Enclosing the landscape – the location of bronze age round barrows around Stonehenge

by Edward Pegler on 29 June, 2011

Is the distribution of round barrows around Stonehenge a glimpse of the first ownership and division of the English countryside?

The parish boundaries of Winterbourne Stoke, near Stonehenge, are defined by many features of the landscape. Often they follow hedges or fences, valley bottoms, roads, rivers and ancient earthworks, all of which have been present in the landscape for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It was these, after all, that were used to define the parish boundaries in the first place.

Unsurprisingly the boundaries also pass through large numbers of Early and Middle Bronze Age burial mounds, also known as round barrows or ‘tumuli’ (one is called a ‘tumulus’).

Most, if not all of these barrows date from a period of several hundred years after the building of Stonehenge. They are simple, circular mounds of earth, and contain (or contained) the remains of one or many individuals. The barrows were used by more than one generation. Usually there is an original central burial. Later, cremated remains or whole bodies are placed in pits dug into the barrows.

Often the barrows also contain ‘grave goods’, items which were either important to relations of the dear departed or perhaps thought to be useful to them in the next world. Some of these are spectacular, but most are a bit duff.

Barrow lines

The distribution of barrows in the landscape is not uniform. In Wiltshire (the county of Stonehenge) barrows are often clumped into groups or lines. Often they occur on or near the tops or ridges and near the boundaries of different soil types. They are more densely packed near monuments like Stonehenge. However, no hard and fast rules apply and it’s possible to find lines of barrows crossing valleys.

Distribution of Bronze Age round barrows (red) in the area around Stonehenge. Neolithic sites are marked in purple (S = Stonehenge, C = the Cursus, D = Durrington Walls & Woodhenge). Based on data from Lawson (2007).

A number of sensible suggestions have been made as to the reasons for their location and positioning.

1) Barrow lines were located by ancient trackways (like burials along the Appian Way).

2) The clusters were centred within territories of particular groups.

3) Barrows on ridges were placed where they could be seen on the skyline by people in the valleys or from key locations such as Stonehenge.

4) They were placed on the edges of usable land.

5) Groups of barrows overlie former settlements or encampments.

6) Barrows were positioned to reflect the religious views of their builders.

Most of these ideas have their merits. So I’d like to take bits of 1, 2, 3, 4 and even 6 to make my own story of why round barrows were placed where they were. But first I need to mention the people in them.

The barrow builders

The people who built the barrows are a bit of a mystery. Sure, archaeologists and amateurs have dug them up, examined their bones and their ‘belongings’. Yet no-one really knows how they lived their lives. Suggestions vary from farming to transhumance (local seasonal movement of animal herds) and even nomadism.

This is in large part because no-one can find their houses. As Andrew Lawson has rightly pointed out, whatever the house types that they had they have left little mark on the landscape and might have been quite flimsy and temporary.

Later, During the Middle and Late Bronze Age, there’s not just evidence of houses but also of fields (coaxial field systems), showing that people were then settled farmers. This pattern of landscape use hasn’t really changed significantly since.

The round barrow ‘fence’

Based simply on the observation of round barrow distribution and field systems on Salisbury Plain I’d like to add my thought (number 7) to the above list, no more or less valid. Were the round barrows an early form of territorial boundary marker?

Imagined territorial boundaries, using round barrows as guides, showing how they tend to avoid coaxial field systems but may cut across Neolithic features. (Don't tell me. I already know about the canals of Mars).

To start, let’s imagine that Andrew Lawson is right and that people at the beginning of the Bronze Age were largely nomadic or semi-nomadic but starting to settle. If the landscape around Stonehenge became (understandably) significant for them, either spiritually or economically, then they may have wanted to claim parts of it for grazing rights.

Centuries of disagreement between competing clans would be ‘resolved’ by petulantly marking out the boundaries of territories using their ancestors’ bones. The more disputed the boundary the greater the number of barrows clans would put there.

Making a prediction, this would mean that ‘barrow cemeteries’ could contain not just the male genetic legacy of one clan but of two or more clans where the different clan territories met. Conversely, other barrow clusters around an ‘empty’ area could show the same male genes.

As the clans settled and increased in numbers they would start to farm the valuable land they had defined. So field systems of individual families would start to appear within clan boundaries. These might be reflected in the coaxial field systems which appear to lie between round barrow alignments.

So what the barrows could represent is the beginnings of settled farming and the division of the land in prehistoric England.

References

Lawson, A.J. 2007 The nomads of ancient Wessex, British Archaeology, 93.

Lawson, A. J. 2007 Chalkland: an archaeology of Stonehenge and its regions. Hobnob, pp414.

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