Commanders and Kings
People of the Sea
Editor Simon Denison
Great Sites: Belas Knap
Skeletons excavated at Belas Knap in the 19th century led to theories of a superior race of Bronze Age invaders conquering Neolithic Britain. Julien Parsons reports
High on a hilltop near Cheltenham stands the great Neolithic barrow of Belas Knap. Photographs of its tapering mound and impressive stone portal are among the most enduring images of British prehistory - witness to the architectural skill and cultural sophistication of our Neolithic ancestors.
However, the grass-covered mound and neat stone chambers, now so serene and peaceful amid the Gloucestershire landscape, owe much of their present character to a programme of restoration carried out by the Ministry of Works in the late 1920s. Before this a very different scene would have greeted visitors - a ruined and desolate site battered and scarred by a series of excavations in the 1860s which were to play a significant part in the formation of one of the most controversial theories in the history of British archaeology.
Discovery of skulls
In the spring of 1863 Joseph Chamberlayne, the owner of the monument, and Lauriston Winterbotham, a Cheltenham doctor, commenced a series of excavations on the 50m long mound. Lifting a large slab near the south-east corner they revealed a chamber with the partial remains of four human skeletons, including two complete skulls. With their archaeological appetite whetted, they then undertook a more ambitious excavation at the northern end leading to the discovery of the magnificent drystone-walling face of the barrow and its stone portal, which on investigation proved not to be the entrance to a chamber but rather a megalithic construction built, perhaps as a kind of ritual arena, into the mound. The removal of the great horizontal 'lintel' stone above the portal revealed human remains which are something of an enigma to archaeologists even to this day.
News of the discoveries reached Walter Lawrence, a local landowner and archaeologist, and he joined the excavation team on site the following year, when they drove a trench around much of the barrow to reveal two opposing side chambers. The eastern chamber contained the remains of 12 skeletons found in a 'squatting' position on a stone-flagged floor, while the chamber on the west contained the remains of 14 skeletons.
In the following June the excavation was completed with the digging of a trench from behind the portal towards the centre of the tomb, which was met by a trench cut from one side chamber to the other. In the process, the excavators revealed a circle of stones amongst a mass of ashes, described by Lawrence as the remains of an 'Altar of Sacrifice or Worship, and used at some time for Druidical rites'. Altogether, the excavations of the chambers and portal produced the remains of some 38 people of differing ages and both sexes.
In common with many 19th century excavators those at Belas Knap were perplexed by the state of the burial chambers. They found fragments from many individuals jumbled together, leading to the suggestion that the remains had been disturbed at a later date. But throughout the 1860s and 70s evidence was mounting from sealed chambers elsewhere to suggest that the discoveries at Belas Knap were not a one-off. Archaeologists began to see that the burial rite used in 'Cotswold-Severn' Neolithic tombs (such as Belas Knap) was not that of complete, articulated skeletons seen in inhumations from other periods, but was something altogether different.
The many theories advanced for this Neolithic burial rite - including cannibalism and ritual slaughter - were eventually narrowed down to just two: first, that tombs acted as ossuaries, where defleshed bones were placed or stacked in the chambers; and second, that successive interments were made where corpses were deposited and then dragged away at a later date to be replaced by an incomer. It is a sobering thought that, despite the tremendous advances made by archaeology since Belas Knap was excavated, the ways in which Neolithic corpses were handled, and the whole process of defleshing, burial and reburial, still remain a lively source of debate (BA December 1999).
Shape of the head
One of the visitors to the Belas Knap excavations of 1863 was John Thurnam, the medical superintendent of the Wiltshire County Asylum who had a long involvement with archaeology and craniology - the study of skulls. Thurnam had examined many prehistoric crania from barrow sites and he was passed 17 skulls from Belas Knap to analyse, the largest group yet seen from a chambered long barrow.
Craniologists of the time used a ratio based on length and width measurements, known as the cranial index, to divide skulls into two basic types: 'dolichocephalic', long and narrow in shape, and 'brachycephalic', broad and round in shape. Based on his observations at sites like Belas Knap, Thurnam established his famous axiom, 'long barrows, long skulls; round barrows, round skulls'. The long skulls were found in long barrows and never in association with metallic artefacts, while round skulls were found in round barrows sometimes with metalwork.
In the footsteps of Thurnam came George Rolleston, a professor of anatomy at Oxford. In 1877, he expounded his theories on British prehistoric peoples in the book British Barrows written jointly with the famous barrow-opener William Greenwell. Basing his statements on evidence from Gloucestershire long barrows such as Belas Knap, Rolleston believed the narrow-headed race to be weak, short in stature with poor brain development. He suggested that remnants of this race could still be seen among the Welsh and inhabitants of western Britain, being 'the black-haired type . . . feebler in development . . . and larger in skull form'. In Rolleston's version of prehistory, this race was swept away by the taller, stronger, broad-headed people with 'more favourably conditioned brains' who came from as conquerors from Scandinavia.
