Anglo-Saxon Burial Mounds

Stephen Pollington


Barrow and Chamber Burials 17

1. The Mound and its Context 17
Background 17
The Grave in the Mound 18
What is a Princely Burial? 19
What is a Chamber Burial? 21
Origins of Chamber Burial 23
Construction of a Chamber and Barrow 29
The Funeral Rites 31
Mound Markers 32

2. The Meaning of Chamber Burial 35
Houses of the Dead 35
Sentinel Burials 36
Statements of Status? 37
Display Value 41
Female Graves 45
Prehistoric Mounds 45

3. Chamber Burial Traditions 49
The Germanic Background 49
Mound-Dwellers 53
Barrow Burial 54
Ship Burial 57
Burial with a Horse 60
Bed Burials 61

4. Heathen Burials 63
Low, Barrow, Howe and Harrow 63
Hoarded Gold 67
Hollow Hills 72

5. Decline 79
The Theatre of Death 79
Church Burial 81
A Landscape of Terror 82

6. Later History 85
Obvious Targets 87
Some Investigators 89
Barrows Today 94
Burials of the Rich & Famous 97
Notes on photographs 104
Kent & Sussex 106
  Saltwood 107
  Other Kentish Barrows 107

Essex and the Lower Thames 124
  Broomfield 125
  Prittlewell 126
  Other Lower ThamesBarrows 128

East Anglia 135
  Bloodmoor Hill 135
  Coddenham 136
  Lakenheath 138
  Shudy Camps 139
  Snape 141
  Spong Hill 142
  Sutton Hoo 145
  Other East Anglian Barrows 152

Thames Valley – (includes Oxfordshire & Berkshire) 160
  Asthall 160
  Cuddesdon 163
  Lowbury Hill 164
  Scutchamer Knob 167
  Taplow 168
  Taplow Chamber Contents 170
  Other ThamesValley Barrows 172

Wessex (The West Country) 178
  Rodmead Hill 178
  Roundway Down 179
  Swallowcliffe Down 179
  Other West Country Barrows 182

Mercia & Middle Anglia (East & West Midlands) 195
  Benty Grange 195
  Caenby 196
  Loveden Hill 197
  Lapwing Hill 199
  NewhavenLow 200
  Wollaston 201
  Other Midlands Barrows 202

Northumbria (Northern England) 220

Lost Barrows 233

Appendix 1 Freyr’s Burial Mound 235
Appendix 2 Sigurð Hring’s Mound 237
Appendix 3 Beowulf’s Mound 238
Appendix 4 The Franks Casket Panel 241
Appendix 5 Some Barrow Place-Names 243
Bibliography 251

The inspiration for this book is twofold. Firstly, I have been researching the contents and construction of graves from Anglo-Saxon times in connection with another project for some years now, and have been struck by the lack of a good, clear guide to the types of high-status burial available to the Anglo-Saxons at the point when their heathen religion was most threatened by the march of Christianity through northern Europe. Secondly, both Lindsay Kerr and I have developed a considerable interest in the details of feasting gear, weapons, brooches, jewellery and the other physical remains of the early English past, and we wanted to provide a handy guide to set Sutton Hoo and the other sites into their proper context. So many of our English sites seem strange, both weird and splendid at once, but this is a false impression to some extent, since very little in the English material is without parallel: it is simply that the parallel finds occur on the far shores of the North Sea.

The mound burials fall into two main groups: those with a chamber or internal room in which the deceased was displayed, and those with a simple grave-cut. The chamber graves were in many ways the more interesting and elaborate burials, since the opportunities for conspicuous display of wealth were so much greater in an open space such as the chamber provided, but some of the less pretentious mounds actually contained the more interesting burials – the youth and his horse beneath Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo being an obvious example.
The first part of the present book contains an overview of mound burial in general and chamber burial in particular against its Germnic background. I have contrasted some English finds with each other and with Continental graves for the sake of providing a context. I have also looked at the part which barrows played in Anglo-Saxon literature and in later folk tradition.

