Long Barrows of the Pewsey Downs

There are eight long barrows located in the immediate vicinity of the Vale of Pewsey. Mounds at King’s Play Hill, Shepherd’s Shore, Roughridge Hill, Easton Down, Horton Down and Kitchen Barrow Hill are part of a larger group north of the Vale. King’s Play Hill (or Heddington 3), Shepherd’s Shore and Easton Down are all short or oval barrows whilst Kitchen Barrow, Roughridge, Horton Down and Adam’s Grave are long mounds in the proper sense.

Long or Trapezoidal Barrows

Roughridge Hill
The long barrow on Roughridge Hill is notable for being partially obscured by the later construction of the Wansdyke over the north-eastern end of the monument. There is no evidence to suggest the barrow, measuring some 75 metres long and up to 32 metres wide, has been excavated in modern times, indeed it was only identified as a long barrow by means of an aerial photograph (Grinsell 1957, 138). The barrow is located on a south east facing slope which gives limited views of the Vale and seems to suggest that it is intended to be seen from the western slopes of Easton Down, the site of another long barrow (see below) and intervening dry valley. . Systematic surface collection took place around the long barrow in the winter of 1983-84 (Barker C in Whittle et al. 1993). A total of 332 struck flints were collected, over 90% comprising flakes and blades, with a notable concentration centring on the monument. Darvill (2004, 197-8) notes that the results of surface collection in the Cotswolds by antiquarians and modern archaeologists suggest that concentrations of worked flint are found close to long mounds. He notes the work of the Rev David Royce (Grinsell 1964, 5-23), who recovered large concentrations of leaf-shaped arrowheads within a 300 metre radius of a number of long barrows in the Cotswolds. The work of Royce is, perhaps, instructive because his period of fieldwork in the second half of the nineteenth century coincided with the main period of enclosure and conversion to arable in the Cotswolds. Accordingly, the scatters he encountered had only been exposed to weathering and plough damage for a few decades at most.

Kitchen Barrow is situated on a prominent south-westerly spur overlooking the Vale some 1250 metres south of Easton Down long barrow. Its position clearly indicates an intention to be seen from the Vale rather than the chalk upland to the north. The barrow survives as a mound some 34 metres long, 18 metres high and up to 2.7 metres high (Barker 1985, 20). There is no record of modern archaeological intervention although Smith (1884, 114) noted that “a gentleman had dug a trench right through it many years ago” and Smith (1965b: 117) noted the presence of fragments of Oolitic limestone from the mound. Barker (1985: 20) suggests that this, combined with the presence of a sarsen protruding from the NE end, may be evidence for a stone-chambered tomb, a view supported by Kinnes (1992: fig 2.8.2). The case for stone-chambered status, however, needs to be proven.

Horton Down long barrow is situated on a west facing spur on the eastern flank of a dry valley running down to Beckhampton. The mound, badly damaged by ploughing, is thought to have been excavated by Thurnam who reported recovering skeletons in a long mound on Horton Down although the identification of the mound he excavated is far from clear (Barker 1985: 20). Barker notes the presence of a small mound of sarsens, possibly cleared from the mound to facilitate ploughing. It is now only visible from the air (Barker 1985: 20)
Further east, located on a prominent spur overlooking both Knap Hill and the Ridgeway is Adam’s Grave, its location being very similar to that of Kitchen Barrow. The siting of Adam’s Grave seems quite deliberate, dominating the western skyline as travellers accessed the natural routeway running north from the Vale. The mound is some 65 metres long and is trapezoidal in plan, although the addition of pillow mounds and a square enclosure at some point in the historic period has partially obscured the monument. Despite the damage done by subsequent generations, sufficient remains of the original mound and ditches to suggest that the builders deliberately scarped the hilltop in order to accentuate the crest of the mound, in a way similar to that carried out at Easton Down and Knap Hill. Thurnam excavated the eastern end of the mound in 1860, recovering some skeletal material and a leaf shaped arrowhead situated within the apparent remains of a megalithic burial chamber composed of sarsen uprights and oolitic limestone coursed walling(Thurman 1860: 230) and reminiscent of construction techniques at West Kennet.

With the exception of Roughridge Hill, all the trapezoidal or long mounds discussed occupy prominent positions in the landscape. Kitchen Barrow and Adam’s Grave are the most prominent located on spurs overlooking the Vale, their siting maximising the visual impact the monuments would have on observers from below. Horton Down long barrow overlooks much of Bishop’s Cannings Down, West Down and the eastern slopes of Cherhill Down and Calstone Down. The same is true of other long mounds in the Avebury area such as East and West Kennet although we should not forget that the final long mound constructed on the site may not have been the first structure to be built there (Whittle 2003: 123). In comparison, the oval barrows (below) are situated in far less visually advantageous positions, often occupying the slopes of hills. If the assumption that Neolithic mounds were sited with the intention of being visible from the surrounding locale is correct, this juxtaposition may suggest that the long mounds were able to use the most prominent locations because they were built at a date earlier than oval mounds.

