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The Bronze Age: Barrows & Burials

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes us into the graveyards of the Bronze Age, more specifically we look at the barrows used as elite burial places. We compare these with Neolithic long barrows and discuss the different shapes of Bronze Age barrows.

Not a Natural Hill

If you live in the United Kingdom or ever visited, you may have noticed raised mounds that do not look like natural hills. In fact, if you visited the West Country of England, you probably saw dozens, if not hundreds of them. These are barrows, ancient burials. While some, the elongated ones, are from the Neolithic Era, the majority of the ones you might see come from the Bronze Age.


The Barrow at Newgrange is one of the most famous barrows.
Newgrange


The Bronze Age

While the Bronze Age occurred at different times across the world, it seemed to have first occurred in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions over 5,000 years ago. The innovation of bronze making, creating an alloy by combining 90% copper and 10% tin for a much stronger metal, spread outward from its origins.

Beaker People

When bronze technology came to Northern and Western Europe, one of the predominant cultural groups were the Beaker culture, named for their unique pottery. When they came to Britain around 2200 BCE, they brought their culture and bronze with them, launching the British Bronze Age.

Barrows Before Beakers

Before we launch into the different barrow styles of the Beaker culture and the Bronze Age, let's take a quick look at Neolithic burials in Britain to help with the comparison. Earthen mounds and mound burials are common around the world, but each culture crafts them in different ways with different shapes. During the Neolithic Era, inhabitants of Britain crafted long barrows which were elongated earthen mounds tapered at one end with the opening facing east.


Long Barrow at Uley
Uley Long Barrow


Large stones formed the inner chamber of the barrow where communal burials held up to fifty individuals from children to adults and very few grave goods. However, the long barrows only held a small percentage of the dead and little is known of the funerary practices for the rest of the community. As the barrows also served as a place for ritual activity, those entombed may have held an elite status or religious significance.


Barrow for Beorn Ironside in Sweden
Swedish barrow


Bronze Age Barrows

In contrast, the barrows constructed during the Bronze Age between 2200 BCE and 1100 BCE were created in the style of the Beaker culture and only contained the remains of one person, usually of elite status. The status of the entombed person can be discerned by the extensive grave goods. They were rounded, instead of elongated, and they were usually surrounded by a circular ditch or series of ditches and circular mounds between ditches.


Inside of a Royal Barrow painted by Carlo Bossoli
Inside of Barrow


Types of Bronze Age Barrows

  • Bowl Barrows: The earliest style of Bronze Age barrows, and most common of all barrows found throughout the UK and Europe, bowl barrows are simply rounded hills that look like an overturned bowl.
  • Bell Barrows: Bell barrows resemble bowl barrows except in the curving slope of the barrow which extends the mound higher than its width. In that respect, it is quite distinct from the perfectly hemispheric bowl barrows.
  • Disc Barrows: Disc barrows have a small burial chamber beneath a very small mound. Around the mound is a raised, circular ridge or series of concentric circular ridges.


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