The book’s second part is a compilation of information about the burial mounds known from Anglo-Saxon England. The listings of mound burials by area include both chamber burials and the more mundane mound burials. This is partly to show that inhumation (and cremation) within a barrow was not an unusual Anglo-Saxon practice, although it varied from region to region, and where prehistoric barrows were common it was considered perfectly acceptable to re-use them – indeed, it may have been desirable to do so for reasons connected with displays of political power.
As with so much early English material, there is a great deal of information which can be gleaned from a close study, especially when comparable sites in northern Europe are taken into account. It is hoped that this book will enable others to undertake and further this work.

A Note on the Quest for Barrows

The barrow-hunter’s lot is not always an unhappy one, but it can be quite varied. In the course of preparing this text for publication, I have visited many of the sites mentioned and the experiences differ greatly. I offer here just a small sample, and what they can teach us.
Probably the most vivid experience to be had by the modern seeker after Anglo-Saxon mounds is at Sutton Hoo, where the barrowfield has been carefully preserved and Mound 2 has been recreated at something approaching its original size. The on-site National Trust visitor centre offers a good basis for interpreting the monuments – as well as refreshments and the usual facilities catering for the needs of visitors - and the attached museum holds many of the original treasures and some fine reproductions, including the entire chamber with its contents. A short introductory filmshow offers a glimpse into the world of the Anglo-Saxons and the circumstances of the discovery and excavation of the treasures. Periodically, themed events are held on the site as well as educational seminars in Tranmer House (the home of Mrs. Pretty, who owned the land) and informal talks by costumed interpreters. The visitor experience at Sutton Hoo is second to none. It is, however, a planned and shared experience, not usually a quiet or solitary one.
Taplow has less of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ atmosphere due to the proximity of the rather grand Taplow Court, which is now a Buddhist retreat. There is a small themed exhibition in the main building, as well as visitor facilities. Taplow village is pretty, and Bapsey Pond at the foot of the hill is allegedly the site of the first Christian conversions in the area in Anglo-Saxon times. The views from the top of the barrow over the Thames landscape are worth the effort of seeking it out.

The Asthall barrow has no facilities at all. It sits in a field adjacent to the A40 and is a fine example of a barrow which has retained some of its former grandeur even without the isolation it was erected to enjoy. The traffic on the modern road passing a few yards from the mound does not assist quiet contemplation, but the barrow itself sports a thicket of vegetation which gives it an imposing air.

At the other end of the scale are the Roundway Down barrows. Having visited Barrow I with Mike McGuinness in late spring 2008, I was intrigued to discover that the local area was the site of a major battle of the English Civil War. The barrow was quite invisible beneath a vigorous crop of rape; the fluorescent yellow flowers and dark green stalks masked any suggestion of a tumulus, which presumably survives only to a height of a few centimetres. Even looking down from the summit of Kingsplay Down, nothing could be seen of the mound. From this perspective, the only enjoyment to be gained from visiting the site is the satisfaction of ticking another one off the hit-list. Barrow II, by contrast, we found quite easily as the footpath runs slightly south and downhill of the monument, so that it is silhouetted against the sky effectively. While no longer a striking feature of the landscape, it is nevertheless in good order and worth the short walk from the parking area.

The visitor seeking Plumberow Mount will find it quite visible, although carefully tucked away behind a modern housing estate in a nature conservation area screened by trees. If the mound itself were not plain enough, a circular railing now encloses it to prevent erosion by dog-walkers and stunt cyclists. In good weather and with the monument to yourself, it is a remarkably quiet place in the busy south Essex landscape.

No such problem disturbs the barrows at Yatesbury, which sit in a field behind the modern hamlet. Originally these mounds were 20’ (6m) high, and a local labourer was employed to reduce them so that effective modern ploughing could take place: he took the top 11’ off, and discovered the burials in the process. Today they stand at perhaps 3’ or 4’ and look rather forlorn, like once-proud ocean-going liners reduced to hulks in some tidal creek.