Thurnam's and Rolleston's theories gained considerable credibility in the late Victorian period and survived well into the earlier 20th century. Such racist theories failed to stand up, however, in the face of Gordon Childe's arguments for the definition of an archaeological culture based on shared social characteristics and material culture rather than race or biological type. In addition, the considerable moral repugnance felt towards Victorian anthropology and its role in the rise of fascist ideology in the 1930s caused the argument over long and round skulls to be sidelined and eventually dismissed. The identification of the Bronze Age incomers based on their material culture, including metalwork and Beaker pottery vessels, remained a more acceptable alternative.
In the 1990s, however, the archaeologist Neil Brodie took a fresh look at the craniological evidence and concluded that there was undeniably a difference between the shape of skulls from Neolithic long barrows and Bronze Age round barrows. A trend from long to round skull shape was clearly shown.
The differences, he argued, could be caused by cultural practices, such as the binding of infants' heads, as well as by diet and a range of climatic or environmental factors. Looking at the totality of human history, he showed that head shape fluctuates in populations over long periods of time, and that extremes of head types occur in successive prehistoric populations as a matter of historical chance.
Outsider in the tomb
Returning to the aftermath of the excavations at Belas Knap, the discussion that took place at the Society of Antiquaries of London on 19 April 1866 highlighted an intriguing problem with Thurnam's racial theories. For despite Thurnam's axiom that long barrows were associated with long skulls, this particular chambered long barrow did contain a round skull. When the portal's horizontal lintel stone was removed, the remains of five young children and an adult skull were revealed. Typically for the time, this strange group was interpreted by the excavators as being the victims of human sacrifice. But the single adult skull was clearly not long-headed, but was decidedly round. Thurnam tentatively suggested that it represented a secondary or later burial; but the excavators believed this to be impossible and both parties settled on the idea that the round skull belonged to a man from a different tribe to the builders of the long barrow, who had been sacrificed in honour of those buried in the chambers.
Leslie Grinsell, the 20th century's pre-eminent authority on barrows, differed little from these views in his classic book, The Ancient Burial Mounds of England of 1936. He described the single skull from Belas Knap as being from a Beaker man who had intruded into a Neolithic area, to be beheaded and have his severed head built into the monument. But Grinsell was writing before the invention of radiocarbon dating - surely here was the chance to answer the riddle of the round skull?
Alan Saville's excavations in the early 1980s at Hazleton North, a few miles south of Belas Knap, allowed for a wide range of samples to be taken from a similar Neolithic tomb. The results clustered around 3500 BC, leading Saville to believe that this monument was perhaps in use for as little as 100 years. However, there is no evidence for Beaker burials in Gloucestershire any earlier than 2200 BC. This seemed strong evidence that the invading round-headed Bronze Age people did not conquer and enslave their long-headed Neolithic predecessors, but that the two groups represented in the different burial modes were separated by hundreds of years.
Solving the riddle
The round skull from Belas Knap, it seemed, must indeed have been a later insertion, a secondary burial added at a later date by communities burying in the new fashion with Beakers. There is evidence from a number of Cotswold-Severn tombs of such secondary burial activity with sherds from Beaker vessels being found in the upper parts of the mounds or in the forecourts, which were then used as arenas for feasting and ritual activity.
But one final twist to this tale was to follow. Rick Schulting, a researcher from Cardiff University, who has been investigating the occurrence of violence in the British Neolithic, was keen to establish an absolute date for the skulls from Belas Knap, and in December 2000, a series of samples were taken for dating to the Oxford Research Laboratory. The results range from around 4000 to 3700 BC, largely consistent with results from other Cotswold-Severn tombs. However, the date for the round-headed skull placed under the portal stone lies towards the middle of this cluster of dates - more than a millennium earlier than the round-headed skulls found in Beaker graves.
We cannot, of course, rewrite history based on a single radiocarbon date, but it would perhaps pay well to return to the band of excavators who examined the tomb in 1863. They refused to accept Thurnam's idea that the skull was a secondary interment, based on the evidence they encountered during the excavation. If we accept their testimony, along with the new date, it reopens the debate on the morphology of the skulls.
Were there groups with such anatomical differences coexisting in the Cotswolds in the Neolithic? If so, why are the chambers of the Cotswold-Severn tombs used exclusively for long-headed individuals and why do we find a round-headed individual placed outside a chamber at Belas Knap? The division of skulls into types may just be a meaningless statistical ruse dreamt up by Victorians keen to legitimise racist theories. But let us hope that the present generation of archaeologists can settle the question once and for all.
Julien Parsons is the Curator of Archaeology at Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum. He is working on a PhD on 19th century barrow digging
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005