other parts of the country beaker burials are frequently accompanied by personal objects, typically a dagger, beads and an archer’s wrist brace: in the South West this is not the case.

 

Across England after 2200 BC cremation became a more favoured form of burial, replacing inhumation, with pottery urns used as cremation containers. These were sometimes placed as secondary burials within existing round barrows although new barrows were still being constructed. These are the graves of the so-called Wessex Culture, many of which contained rich grave goods, particularly gold ornaments. Such burials are extremely rare in Cornwall; the most famous was found at Rillaton barrow on Bodmin Moor in 1837 whilst the mound was being plundered for stone. Grave goods included a gold cup which after being lost for several years was rediscovered in King George V’s dressing room being used as a container for collar studs. The Rillaton Cup is now in the British Museum.

 

These six surviving Bronze Age round barrows lie on Braddock Down, Broadoak and form part of a much larger linear barrow cemetery.  Nine barrows had been previously recognised. A further twelve new barrows were identified during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service These six surviving Bronze Age round barrows lie on Braddock Down, Broadoak and form part of a much larger linear barrow cemetery.  A further twelve new barrows were identified during Cornwall’s National Mapping Programme. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

In Cornwall excavation has revealed round barrows and cairns to be complex and varied sites where burial was only one of the rites performed. Frequently enclosures defined by ditches, banks, walls, circles of stones, posts or pits are found beneath barrow mounds. In these cases the mound is clearly sealing and marking the site where rituals and ceremonies had taken place. These rituals sometimes leave traces such as spreads of charcoal, or carefully placed deposits of material such as sherds of broken pottery. The mounds themselves were often complex structures; some were built in stages with layers of material of different colours, in others each stone was carefully placed to overlap others.

 

 

Barrows and cairns were sometimes sited on their own, but more usually were grouped into clusters or linear groups referred to as barrow cemeteries. Some cemeteries may have been deliberately designed as barrow complexes; others may have begun as small groups to which new barrows were later added. It is thought that the location of each new barrow in relation to existing ones may have strengthened the identity of the community through the shared ancestral lineage. In this way a sense of place for the surviving members of the community was created and strengthened.

 

The locations for these ceremonial monuments were carefully chosen. The largest barrows often lie in prominent locations such as on hilltops and ridges; places with commanding views and where the barrows could be seen from other points in the landscape. Others were sited on cliff tops and on the coastal fringe. Like long barrows before them, round barrows are likely to have been used as territorial markers; confirming the ancestral rights of individual families and communities to the tracts of land in which they lived. Smaller barrows in lowland Cornwall, on the other hand, are inconspicuously sited probably near contemporary settlement.

 

This map shows the distribution of Bronze Age barrows in an area centred on Wadebridge.  The barrow sites are found along the coastal fringe and concentrated in a linear band on the high ridge of St Breock Downs.  Whilst they are more likely to survive in this area of rough ground away from the ravages of modern agriculture, it should be noted that no prehistoric settlements are known from St Breock Downs. Settlements are found, however, in the lower-lying land to the north, where few barrows are known. There is a clear separation of barrows from areas of settlement. The open areas on the Downs appear to have been deliberately set aside for ritual or ceremonial activities; a sacred landscape away from the areas of everyday occupation. Distribution of Bronze Age barrows in the area around Wadebridge.

 

These patterns of distribution are well illustrated in the map of Bronze Age barrows in the Wadebridge area. The barrow sites are found along the coastal fringe and concentrated in a linear band on the high ridge of St Breock Downs. Whilst they are more likely to survive in this area of rough ground away from the ravages of modern agriculture, it should be noted that no prehistoric settlements are known from St Breock Downs. Settlements are found, however, in the lower-lying land to the north, where few barrows are known. There is a clear separation of barrows from areas of settlement.

 

Archaeologists think that the hilltop siting of some barrows is a significant factor in their distribution. Whilst they are more likely to survive in these areas of rough ground away from the ravages of modern agriculture, it seems likely that they were placed here intentionally. Perhaps the fact that the rituals and ceremonies associated with these barrows would have been performed in high places and open ground away from areas of everyday occupation marked these places out as sacred landscapes.

 

Start of page^

Entrance Graves

The Scillonian entrance grave at Higher Innisidgen, St Mary’s. Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 23940/16 The Scillonian entrance grave at Higher Innisidgen, St Mary’s. Photo © English Heritage. NMR. 23940/16

Entrance graves are another type of ceremonial and burial monument but are found only in West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly. Like quoits they consist of stone chambers roofed with capstones; like barrows they are covered by stone and earth mounds. They are much smaller in scale than quoits and much later in date – built during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age.

 

They are part of a late Neolithic tradition found in West Cornwall which continued for much longer in Scilly, possibly until 700 BC. They consist of a roughly circular stone and earth mound, usually revetted by one or more stone kerbs. The mound contains a rectangular chamber constructed of drystone walling and slabs and capped with several large capstones. In some cases the chamber is entered via an uncovered passage. Both mound and chamber often incorporate natural boulders and outcrops, adding to their megalithic appearance.

 

Tregiffian entrance grave, West Penwith, showing the cup-marked stone in the foreground. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service Tregiffian entrance grave, West Penwith, showing a cup-marked stone in the foreground. Photo © Cornwall County Council Historic Environment Service

 

Their size varies considerably, ranging from three and a half metres to 25 metres in diameter and up to two and a half metres in height. These variations in size may reflect the social status of the people using the monuments or perhaps different uses. Burial was their primary function and cremations, sometimes accompanied by grave goods such as flint tools and glass and faience beads, have been found in entrance graves. Excavation evidence demonstrates that entrance graves were the site of multiple burials, with the remains of a large number of individuals deposited in their chambers over a considerable period of time.

 

Like barrows, entrance graves probably fulfilled wider social and ritual functions than simply being tombs. Many may have served as territorial markers or places where offerings were made to ensure good harvests; this is suggested by the fact that many have a direct relationship with early field boundaries. Several excavated Scillonian entrance graves had deposits of settlement debris (in one case a quern stone) and humic material on their chamber floors - possibly the remains of ritual harvest offerings.

 

Start of page^

 

A version of this page can also be downloaded as a  PDF