ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 32, March 1998


Barrows, cairns and a few impostors

In the second of our series on the historic landscape, Paul Ashbee decides what is, and what is not, a prehistoric barrow

All who explore the English countryside, aided by our unrivalled Ordnance Survey maps, must have encountered in archaic script the Latin word tumulus, and its plural tumuli, which denote Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows. The term barrow, derived from Old English, or earlier, beorg or beorge, means a mound of earth, while cairns, from the Gaelic carne, are mounds of stones.

These tumuli, or burial mounds, are the commonest prehistoric monuments in the British landscape. Wiltshire and the Cotswold-Severn region each contain more than 100 long barrows, while the total number of round barrows extant, and razed but detectable, may be more than 30,000. Although mostly Bronze Age, round barrows were also built in the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods.

Many still await discovery. So how can they be recognised? Earthen or stone-built long barrows are usually, when in a fair state of preservation, higher and broader at one end, often orientated to the East. Undamaged round barrows, again in earth or stone, have the shape of an inverted bowl and almost always an encircling ditch, but are often now near-obliterated by weathering or ploughing. In general, stone barrows (ie, cairns) are found in the North and West, earthen barrows elsewhere.

Both types of barrow can easily be confused with other landscape features. In northern England, Ireland and Scotland, as well as North Norfolk, there are areas of morainic remnants from glaciation which are long mounds and ridges, looking deceptively artificial although composed of sands, gravels and boulders. From our own age, detached pieces of railway embankment and wartime rifle-shooting butts have been thought of as possible long barrows. Medieval pillow-mounds are also similar, with material thrown up from flanking ditches, although they are rectangular and lower than long barrows. Pillow mounds were possibly artificial rabbit warrens.

Round barrows have to be differentiated from smaller mottes, or castle mounds, many of which were ditched like barrows, but which often have traces of bailey earthworks attached. Early windmills were set up on mounds - indeed, large barrows were sometimes selected. Such mounds are flat-topped and have a cruciform central cavity. Mounds and cairns were sometimes constructed to demarcate estate or parish boundaries, while some hill-top cairns are the work of early Ordnance surveyors. Early mine-shafts, when back-filled, were often topped by mounds and cairns, while sand and clay-digging - traces of which can be far from obvious - has left regular mounds of unwanted materials.

Cairns can be especially hard to recognise. Often they were destroyed for their stone, but destruction was not always total. Many cairns were contained by selected blocks of stone, set horizontally end to end, which effectively encircled them. When ruined they are difficult to distinguish from stone-built hut remains. However, a stone-built hut has normally a double encircling wall, infilled with soil and small stones, and sometimes a definite entrance with standing jamb-stones. Moreover, cairns and barrows often have hill-crest locations whereas groups of huts are in sheltered, sometimes south-facing, places.

From time to time the remnants of the kerbs of substantial cairns have been considered as stone circles, although the stones of circles are usually pillar-like and spaced apart, and occasionally contain large recumbent blocks, stumps and even the traces of stone-holes. Many cairns covered burials in stone cists (a box of stone slabs in a grave-pit or built onto the ground surface). Now and again slabs remain where the cairn has vanished. In instances, ruined cairns appear to consist of three or four concentric rings, which may represent different phases of the same monument.

Where are they found? Standing long barrows exist in numbers in chalk and limestone areas, although they are also known on lower level gravels. Aerial photography continues to reveal the outlines of levelled examples in various parts of the country. In Wessex, long barrows cluster around causewayed enclosures. There are 20 around Windmill Hill in Wiltshire, while on Salisbury Plain, associated with the Robin Hood's Ball and Whitesheet Hill causewayed enclosures, 82 can still be seen.

Round barrows are found on high ground, sited, often on false ridges, for maximum visibility from below and at a distance. They also swarmed on gravel terraces, for example at Oxford and the Welland Valley in the East Midlands. Round barrows cluster on henge monuments. Barrow cemeteries, mostly linear and visible from the monument, encircle Stonehenge, Avebury, the Knowlton Circles and the Thornborough Circles in Yorkshire. The reasons for the associations of these different monuments are not always clear.