For a perfectly dispiriting barrow-hunting experience, Prittlewell is hard to beat. The pleasant recreation space of Priory Park is bounded to the north by a modern road which rises to the bridge crossing the Southend-to-London railway line. Due to chronic traffic congestion in this part of the south-east, the local council plans to widen the road; local residents and environmental campaigners have resisted this idea, which would involve cutting down some ancient trees and destroying the tranquillity of the park. It is hard to see how the needs of the motorist and the conservationist can both be met, unless an alternative route can be found for the road. A protest camp has been set up on the very site of the mound, with a few people in permanent residence there. The council, to its credit, seems keen to house the Prittlewell artefacts in an appropriate visitor centre, but at the time of writing has no firm plans as to location or design. The barrow is to be effectively obliterated – whether by further landscaping or by the road remains to be seen.
Steve Pollington, Essex, 2008

Most of us have heard of the magnificent royal burial in Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo, the East Anglian king laid out in his ship with all his treasures and weapons around him, and the whole grave covered by a massive earthen mound. Many of us probably know that there were other mounds nearby, and that they all once contained rich graves. Perhaps less well-known is the fact that the Mound 1 burial was far from unique, and was in fact simply the most splendid so far discovered of a series of noble or kingly graves of the same general period, all sharing one feature: the large grave mound with its internal wooden chamber in which were both human remains and a selection of ‘royal’ treasures.
The burial of nobles of both sexes in purpose-built mounds or tumuli was a long-standing practice in barbarian Europe and, although it was not one specifically associated with Anglian or Saxon culture before the transfer of power to Britain, it was quickly adopted as part of the rites of high-status burial in the later 6th c. Mound burials were probably reserved for people of note in their communities – not necessarily the wealthiest, but perhaps the most important, the spiritual and temporal leaders of the settlements. These were people whose physical presence was important to their successors, who took comfort from the knowledge that they were physically still close at hand, a resource on which the living could draw for comfort and for authority.

Mound-burial was apparently not forbidden for Christians in the 7th c., but it soon fell out of favour. This must be linked to the spread of the idea of ‘consecrated ground’ found next to churches, in which the power of the holy spirit was understood to permeate the vicinity and thus to protect the building and its contents, and the enclosure in which it stood.

This book is an attempt to bring together some of the evidence from Sutton Hoo and elsewhere in England for these magnificent burials and to set them in their context: a society on the cusp of great internal upheavals as it abandoned centuries-old traditions and developed newer and more complex structures – social, political, ideological, bureaucratic and religious. The first section will look at the physical construction and symbolic meaning of these monuments. The second section will offer a listing of known Anglo-Saxon barrows with notes on their contents and the circumstances of their discovery. The appendices deal with some literary evidence from later centuries.

Barrow and Chamber Burials

1. The Mound and its Context

The background to the Sutton Hoo burials concerns the early history of England. In fact, when the Sutton Hoo burials took place, ‘England’ was only just coming into existence. Britain, the Roman provinces of Britannia, long dominated by Roman power and ideology, had suffered the effects of the 4th c. AD economic downturn and had been effectively left to its own devices. The various ‘Counts of the Britains’ (the four or five provinces into which the lowlands were divided) and their field armies saw the opportunity to seize power, although there was little enough real authority to seize. The early 5th c. saw the emergence of new power blocs, many based on the harnessing of manpower from outside Britain. Settlement of prisoners-of-war in Britannia had been a Roman policy which had allowed the army to divert its shrinking man-power to more pressing needs: these included the defence of Rome itself. These prisoners were forced to become low-status settlers, læti, who were spread across the south and east of Britain and included able-bodied men drawn from a variety of defeated foes, some Germanic as well as Sarmatians and probably others. Their function was intended to be more economic than military, but their skills in war may have given them a significance that their numbers never would have.

