I wrote about our probable long barrow discovery on Tenants Hill here but what is a long barrow and why does our discovery matter?
An aerial view of The Grey Mare and her Colts. The forecourt and facade are facing the camera. The mound is behind, pointing towards the dry valley leading to Gorwell and the Bride valley beyond.
What are long barrows?
Long barrows date from the Neolithic period and are 5000-6000 years old. They typically have two parallel quarry ditches located either side of an elongated or oval mound. The mound material usually covered a box, chamber, or some other constructed space into which human remains were placed. The materials used for construction were dependant on availability. In areas where large stones were available, they were often used to form the internal structure; these monuments are also known as chambered tombs. There are many examples of surviving stone chambers, but at Haddenham in Cambridgeshire a wooden example had survived due to waterlogging!
The timber or stone mortuary chambers would have been accessible until they were finally sealed beneath the mound or behind a façade. Consequently, the bodies they contain were not always buried at the same time and some monuments were in use for multiple generations. Often there appears to be an element of curating the bones as part of funerary activities. The skeletons are frequently disarticulated, which could be evidence that they were not buried in the barrow immediately after death, or that bones were moved around and rearranged. Some archaeologists think that certain people were excarnated (exposed to the elements) before burial, while in other examples the remains were mummified and buried a long time after death, such as at Wor Barrow.
These are really difficult topics to summarise simply. There is so much variability, both spatially and chronologically that there will never be a one size fits all answer. Different people and groups may have had different religions, belief systems, or totems, that resulted in different behaviours. Or they may just have wanted to do the same (or opposite) to their neighbours!
Other long barrows nearby
Our long barrow discovery is not isolated in South Dorset, within a few hundred meters to the east is the Grey Mare and her Colts- which was obviously constructed using stone. About the same distance away, in the opposite direction is another long barrow known as Long Bredy III (LB III). This one has been mostly ploughed away and we currently presume was earthen.
The façade of the Grey Mare and her Colts Long Bredy III just visible in the foreground
There is usually a discernible front to the monuments, characterised by a forecourt, which was framed by a façade. Where stone was available the façades can still be very distinctive.
At some point the monuments are closed and no longer used. The Grey Mare and her Colts has several large standing stones which could have framed an entrance and would have formed a façade to a forecourt area. The stones are too big and unwieldy to have been moved, so once they were erected it is possible that the chamber was no longer accessible. A similar architectural arrangement can be seen at the West Kennet chambered tomb near Avebury, Wiltshire.
Another Neolithic burial monument nearby Tenants Hill that is worth visiting, although for different reasons, is the Hell Stone. This was dramatically, but not accurately, reconstructed in 1866. It is possible that the tail of the monument is still undisturbed and is visible under the field boundary.
The Hell Stone from above
Why is our long barrow important?
This is the first long barrow to be excavated using modern archaeological methods in South Dorset. This is especially important because Tenants Hill is a microcosm for the wider South Dorset Ridgeway landscape. By trying to understand how people used the hilltop over time, we can understand much more about prehistoric Dorset. This brings us back full circle to our research questions.
There is still a lot more of this story yet to be told but the context of this long barrow is hugely important. I'll write more about it when I have space to do it justice, but, looking at aerial images, it looks as though this long barrow is one of the earliest features on Tenants Hill and that it determined how the prehistoric landscape here, and further afield, was organised. What a discovery and a privilege to excavate!