Circular cairns with megalithic chambers survive in Cornwall and Scilly, Anglesey, the Derbyshire Peaks, and many parts of Scotland.

What did barrows look like when first raised? At Fussell's Lodge long barrow, near Salisbury, the discovery of post-holes in a lengthy, trapezoidal structure showed that initially there had been a structure resembling a Neolithic long house of the type found widely on the Continent. Subsequent long barrow excavations showed that this formula was widely followed. These surrogate long houses contained deposits of human bone that were added to and subtracted from, for more than a millennium, and rites pertaining to ancestors and fertility were no doubt performed. Long barrows, the long houses of the dead, should be regarded as shrines rather than mausolea.

On the chalk-lands, newly raised round barrows would have been white and arresting. Excavation has shown their ditches were usually vertically-sided, suggesting that today's shapely mounds were, at the outset, drum-like structures revetted with chalk blocks. On heathlands, and similar soils, clay-block or wattle containment is likely. The infilled, gently-contoured ditches and bowl-like mounds we see today are the result of weathering. Moreover, observation of the Overton Down Experimental Earthwork, built in 1960, has shown that a chalkland barrow could have reached more or less its present form within one person's lifetime (see BA, September 1996). Many large undamaged round barrows may be only some 15 per cent less than their original height, despite denudation. Many cairns were initially built with substantial blocks of stone but frost-weathering has reduced their outer cloak to the size of road-metal.

Round barrows and cairns covered inhumation and cremation burials, with or without urns. The earliest and smallest tend to contain coffined inhumation burials, often with a `beaker' pot, and sometimes with a bronze dagger or perforated stone battleaxe. Larger barrows tend to cover cremations. Some barrows were enlarged to accommodate further burials.

Not all British barrows and cairns are quite as they seem, and many of the best-looking `surviving' examples have been restored or reconstructed this century. Indeed they were some of the first monuments protected by the 1882 Ancient Monuments Act. Examples are the Chestnuts long barrow in Kent, West Kennet in Wiltshire, and Wayland's Smithy on the Ridgeway, all of which have had fallen stones erected in chamber or fašade.

In Scotland, the cairn on the summit of Cairnpapple Hill, in West Lothian, is now a concrete cupola which can be entered via a trapdoor, while in Caithness the Camster Long Cairn has been largely reconstructed to allow public access. Intact at the outset of the 19th century, investigations in 1866 made its structure unsafe. The neighbouring Camster Round Cairn now has a concrete covered chamber, while the cairn has been reinstated to its erstwhile profile. Even the great Maes Howe passage grave on Orkney was secured by a concrete dome over the chamber, which now gives the turf-covered mound its rounded profile.

Other monuments are still more artificial. A megalithic chamber at Park Place, Henley on Thames, was brought from Jersey in 1788, where it had been found on the summit of the Mont de la Ville. It was a gift to the then Governor of Jersey, General Henry Seymour Conway. His cousin, Horace Walpole, said that the reconstruction followed the original, a view that has since been challenged. Meanwhile at Cobham Hall, near Rochester in Kent, substantial sarsen stones ornament the garden and a dolmen has been constructed.

Undamaged barrows survive as a tiny proportion of their original number. Many hundreds were dug into crudely and damaged beyond repair by antiquaries of the past few hundred years, mostly in the 19th century. Totalitarian agriculture of this century has flattened many more. However, barrows still exist to be seen, even discovered, and remain some of the most important and moving monuments of our past.

Paul Ashbee is the author of The Bronze Age Round Barrow in Britain (1960) and The Earthen Long Barrow in Britain (1970).

Further reading: Frances Lynch, Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows in Britain (Shire, 1997); Leslie Grinsell, Barrows in England and Wales (Shire, 1979).