Elsewhere, whole groups were transported and settled on deserted estates under the terms of a treaty (foedus) which granted them virtual autonomy in return for military service and payment of taxes. These foederati or ‘federates’ included groups from northern Germany who were persuaded to repopulate the eastern midlands of Britain, which had apparently been depopulated in the 4th c. It is among these groups that the East Angles had their origins, being the eastern group of Anglian descent.

The backgrounds of the many groups were diverse, but the group identities chosen were mainly ‘Saxon’ from the homelands between the Elbe and Weser rivers in northern Germany, or ‘Anglian’ from further north into Jutland. These identities came to dominate the thinking and traditions of the settlers as they formed into larger units while post-Roman control weakened. In contrast to the British of the west and the Scots of the northwest, the Germanic-speaking areas eventually characterised themselves by the hybrid term Angulseaxe ‘Angle-Saxons’ or as we now call them ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

By the mid-6th c. new religious impulses arriving from Scandinavia were bringing novel ideas about leadership and social structure: instead of temporary alliances of chiefs, based on personal allegiance, more stable groupings were forming, which in time would lead to kingdoms. In the closing years of the 6th c., the formation of kingdoms was underway, and the noble families around whom these units developed felt the need to express both their new-found importance and their territorial claims through the building of large and highly visible structures. Among these were the mound burials, and especially the chamber burials, which are the subject of this book.
The Anglo-Saxons built burial mounds, but they buried people in other ways also; the mounds they used were not always new creations; they were not the only people among the Germanic nations to make use of burial mounds. Therefore, while burial mounds and Anglo-Saxons go together, the presence of the one does not necessarily point to the presence of the other. Why some groups chose mound burial and others did not is an important question, because it leads unavoidably into a discussion of the kind of legacy these people expected to leave. We shall examine this issue below.

The Grave in the Mound
Burying people inside mounds, or building mounds over the graves of people, was not a new idea in Anglo-Saxon England. Many societies of ancient Europe (and elsewhere) had seen the benefit of making a large and emphatic monument out of a grave – perhaps the initial hump caused by the displaced earth when the burial was fresh suggested the idea of using this feature for grave-side rites, and when the hump subsided and settled, it was felt necessary to supplement it to preserve the physical location. The practice of adding earth to the grave may even have become part of the ritual of remembrance. Constant augmentation would necessarily result in a small mound. The creation of the impressive structures we see today would involve much time, effort and planning and certainly required a knowledge of engineering principles far in excess of those normally ascribed to ‘barbarian’ peoples.
The location and distribution of barrows can disclose quite a lot of information about the people who were enacting this rite. In Britain, burial mounds of the conical-to-hemispherical type first appeared in the Bronze Age, when they were just one of a variety of monuments available. In the pre-Roman Iron Age, they were not a common form of monument, although they were perhaps never totally unknown especially in Essex and in east Yorkshire (the Arras culture). In the Roman Period, mound burial was still not common, but some imposing examples do survive. The immediately post-Roman mounds are generally small, and are found in Anglo-Saxon contexts as well as in parts of Wales and eastern Scotland. The Anglo-Saxon examples are the focus of this book.

There are two kinds of Anglo-Saxon barrow by distribution: in the south-east, mainly Kent and Sussex, we find whole cemeteries consisting of small-to-medium sized mounds; many of these have since been ploughed flat, but some were still recognisable in the 18th c. and records exist of them. (see engraving p.16) Elsewhere, in the midlands, the west and the north, isolated barrows are more usual – not always isolated from other graves, which often cluster round them, but isolated from other barrows. This type is found most often where barrows were already common – for example, in parts of the West Country and the Peak District, where previously built monuments were ready for re-use. In the south-east there are exceptions – the barrows at Broomfield, Taplow and Clacton were apparently isolated from any other graves, for example, while Sutton Hoo’s numerous and large barrow cluster is unusual by any standard.
What is a Princely Burial?