Oval Barrows
The status of oval mounds as a monument class has fluctuated over the years with Colt Hoare(1810: 242) being the first to identify such monuments, Thurnam denying their existence (1870: 296) and Ashbee(1970: 15-8) being somewhat ambivalent despite the excavation of Wor Barrow (Pitt Rivers 1898) and Thickthorn Down (Drew & Piggott 1936) on Cranborne Chase. Drewett’s excavations at Alfriston (1975: 119-52) and North Marden in Sussex (1986: 31-51) have done much to restore the class to academic consideration although debate continues about the character and chronology of oval barrows.

King’s Play Down Barrow
The oval barrow at King’s Play Hill is located on an east facing slope with a view over the east of the Vale. The monument was excavated by the Cunningtons in 1907 who uncovered a single crouched male inhumation and some flint flakes from the main mound. Interestingly, they observed two “holes” and a “trench” beneath the mound (Barker 1985: 22-3) (Cunnington ME 1909: 311-7), features Ashbee (1970: 40 & 129) interpreted as being the remains of an axial mortuary house with a possible façade at the eastern end.

Shepherd’s Shore Oval Barrow
The oval barrow at Shepherd’s Shore is located on a south-easterly slope again overlooking the Vale and was excavated in 1914 by Maud Cunnington who showed that the monument had been subject to past disturbance. Fragments of four inhumations and an associated cremation from an undisturbed part of the barrow were uncovered (Cunnington ME 1926: 397-8). The Cunningtons found “five thin slabs of oolite”, a feature which has been interpreted either as flooring (Cunnington ME 1926) (Kinnes 1992: 87) or evidence for a stone burial chamber (Corcoran 1969: WIL 18). As Kinnes points out, the presence of a group of long mounds on Salisbury Plain with evidence of flooring would suggest this was, possibly, a strong structural element in the construction of some barrows. Kinnes fails to point out, however, that the five barrows in question (Knook Barrow, Bowl’s Barrow (sic), Tilshead Old Ditch, Silver Barrow, Arn Hill) are all located to the north and west of Salisbury Plain and may represent a localised building tradition. It is not impossible that Shepherd’s Shore is another example of that local trend. Recently, the monument was subject to a Magnetometer Survey conducted by the AML where it was shown the monument is significantly larger than the visible earthwork and had previously undiscovered side ditches (ADS Record ID: EHNMR – 1149336).

Easton Down Oval Barrow
Easton Down oval barrow lies approximately a kilometre east-north-east of the long mound on Roughridge Hill and is situated on the summit of a ridge forming the eastern side of a dry valley running into the Downs. The barrow was excavated by Thurnam in the 1850s and recovered remains of two adult males and two juveniles. These artefacts have been subsequently lost (Whittle et al. 1993: 200). Thurnam recorded no structural evidence although Passmore and Smith noted fragments of oolitic limestone in the mound (Barker 1985: 19) but insufficient to suggest megalithic structural elements (contra Corcoran1969: 295). Archaeological interventions in the form of two trenches were carried out by Whittle in 1991 with the aims of recovering environmental and dating samples from the old ground surface and the flanking ditches (Whittle et al. 1993: 200) and results suggested that the barrow was situated within a small woodland clearing. Radiocarbon determinations from samples obtained were suggestive of a mid fourth millennium date for the monument, making its construction later than Horslip, West Kennet and perhaps South Street (Whittle et al. 1991: 227).
West Woods Long Barrow, West Overton, Wilts
West Woods Oval Barrow
The easternmost oval barrow on the northern side of the Vale is located in West Woods. It is situated on the east facing slope of a small dry valley running north east to join Clatford Bottom. In essence an oval mound, the monument measures 38 metres in length and 30 metres at its maximum width. Passmore(1923) noted that Sir Henry Meux, the local landowner, excavated the barrow in 1880 and recorded a four-sided, rectangular stone chamber measuring some 2m by 1m internally covered by a capstone underlying a central cairn of small sarsen stones and what was described as “black matter” (Barker 1985: 18). Fowler’s plan (2000: 184) clearly shows the remains of an excavation shaft in the centre of the mound.