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Centuries of Roman survival in the West

Evidence of the late survival of Roman culture in western Britain extends far beyond the well known remains of Wroxeter. Ken Dark reports

Until recently, it seemed the end of Roman Britain was swift and sudden. Most archaeologists believed that Romano-British culture, society and economy collapsed almost entirely in the first few decades following the official political and military withdrawal in AD410. However, the discovery of new archaeological and textual evidence over recent years, together with a new synthesis of other material, is leading to the view that the end of Roman Britain should in fact be sought in the late 6th or 7th century, rather than earlier.

A key to understanding this is the realization that late 4th century Roman Britain was not a single Roman province, but a `diocese' (an administrative region of the Empire) comprising four or five provinces. Before AD500 the `Anglo-Saxon invasion' probably took place in at most two of these provinces. Even by AD600, most of what had been Roman Britain in the 4th century was still under the political control of the descendants of inhabitants of the former Roman diocese.

The conventional interpretation of the archaeology and history of the areas which were in British hands during the 5th and 6th centuries has it that political control rapidly devolved to local warlords, and a `Celtic' society soon emerged. The only residue of Romanisation remained in monasteries and among the clergy, while secular culture quickly came to resemble that of the pre-Roman Iron Age. This view attaches much weight to later written evidence and early Welsh heroic poetry which depicts a world of warrior aristocrats, feasting and fighting, quite unlike conventional images of late Roman Britain, but which, if relevant at all, relates mostly to the far north of what had been Roman Britain.

Far from there being political fragmentation, however, the RomanoBritish civitates (or tribal areas) may simply have turned themselves wholesale into 5th century British kingdoms. At least initially, these may have retained the territory, and in some cases the name, of the former civitas. For example, the civitas of the Dumnonii became the kingdom of Dumnonia, while that of the Demetae became the kingdom of Dyfed. Gildas's De Excidio Britanniae (the most extensive written source for 6th century western Britain) mentions the Dumnonii and Demetae, while the latter, the Ordovices, and the Dobunni may all be referred to on inscriptions of similar date.

Other evidence adds to this picture of large-scale political continuity. Fifth and 6th century written sources and inscriptions hint at the survival of Roman-style bureaucratic administration, Roman law, Roman weights and measures, and schooling on the Roman model to train future administrators and judges. Recent studies of Gildas's writings, for example, show that he was trained to write high-grade Latin, was schooled in the late Roman, rather than early medieval monastic, education system, and was well-acquainted with Roman law. All of this would have been pointless if Roman-style secular administration was obsolete in his youth. The British texts known as the Penitentials, the first of which date from the 6th century, employ Roman weights and measures.

Although independent British kings ruled these kingdoms, there is no reason to suppose they were less Romanised than most of the elite of the 4th century. To give an example, burials of this 5th-6th century elite were more often commemorated by Latin-language inscriptions than seems to have been common anywhere in 4th century Britain. The 6th century memorial stone at Penmachno in North Wales, for instance, commemorates a `magistratus' of one of the British kingdoms. While only a handful of Latin-inscribed tombstones are known from late Roman Britain, hundreds survive from the 5th-7th centuries.

Perhaps the most striking new evidence for elite culture in western Britain during this period is the Vergilius Romanus, a manuscript held in the Vatican library in Rome (Cod Vat Lat 3867) containing Virgil's Georgics, Eclogues and Aeneid, illuminated with naturalistic colour paintings. It has been securely dated by some of the leading palaeographers of the century and they seem in no doubt that it is 5th or 6th century, probably closer to AD 500 than 400. The style of the paintings, the history of the manuscript and other evidence suggest that this is a western British product. Given its content and decoration it is probably most likely to be a secular commission. Moreover, if it is of 5th or 6th century date, it is the earliest British book existing today.

Its significance was not previously recognised because it was supposed to come from Italy, but the Roman art specialist, Martin Henig, has recognised that the art was Romano-British not Italian; and in my own work I have drawn attention to other evidence showing that it had probable links with the British Isles.

The political centres of these kingdoms also show evidence of Romanisation. The clearest example of this is probably the well-known sequence at Wroxeter in Shropshire, which may have been the capital of the 6th century kingdom of Powys as well as of the 4th century civitas of the Cornovii. There, parts of the late Roman town were rebuilt after the 5th century to contain highly Romanised buildings occupied until the late 6th or 7th century.

Although highly Romanised urban structures such as these may have been much more common than current evidence would suggest, not all 5th and 6th century British kings ruled from former civitas capitals, and such `Celtic' sites as hillforts may have been far more Romanised than they first appear. At Tintagel in Cornwall, for example, the 5th-6th century settlement may have contained a large number of rectilinear buildings, whose occupants used amphorae and fine wheel-made pottery from the Mediterranean. This represents occupation which was far more Romanised than almost all known Roman-period settlements in Cornwall. If not all 6th century hillforts were as Romanised as Tintagel, nor were all elite sites in 4th century western and northern Britain.

Consequently, whether we look at their political centres, their burials, their forms of adminstration, or the survival of Latin literature and language, western British rulers of the 5th and 6th century seem far more Romanised than has hitherto been supposed. Even the apparently most `Celtic' aspects of this elite may find surprisingly close analogies with elites in late Roman Britain or elsewhere in the Empire during the 4th-5th centuries.

There is much textual evidence of feasting in the late Empire, and both mosaics and the analysis of excavated bones from villas provide evidence that their owners hunted. In both 4th century Britain, and in 4th and 5th century Gaul and other parts of the Western Roman Empire, hillforts were used as elite settlements. This was not specifically `Celtic' behaviour but a perfectly straightforward part of late Roman life - simply one which modern scholars tend to overlook. These elites sometimes maintained private warbands to protect their lands, and their leaders during resistance against `barbarian' invasions in the 5th century were quite willing to take the title `king'. A major change that did occur in the early 5th century British West and North was the final withdrawal of the Roman army. However, some 5th or 6th century British kings may have been organizing the defence of their kingdoms on a very ambitious scale. Evidence from Vindolanda, Birdoswald and South Shields may suggest late 5th or early 6th century re-occupation and perhaps refortification of these sites, adding to other evidence that northern British rulers attempted a redefence of Hadrian's Wall in this period.

There are even hints that these rulers might in some way have been trying to revive the late Roman military command of the Dux Britanniarum, because only forts of that command were apparently re-used. A survey of 5th-6th century archaeological data from all 4th century Roman forts in North and West Britain, showed that out of at most 16 sites with later 5th-6th century evidence no fewer than 14 had probably been under the command of the Dux Britanniarum at the end of the 4th century. This pattern cannot be random and is inexplicable unless forts of this command were particularly selected for re-use. Meanwhile, further south, British rulers may have been responsible for constructing the linear earthwork now called the Wansdyke, arguably derivative of Roman period linear defences.

But it was not only the ruling elite that retained more of the Romano-British past than is usually supposed. The same is true of ordinary agriculture. A survey by Petra Dark of all 51 published and well-dated pollen sequences from this period shows that in the North, Roman withdrawal seems to have led to agricultural crisis, but in western Britain the end of the Romano-British rural economy was far more prolonged. There, pollen sequences indicate widespread landscape continuity, and possibly agricultural intensification, during the 5th-7th centuries. Likewise, excavated Romano-British farms in western Britain with datable 4th-7th century sequences, such as those at Trethurgy in Cornwall and Graenog in North-West Wales, also show continued occupation throughout the 5th and 6th centuries. The Romano-British agricultural economy was continuing, perhaps flourishing, for probably two centuries after AD 410.

