Glossary: Round Barrows

Photo of Stonehenge Round Barrow

This barrow, located just one hundred metres east of Stonehenge, is fairly typical of those that have avoided the worst destructive processes. Known to archaeologists as Amesbury G11, the mound is around 27 metres in diameter and stands up to 3 metres high. It is separated from its surrounding ditch by a gap - known as a berm - some 5 metres wide. The maximum diameter of the ditch is around 45 metres. At many barrow sites, including those at Damerham, centuries of ploughing have left only the below-ground elements such as the ditch. This barrow was dug into in the early 19th century, resulting in the discovery of a cremation deposit and some bone tweezers.

The round barrow is a form of burial monument associated with the earlier half of the Bronze Age, although the earliest examples date to the first half of the 4th millennium BC, contemporary with long barrows. Most belong to the period between around 2500 BC and 1500 BC.

Put simply, the round barrow is a hemispherical mound that either covers or contains one or more human burials. The mound is usually, though not always, accompanied by a surrounding ditch from which some or all of the material used to build the mound was quarried.

As with the long barrows, there is in fact considerable variety among round barrows. For example, the mound may be quite small in diameter and height when compared to the diameter of the surrounding ditch. In other cases a mound several metres high may fill the whole area within the ditch. The smallest known examples are around 10 metres in diameter, while the largest are more than 50 metres across. Unlike long barrows, which usually occur singly or occasionally in pairs, it is not unusual to find ‘cemetery’ groupings of round barrows.

Photo of Hatfield Round Barrow

The Hatfield Barrow, located within the massive henge enclosure at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire, is an example of just what can be lost. Within this field there once stood a mound which may have been as much as 55 metres in diameter and perhaps 15 metres high, with the surrounding ditch possibly 100 metres or more in diameter.

Burials tended to be of complete individuals, either in graves or on the original ground surface, although during the course of the Bronze Age there was a shift towards cremation. With cremation there was also a tendency towards the burial of incomplete remains. As well as the original burial or group of burials beneath the mound, it was not unusual for burials to continue to be placed into or around a barrow mound.

Grave goods – items buried with the deceased – tended to be few in number. Typically there might have been a single pottery vessel and perhaps a few flint implements. Many burials, especially the cremations, were accompanied by nothing at all. The wealthiest burials – those with gold or bronze, or sizeable accumulations of artefacts – attract the most attention, but are in fact extremely rare, representing only a tiny fraction of the thousands of burials excavated over the last few centuries.