Oval Barrows: Discussion
The dating of oval barrows is problematic as few have been excavated in the era of scientific dating. Drewett’s (1986: 31-51) excavation of a Neolithic oval barrow at North Marden, West Sussex in 1982 suggested a date of c. 3500BC for the construction of the monument based on a single radiocarbon determination of 2760 + 110bc (Drewett 1986: 46). This date bears comparison with the findings of Whittle et al. (1993: 226) where three radiocarbon determinations provide a date for construction between 3500 and 3100BC (2780 + 65bc to 2585 + 65bc). Clearly both monuments belong to the second half of the third millennium BC and Easton Down would appear to be later than Horslip, West Kennet and possibly South Street and either contemporary with or slightly later than Beckhampton Road and Millbarrow (Whittle et al. 1993: 227). These dates find support from the reassessment of excavations at Thickthorn Down (Drew and Piggott 1936) and Wor Barrow (Pitt Rivers 1898) carried out by Barrett and Bradley (1991: 52-53). The radiocarbon determination obtained from an antler from the bottom of the ditch at Wor Barrow closely matches those obtained at North Marden and Easton Down at 2790 + 70bc. Unfortunately contamination of the radiocarbon sample from Thickthorn rendered the determination less meaningful (Barrett & Bradley 1991: 52). Consequently it seems possible that oval barrows are a later feature of the Early Neolithic landscape and Drewett (1986: 49) may be correct when he suggests they represent a form of infilling between long mounds.

Non-Local Stone and its Role in Neolithic Mortuary Practice

The presence of oolitic limestone in a number of the long mounds on the Pewsey Downs has been interpreted in a variety of ways. It has been perceived as evidence of megalithic construction (Corcoran 1969) (Kinnes 1992); flooring (Kinnes 1992) or symbolic of long-distance contact (Thomas 1999: 208). Certainly in the case of West Kennet (Piggott 1962) and possibly at Adam’s Grave, the limestone formed the drystone infill of the chamber walls but the same cannot be true for every mound containing fragments of oolite. To imply a substantial stone burial chamber, some tangible evidence of that structure must be identified beyond a few fragments of easily portable limestone. Thomas (1999: 208) notes that “foreign (sic) forms of oolite, sandstone, forest marble and other stones have also been found at Kitchen Barrow and Adam’s Grave, and in the unchambered mounds of Easton Down, Shepherd’s Shore and Horslip, where they could not have had a constructional role” and goes on to state that these stones were “the physical manifestation of contacts with far-off places”.

This last statement overstates the case somewhat, as all these types of stone could be obtained within a 50Km radius of the Pewsey Downs. Piggott (1962: 58) noted that the oolitic limestone found at West Kennet originated from the Frome-Bath-Atworth area, a block of limestone upland bounded by the Bristol Avon on the eastern and western flanks and by the Box stream to the north. Even today it is a significant obstacle to communications with vehicular traffic having to climb steep sustained slopes to cross the area and the main Bath to Swindon railway line required to tunnel under Box Hill. This block of limestone upland effectively terminates the low-lying terrain to the west of the Vale of Pewsey and forces the Bristol Avon to give up its meandering course through the greensands and clays of western Wiltshire and pass through a narrow defile on its way down to the Bristol Channel.

This natural feature, then, would present a significant barrier to prehistoric groups to the east. It represents an ecotone, where the plants and animal of the clays and greensands gave way to a eco-system more suitable to limestone; it was the point at which the Bristol Avon changed character and it saw the change from low lying damp greensands and clays to an upland of thin soils stretched over a resilient, hard, quartz laden rock which jutted through that soil in many places. The location of sources for stone axes suggests that Neolithic society placed special significance on tools obtained from high or remote places with outstanding viewsheds such as Great Langdale and Graig Lwyd. Standing on the limestone hill above the town of Bradford-on-Avon affords one a superb view east across the valley of the Bristol Avon and the Vale of Pewsey beyond.

Perhaps this natural feature, bounded by three rivers, represented more than a physical boundary. The inclusion of oolite in burial mounds was, possibly, emblematic of the longest journey individuals had to make, the journey into the afterlife and it’s inclusion in the construction of burial mounds a symbolic act with a palimpsest of meanings for contemporary society. Forest marble has also been recovered from burial mounds in the Avebury area, and whilst it is a form of Great Oolite like Bradford Stone, it is mainly found in the southern Cotswolds principally between Cirencester and the Oxfordshire Border forming the Wychwood Beds (Arkell 1947: 44 – 6). Like the Bradford oolite, the source of Forest Marble is, therefore, on the far side of a river, the Thames in this case, in relation to the Vale and Pewsey Downs.