The survival of the villa economy may also have been underestimated. The final phase of Romano-British villas is often regarded as `squatter occupation'. But work on similar evidence elsewhere in the Roman world raises the possibility that it is a distinctive sub-Roman architecture of the 5th-6th century, aimed at refurbishing Romanised buildings. Romanised activity certainly continued at Whitley Grange villa in Shropshire, recently excavated, where the disuse of the heated rooms can be dated with confidence to outer limits of AD420-520.

In politics, culture, society and rural economy, then, Roman Britain survived in the West for centuries after AD410.

Dr Ken Dark lectures at Reading University. His book, Civitas to Kingdom, was published by Leicester University Press in 1994.

NEXT MONTH: David Howlett looks in more detail at the survival of educated Latin in Dark Age Britain

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Resisting the Reformation in secret

Many Catholic images, intended for destruction, were adapted or concealed by local people, writes Sarah Tarlow

Until fairly recently most of us thought we knew what the Reformation was about. In the words of WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman in 1066 and All That, `Henry . . . told Cromwell to pass a very strong Act saying that the Middle Ages were all over and the monasteries were all to be dissolved.' The Reformation was a necessary step on the road to modernity and the brief Catholic Counter-Reformation was `a Bad Thing, since England is bound to be C of E'.

We believed that the people of Britain welcomed the Reformation and expressed anti-Catholic feelings in an outburst of righteous vandalism - pulling down the statues, defacing icons, smashing roods and selling precious artefacts for scrap. The eventual victory of Protestantism in Britain was presented as an inevitable and popular development.

Recent historical and archaeological work, however, is making us rethink these ideas. Looking at evidence such as wills, church and court records and other local documentary sources of evidence, historians have suggested that in many areas support for Protestantism was grudging at best and adherence to Catholic practice remarkably enduring. Some have suggested that the Reformation, rather than an expression of popular dissatisfaction with a corrupt and irrelevant Catholic church, was in fact imposed from above by an elite minority and only grudgingly accepted by the people.

Responses to the Reformation seem to have varied, both regionally and between neighbouring parishes. Many parts of Britain record a significant iconoclastic response (although we do not know who and how many the iconoclasts were). In other areas, it seems there was more resistance. The evidence, in any case, is hard to interpret. Religious belief is a complex and ambiguous thing. Not only will there be differences between people within even a small community, but individuals do not necessarily wholly adhere to one creed. People's beliefs can be inconsistent and irregular, often combining Catholic, Protestant and superstitious elements.

Nonetheless, archaeology can provide insights into some common popular responses to the Reformation, not only in the 1530s and 40s, but over the longer period from the middle years of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th. In general, Protestantism seems to have been neither adopted nor rejected wholesale. Instead, some popular elements of Catholic practice were incorporated into an essentially Protestant world.

Two practices in particular stand out - the adaptation of earlier Catholic monuments, and the concealment of Catholic items, either for safekeeping or in the hope that they might someday be restored to use.

In St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, for example, there is a cross slab. The design of the basic cross probably dates it to the 15th century, but the initials and decoration are in the style of the 17th. The design of the cross itself appears to have been adapted after the Reformation and it is likely that the geometric design in the centre of the slab was intended to obliterate an earlier cross design; in fact this six-pointed form is not a normal pre-Reformation style of cross. The addition of initials and the transformation of a cross and glory (or halo) into a geometric design made this piece of `popery' into a more or less acceptable Protestant memorial.

From the other end of Britain, Widecombe Church in Devon yields a similar example. There, a memorial slab in the floor has a cross in the middle and an inscription carved around the outside. The cross is of a plain design with a second small cross marked inside it and it stands on a three-tiered calvary, symbolic of the holy trinity and therefore likely to be of Catholic origin. On stylistic grounds the cross is probably of 14th or 15th century date. The inscription, however, is dated 1673. The writing runs around the edge of the slab and fills the space at the foot of the cross, respecting the shape of the cross itself although running over the lower part of the calvary. It is clearly later than the cross design. Here, then, is another example of the careful and deliberate use of an unambiguously Catholic icon by Protestants in the 17th century. In the very act of converting a plain cross to a memorial to an individual, this slab had been brought into acceptable Protestant practice.