The class of graves known as “Princely Burials” appears in the Later Roman Iron Age and is widely diffused by the end of the 6th c. in northern and western Europe; in a wider sense, such high-status mound burials are of great antiquity and certainly extend back to the European Bronze Age. We shall consider the early history of the monument type below (Origins of Chamber Burial, p. 23). The Late Roman and post-Roman manifestations of the monument in Germanic Europe became standardised around a few indispensable fixed-points, although local tradition was also maintained in many respects. This no doubt involved a tension between the must-have ingredients for an authentic high-status funeral and the strong emotional pressure exerted through the expectations of the mourners.
“Princely Burials” in Anglo-Saxon contexts are distinguished by provision of a very large burial mound, often exceeding the height of a person and up to 20 yards (18 metres) across. As such, they are too large for the enactment of simple, intimate graveside burial rites because the mourners involved would not be able to see and hear all the other participants. More likely is the idea that the mourners enacted their rituals while the grave was open and before the mound itself was constructed, or at least before it was completed. Perhaps on completion of the interment they either filed past the mound to make their last farewell, or circled round it as the warriors did in Beowulf at their lord’s funeral. (See Appendix 2)

Another characteristic of these graves is that they include very high-status, imported objects, mostly connected with the preparation and serving of food and drink. These items of feasting-gear were very important to their owners because of the opportunity they afforded to show membership of an international, long-distance circulation of prestige goods which were not commercially available. Guests were honoured by being offered the opportunity to dine from silver plates, drink from glass goblets, and be served from fine bowls and platters; all such treasures showed respect for the guest and enhanced the prestige of the host and his people. We shall return to these aspects below.
Some Princely Burials were also Chamber Burials and/or Bed Burials, each of which will be dealt with separately below. However, there are surprisingly many important graves of the later 6th and early 7th c. which were neither, and comprised nothing more than a grave-cut, a ring-ditch and a low mound, despite the inclusion of high-status grave-goods.

The presence of prestige objects within high-status graves implies that a great deal of effort went into the construction of the burials, but the physical grave was itself only one aspect of a probably lengthy burial rite which is invisible to archaeology. Early mediaeval funeral rites are generally understood to have been determined partly by family tradition and partly by the need to provide a unique and splendid event which would stay in the memories of all who saw it, or who heard about it afterwards. In this way, the memory of the individual being buried was kept alive within the community down the generations. The time, effort and expense devoted to the funeral were all resources which could be brought to bear on the problem of prolonging the tale of the deceased, giving him or her a place in posterity. A memorable funeral was a good guarantee of this.

Many of the larger grave mounds were sited prominently, near or overlooking a place where many passers-by could be expected. It is not unusual for such burials to have attracted attention and for other graves to cluster round them, as if in doing so their occupants could gain some of the glory of the first grave on the site, the ‘founder burial’. The site by a much-used path would also preserve the name of the occupant as successive generations refered to the monument as “so-and-so’s barrow”.

The designation “princely” is in some respects inappropriate to the monument class as a whole. A ‘prince’ must mean a young, high-ranking male within a ruling family but many of the tumuli contain females and older males, and we have no direct information about their ‘rank’ or social class, only the access that their family or mourners had to expensive resources. Mound 17 at Sutton Hoo might be termed a “Princely Grave” with good reason, but the title hardly fits the Swallowcliffe Down barrow or even Sutton Hoo Mound 1. The English phrase is a calque on the German term Fürstengrab ‘leader’s grave’ which better captures the notion of status and authority for the deceased without assigning rank (although Fürst is often translated as ‘prince’ in the more general sense of a male member of a royal family). What we seem to be looking at in these male burials are persons who, in OE, would have been called æðelingas ‘athelings, male members of the royal family’ without further subdivision. A king’s brother or uncle was no less an æðeling than his son or grandson. The females were presumably idesa ‘ladies of rank, powerful women’ with a hint at both religious and secular authority.

What is a Chamber Burial?