This trans-riverine aspect to the origin of these non-local stones possibly suggests that the groups who incorporated them into burial mounds perceived their world to be bounded physically and spiritually by rivers, especially rivers that separated markedly different ecotones, chalk and limestone for instance. Ethno-historical studies of the sacred landscapes of the North American Lakota Sioux (Sundstrom 1996) showed that for successive groups occupying the Black Hills of Dakota, the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche Rivers formed the boundaries to the spiritual and temporal landscape. Certainly oolitic limestone seems to have great significance in Early Neolithic ritual activity in central southern Britain, Peacock (1969, 145) noted large quantities of oolite and fossil shell from the Bath/Bradford/Frome area being incorporated into the fabric of pottery found at Windmill Hill, Robin Hood’s Ball, Whitesheet Hill and Knap Hill.

The nature of the stone must also be considered. Unlike chalk, it does not erode and ablate so quickly, it is crystalline, its qualities of colour and texture could not be so easily diminished. It was, in comparison, a far more durable stone than chalk and those qualities, in a society so aware of its surroundings and the component parts thereof, would have been significant. The oolite also contains fossils which would have been recognisable as the shells of molluscs (North 1930, 210) to Neolithic observers. Perhaps the petrification of once living organisms was symbolic of death. Soils and stones were clearly manipulated by the builders of Neolithic monuments. Pollard and Reynolds (2002: 62) note the diverse nature of the soils used to create the mounds at South Street and Beckhampton Road where, at the latter, “turf, brickearth, marl, chalk gravel and coombe rock were carefully employed in the mound make-up”. We will return to the meanings and values Neolithic society placed on soils and minerals in monument construction.

Long Mounds and Territorial Division

Fowler (2000: 239) postulates the presence of an as yet undiscovered long mound north of Boreham Wood based on his assertion that the existence of territories in the Neolithic dictated an equidistant distribution of long barrows south of the River Kennet. This hypothesis differs from that expounded by Renfrew (1973) by substituting the boundary defining mechanism of Theissen polygons with boundaries defined by topography. Fowler seems to implying a distribution of one long mound to each territory and a level of social organization that cannot be substantiated by the available evidence. Barrett’s criticisms (1994: 158-164) of Renfrew’s proposition have relevance here. Barrett accuses Renfrew of both using modern day assumptions and views in his assessment of Neolithic society and employing inappropriate “scientistic” data in the construction of his argument. Renfrew’s hypothesis, Barrett claims, has its origins in the “processualist” analysis of the amount of labour required to construct monuments and the stages of monument construction. Renfrew saw a parallel development between complexity of monument and a developing and centralising social hierarchy, a connection Barrett refuted in the light of the increased understanding of Neolithic monuments acquired since the late 1970s (Barrett 1994: 159). In essence, Barrett rejects Renfrew’s analysis on the basis of having transposed many modern day assumptions onto Neolithic material culture. He criticises the concept of“chiefdom” (Barrett 1994: 161-2) as representing a totality which may, on the basis of a total absence of evidence of the necessary criteria such as a bureaucracy or centralised redistribution, have never existed. Rather Barrett proposes that the Neolithic is characterized by a lack of such state apparatus and rather than chiefs imposing their will on the people, they performed their roles “out of their obligation to the community”.

Salisbury Plain: Giant’s Grave Long Barrow
The remaining long barrow is located on the edge of the northern ridge of Salisbury Plain at Milton Lilbourne overlooking the central and western areas of the Vale. Giant’s Grave is located on the very edge of the scarp with gently dipping land to the south and a precipitous drop to the Vale floor to the north. This very steep slope is breached some 600 metres north east of the mound by a curious naturally formed ridge running west from the main scarp down into the Vale. This “ramp”, probably formed by periglacial activity, provides the easiest access between the Vale and the chalk massif for at least 2km in either direction. The placing of the barrow adjacent to this natural routeway is reminiscent of Adam’s Grave, as a traveller ascended the “ramp” increasingly more of the barrow was revealed. This seems a very deliberate siting of such a large mound and is indicative of the way prehistoric societies manipulated the natural topography for social reasons. Thurnam excavated the eastern end of the mound in the summer of 1865 uncovering a “heap” of three or four skeletons “on the natural level”, noting that one skull had been cleft before burial. The only grave good recovered was a leaf shaped arrowhead (Thurnam 1869: 47).

The isolated position of this long barrow is notable. The closest long barrows are Tow Barrow (9km east), Fittleton 5 (6.6km south), West Woods (8.2km north west) and Ell Barrow (13.4km south west), a marked contrast from the dense distribution over the western Pewsey Downs and north towards Avebury. This may be indicative of a relative absence of Early Neolithic activity on the eastern and central portions of Salisbury Plain. It may also suggest that the Vale, with it’s almost entire lack of Early Neolithic monuments did act as some form of boundary or no-man’s-land between different social groups occupying the blocks of chalk upland to the north, south and east, an impression reinforced by the presence of three causewayed enclosures on the fringes of the Vale.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply