Seen from the air West Kennet Long Barrow’s proportions can be fully appreciated. It is over 100 metres long and is built for the most part from solid chalk excavated from huge ditches on either side of the mound. behind the facade of huge sarsen stones at the nearest, eastern end of the photo is a stone-lined passageway and five burial chambers.
East Kennet Long Barrow seen on the ridge covered in beech trees is thought to be structurally very similar to West Kennet Long Barrow. It has never been excavated.
Our most ancient of monuments
Long barrows are the oldest monuments in the British Isles with examples being constructed from about 3,800 BC onwards. Present throughout the UK, there are many in the area we visit on our tours.
Horslip Long Barrow which is hardly visible on the southern slope of Windmill Hill has provided the earliest radiocarbon date for the Neolithic* in the region even though it has a wide margin of 4,300 – 3,600BC and East Kennet Long Barrow which is very visible is the largest example in England at over 100m and has never been excavated. In the photograph the profile of East Kennet Long Barrow stands out tree-lined in the sunset.
The central passage of West Kennet Long Barrow culminates in the western burial chamber. The entrance to one of the four lateral chambers, the north eastern, can be seen a short way up the passage on the right of the photograph
Paul Ashbee suggested a total of 153 for known long barrows in the south of England in his 1970 book The Earthen Long Barrow In Britain. The best known of these, like West Kennet and East Kennet Long Barrows, contain stone tombs for human burials and are consequently known as chambered long barrows.
But not all long barrows follow the same format. In fact most of the long barrows in our region (132 out of Ashbee’s 153) don’t include the sarsen stones of West Kennet’s façade and burial chambers in their fabric being made of just chalk, earth and turf and known simply as earthen long barrows.
An extant example in our area is the mound at Easton Down to the south of the road between Avebury and Devizes pictured here at the top of the slope to the right of the photograph, it’s mound mirroring Cherhill hill in the distance, home of Oldbury hill fort and the Landsdowne Monument.
Although most of these earthen long barrows probably did cover a timber mortuary house some on excavation, such as the pictured example on the Beckhampton roundabout and the one at the end of the Stonehenge Cursus, have not disclosed human burials or any timber or stone funerary building. This obviously doesn’t fit if they are all to be considered burial mounds. It has been suggested that these ’empty’ earthen long barrows might better be considered as memorials or cenotaphs, still having a funerary context but containing remains in the form of memories and ancestral spirits perhaps rather than actual human remains.
These long mounds did however often contain animal remains particularly cattle skulls and bones making a clear interpretation more complicated. Speaking at the April 2015 Wiltshire Archaeology Conference PhD student Emily Banfield, who has studied the animal bones deposited at three earthern long barrows in the Avebury region (Horslip, Beckhampton Road and South Street), suggested that they were in fact concerned with ‘life processes’ rather than commemoration of any sort – it will be interesting to read her final conclusions.
On the chalk downlands of Wiltshire the different types of long barrow (there are also shorter, possibly later, ‘oval’ long barrows) were all capped with a layer of white chalk dug from parallel ditches running the length of the mound on either side. These have usually silted up but are still very clear in this aerial photograph of Adam’s Grave. Consequently they would have stood out in the landscape, even gleaming on a sunny day much as the local carved white horses do today.
In Olivia Fischer’s photograph the Alton white horse stands out clearly when seen across the fields of oil-seed rape. The long barrow known as Adam’s Grave is on the hillside directly behind the telegraph pole and would have been similarly visible.
All of the 6 long barrows in the Avebury region to have been subjected to modern excavation methods were built on sites that had previously been inhabited or used (Pollard and Reynolds 2002). For example the land under the South Street Long Barrow had previously been ploughed for agricultural purposes. Long barrows have given us some fascinating insights into the individuals interred and tantalising glimpses of their lifestyles and society; analysis of bones found at West Kennet Long Barrow has demonstrated that the people buried here had shared a similar diet of mixed plant and animal protein. Considering that evidence from other UK sites indicates different dietary make-ups this could suggest kinship amongst those using the West Kennet tomb, a family mausoleum if you like, since they had seemingly passed on lifestyle habits (Pollard and Reynolds, 2002). When you combine this information with the differing individual styles of long barrow you begin to get an idea of how these early farmers were starting to make personal marks on the landscape they now considered home. The people of the early Neolithic might well be considered still semi-nomadic, migrating with their herds to different pastures but for the first time they were monumentalising the land that they knew they would return to, leaving a clear and lasting indication of their society and beliefs. Along with cursus monuments and causewayed enclosures, long barrows were the earliest forms of monumental expression.
* Neolithic means ‘new stone’ to differentiate it from the Mesolithic ‘middle stone’ and Paleolithic ‘old stone’ ages, the Neolithic age being the most recent when people first settled down and started farming in stead of following the hunter-gatherer life style of the previous stone ages. Similarly Megalithic literally means ‘massive stone’ and refers to the type of monument building that incorporated such megaliths during the Neolithic period across Europe such as the huge stone structures of Carnac in northern France and the many tombs and stone circles in Britain and Ireland.