In the context of Germanic funerary tradition, a ‘chamber burial’ or ‘chamber grave’ is a grave within a mound, whereby an internal cavity was timber-lined to form a free-standing small room or ‘chamber’. Usually, within the chamber, the body was laid out supine along with a quantity of rich grave-goods, set out in a tableau or formal display. (There is however some evidence for cremations placed under large mounds, for which the opportunities for display were different, perhaps centred on the short-lived spectacle of the pyre.)

The chamber can sometimes be viewed as a substitute for (or extension of) the meadhall, which was the central place of Anglo-Saxon community life, presided over by the noble, wealthy and powerful – the kinds of people who are believed to have been given chamber burial. The high-seat in the feasting-hall was the stage on which their power and authority were displayed in life, and it seems natural that a transformed meadhall should have formed the backdrop against which their worth continued to be displayed in death. The provision of drinking vessels, cauldrons, cups, harps and gaming pieces all evoke the pleasures of the hall as a public place for entertainment and enjoyment. Some are quite modest in size: St Dizier (France) featured two male chamber graves, each 2.8m x 1.6m in plan. The largest known example is Prittlewell (Essex) at 4m x 4m, the size of a small modern living-room.
Not all chambers are feasting-halls however. A few are bedrooms, complete with beds and bedding, drinking vessels and textiles, as well as weapons and other rich items.

As the area available for display was so much greater in a chamber than in a standard grave, even one with a substantial coffin, it was possible to include very large objects with the deceased: not only the weapons, small vessels and personal jewellery which feature in standard high-status graves but also items of furniture, large feasting cauldrons and complete sets of tableware. There is often good evidence for textiles lining the walls and floor. Most examples appear to have had a lot of empty space which, it may be speculated, was deliberately made available to allow the mourners to view the dead person and the funeral tableau before the chamber was closed forever.
The display may have been the culmination of the funeral, but it is likely that the process of construction and arrangement was more important: the visiting friends, family and peers all bringing their own contribution to the display, enjoying food and drink at the grave-side and performing the appropriate rites. Only once all these activities had ceased could the chamber be closed and roofed over, and the mound be constructed over it.
Sometimes barrows are built in lonely, highly visible places where they act as landmarks, but more often they are the richest and most prominent burials in larger graveyards. Kemble’s Codex Diplomaticus cites 150 cases where an estate boundary is defined in relation to a barrow. There are probably ideological reasons for choosing one location over another: either the dead person wanted to remain with the companions of lesser rank who served him or her in life, and so chose a spot within the existing graveyard; or the person wanted to be remembered as a significant and formidable personality whose memory should remain with the community forever, kept alive by the presence of the prominent mound. In some cases both ideas are present: the chamber burial was sited in a lonely spot, but subsequent burials were made around its perimeter and it became the founder’s grave for a large cemetery. This practice gives rise to the so-called primary barrow cemeteries of southern and eastern England, where a whole series of barrow burials may be concentrated in a small area.

Origins of Chamber Burial

The term ‘chamber burial’ is sometimes used to describe Neolithic forms of interment in which human remains are deposited in a stone-lined cavity covered with an earthen mound, often in bundles of assorted bones. The relationship of such burials to the Iron Age wooden chambers is not certain, but a direct derivation seems unlikely.
Burials in a wood-lined cavity covered by a mound have been employed in various parts of the world and most should probably be seen as independent inventions. Burial mounds known as kurgans have been recognised as a diagnostic type of field monument in the spread of Indo-European language and culture, although this idea has not gone unchallenged. Kurgans originate between the River Dnieper and the Ural Mountains, and the ‘Kurgan Theory’ suggests that the spread of these burial mounds accompanied the movement of horse-borne pastoralists, who were vectors in the diffusion of certain technologies such as stock-breeding, agriculture and bronze-working. The early adoption of bronze technology and horsemanship among the Indo-Iranian peoples of the southern steppe is crucial in understanding how the cultural expansion took place. Almost nothing that can be said about the ‘kurgan culture’ in relation to both technology and the Indo-European languages is uncontroversial, and there are several alternative models for this diffusion, which differ in many respects and which have proven irreconcilable with present knowledge of the evidence, linguistic and archaeological.