As for concealment, relics, crosses and statues have been regularly discovered walled up inside churches. At St Magnus Cathedral, again, bones believed to be of St Magnus and St Rognvald were found immured inside one of the piers of the choir, placed there possibly either at the time of the Reformation, or in the 17th century, to protect them from the Cromwellian forces who used the Cathedral as a barracks and stables from 1652. In either case the act of immuring these relics shows a desire to protect objects which were still considered sacred. Similar examples can be found elsewhere.

At Foxley in Norfolk, local records show that the rood loft and crucifix were cut down by parishioners at the Reformation, but during Mary's reign were fixed back again, obviously having been kept safe somewhere through the intervening years. The people preserving and adapting these pre-Reformation objects would probably not have considered themselves Catholics. They were simply unwilling to give up the artefacts and practices they valued just because they were told to do so.

Despite widespread historical and archaeological evidence of resistance to Protestantism, the Reformation did happen. The commitment and zeal of a vociferous and well-organised minority prevailed over a poorly-organised and half-hearted majority of grumbling conservatives.

Sarah Tarlow is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter

Further reading: Eamonn Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992).

Many ways of resisting iconoclasm
by Simon Denison

Popular resistance to the Reformation took many forms. It could be full-blooded or furtive, obvious or subtle. In Exeter in 1536, it was almost comical. Two Breton craftsmen were ordered by visiting government officials to demolish the rood-loft at St Nicholas's Priory. However, local records state they were furiously attacked by a small group of local women, led by one Elizabeth Glandfield. One of the iconoclasts was forced to jump from a window in fear of his life (quoted by Whiting, in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 1982).

Resistance could also be mercenary. In a letter dated 10 September 1550, sent from France to England's governing Council, Sir John Masone recorded the arrival, for sale in France, of undefaced images from England, giving rise to unwelcome local gossip about the state of religion at home. `Three or four ships have lately arrived from England, ' he wrote, `laden with images . . .

. . . which have been sold at Paris, Rouen and other places, and being eagerly purchased, give to the ignorant people occasion to talk according to their notions, which needed not, had their lordships' command for the defacing of them been observed. (Calendar of State Papers, Foreign, 1547- 52)

At Long Melford Church in Suffolk, local dignitaries removed objects and carvings during the Reformation to look after them in their own homes. Church accounts record that in 1547 Master William Clopton of Kentwell took carvings from the lady chapel and from the Clopton chapel, including the `greatest images of alabaster' for which he paid three shillings. In 1555, during the reign of Queen Mary, certain goods from Kentwell were put back in the church.

Meanwhile, the late 16th century writer Roger Martin, also of Long Melford, recorded that he possessed a triple crucifix (Christ and the two thieves), `which is in my house decayed, and the same I hope my heires will repaire, and restore again, one day.' It was also, presumably, under guard for safekeeping. Both examples are quoted in The Spoil of Melford Church (1992) by David Dymond and Clive Payne.

Archaeological evidence for resistance occasionally appears in the form of altar slabs, not smashed but buried on site, perhaps in the hope of restoring them one day for use in the church. Examples have been found at Carlton-in-Lindrick, Nottinghamshire, and at Royston in South Yorkshire.

According to Richard Morris, church archaeologist and CBA director, another strand of evidence for the continuation of pre-Reformation practices could be the concentration of burials around the south entrance of many churches, a phenomenon that continued from the 12th to the 18th centuries in some areas. Some tombs could be seen by congregations as they came and went. Why this clustering around the south door?

These tombs perhaps represent `informal chantries', Mr Morris says, encouraging one's family and descendants to offer intercessionary prayers for the souls of the departed - clearly a pre-Reformation idea. The practice is also found on the Continent, and there may be evidence in French wills to confirm that some tomb-builders did indeed hope to be prayed for in this way.

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