In Bronze Age Greece, it was sometimes customary for the dwelling of a hero (a posthumously deified warrior or leader) to be demolished after his death and, after some elaborate rituals had taken place within the ruins of the house, his body to be buried on the site and a mound of earth raised over the whole site. This gave rise to a tradition of the ‘house of the dead’ within the earth-mound, and to a tradition of veneration of the mound as a vestige of the ancestral dead.

The Qäwrighul Culture of the Konchi River region in the western end of the Gobi Desert has an exceptionally good presence in the archaeological record, due mainly to the arid conditions in which the graves of this society were constructed leading to remarkably good preservation of organic remains. The graves are timber-lined pits dug into the sandy soil, into which the bodies of the dead were placed, then covered with ‘coffins’ of Euphrates poplar wood, and the top then sealed with animal skins, woven textiles or a basketwork cover. Some of the more remarkable male graves had an unusual surface feature: seven concentric rings of timber stakes radiating out from the tomb in a ‘solar’ configuration up to 60m (nearly 200’) across. Some kind of cosmological statement appears to have underlain this practice. The people of the Qäwrighul Culture are one of several Central Asian groups associated with Indo-European-speaking polities of Central Asia, loosely known as Tokharians; their language, which is recorded in two dialects, shares some features with the languages of western Europe and some of the technologies used, such as the weaving of ‘tartan’ fabrics, are also closely associated with historical European culture groups. The physical remains of the dead were also of a ‘European’ rather than Mongolid appearance. Among the variant burial traditions of the region are some interesting practices: bed-burials, for example at Jushi; barrows into which upright posts had been inserted, the tops painted red (Lopnur region); life-sized wooden anthropomorphic figures accompanying the mounds (Lopnur region); boat-shaped coffins (Sampul). The origins of Asiatic chamber burials appear to lie in the construction of a simple shaft-grave which developed into a more elaborate structure over time, including multiple layers of coverings with wood, fabrics and skins.

Some of the earliest forms of wooden chamber burial with historical links to Central Europe are ascribed to the Pazyryk culture, a horse-borne nomadic Iron Age culture of Central Asia which has reasonably been identified with the people known to history as the Scythians. These people lived in the period 500 to 300 BC in the foothills of the Altai Mountains on the border between present-day Mongolia and China. The typical burial consisted of a mound of earth within which was a rectangular ‘tomb shaft’, and the chamber was built within this cavity; the body was placed within on the south side, lying with its head to the east. The outer facing of the chamber was made from roughly-hewn logs, but the inner facing was carefully dressed and smoothed. The roof was covered with bark, moss and vegetation. Horses were buried in the northern portion of the chamber, also facing east; sometimes a waggon was included.
Pazyryk bodies were embalmed after removal of the brain and entrails, but such practices are not known in Europe. The purpose of embalming appears to have been preservation of the skin, which was clearly of great significance: some of the male burials were covered in tattoos showing animal designs. These tattoos appear to have been a mark of nobility, a permanent outward display of rank and honour, and probably the preservation of the skin intact was bound up with ideas of continuity of existence. Leather grave-goods were included in the tombs, among which were cut-out shapes of animals, some of which were applied to the coffin as decoration. When horses were included in the graves, sometimes they wore a leather mask over their heads as if a second, protective layer were needed.
In Latium in the early Iron Age, so-called trench-graves occur in which a spacious but shallow grave-cut was made into which were put the dead person along with weapons, personal ornaments, pots and ewers, bronze feasting vessels and sometimes a chariot, e.g tomb 15 at Castel di Decima (Italy). Some of these ingredients (shallow grave, chariot) recur in certain specific contexts such as the Belgic areas of Britain and the northwest Continent, while others (vessels, feasting equipment, weapons, personal decorations) are more widespread. The rise of the trench-grave is usually seen against the background of increasing social stratification in the late 8th century BC.

The idea of the burial chamber spread over the centuries. The Hallstatt Culture of Central Europe, which ran from ca. 750 to 400 BC, also developed or adopted chamber burial for members of its upper social levels. With the Celtic love of display, the opportunity for offering an idealised image of the deceased leader in his fictive feasting chamber surrounded by his wealth and opulence was too good to miss. The famous burial at Hochdorf (Germany) of about 550 BC featured a wooden chamber, the walls of which were draped in fabrics and hung with feasting equipment such as cauldrons and drinking horns. This burial of a chieftain included a four-wheeled waggon, as well as gold dress accessories, weapons and a large gold neck-ring. The couch on which he lay was supported by cast bronze anthropoid figures.

A Belgic burial tradition called the ‘chambered grave’ is known from southern England, from the Catuvellaunian and Trinovantian regions extending roughly from Colchester in the northeast to St. Albans in the southwest. They resemble the Continental graves in that a square subterranean enclosure has been created, in which some rich remains are deposited. The human remains are always cremated, however, and only one example seems to have been covered by a mound – the Lexden tumulus, near Colchester (Essex). The chambers are vast – often in excess of 50m square - and contain multiple burials. They date from the late years BC, e.g. Hertford Heath (Hertfordshire) 30-15 BC, and extend into the beginnings of the Roman Iron Age, e.g. Colchester and St. Albans dated to around 75 AD at the latest.
The Arras complex of late Iron Age cemeteries in the area of Garton Station and Kirkburn (Yorkshire) feature large square grave-cuts, but whether these should be termed ‘chambers’ or not is debatable. They are unlike the Belgic graves, being inhumations in barrows accompanied by wheeled vehicles; they resemble the Hochdorf type rather more.

A form of chamber burial continued in Trinovantian territory into the Roman period, with multiple examples from Kelvedon (Essex) and Colchester (Essex). The ‘chambers’ are timber-lined grave-cuts, around 2.5 x 1.5m and 1m high. There are occasional finds outside the region, as at Holgate Bridge (Yorkshire) and beneath Wells cathedral (Somerset).

Germanic chamber graves were constructed occasionally throughout the Roman Iron Age, but by the later Roman period they were not common in southern and western Scandinavia: the only known example from the whole of Jutland is at Neudorf-Bornstein in Schleswig (Germany), which is possibly an Anglian royal site from the period before Anglian political authority moved across the North Sea. However, the lack of recognised similar sites of the same period (3rd and 4th c.) in this area may rather indicate that the Angles were centred on the adjacent island of Funen (Denmark) at this time.

The origins of the Germanic chamber-grave and Fürstengrab have been investigated by Fischer, who looks to the Late La Tene period (up to circa 100 AD) in Central Europe for the ultimate source, augmenting Sarmatian (Indo-Iranian) traditions brought from western Asia. It is certainly the case that La Tene culture had influence in areas such as Slovakia and Moravia, and this may have extended into neighbouring Germanic cultural zones such as the Przeworsk, Wielbark and Cherniakhov Cultures which united eastern Europe with the Ukraine and the western steppe. Furthermore, in Late Roman contexts, Sarmatian settlements in Gallia are documented, centred around Reims. It is possible, as Fischer notes, that the earliest examples are those of returning Germanic military personnel who chose to show their wealth and status with a display of Roman materials and objects. Roman ideas about burial and status certainly influenced the chamber-grave tradition.

A distinction has been made between the chamber-grave, with its wooden lining and role as a fictive bedroom or meadhall, and the simpler ‘princely grave’ which in Continental contexts is usually distinguished by the presence of quantities of Roman tableware and especially glass vessels. These attributes of the highest status gradually spread into less wealthy burials – either as an aspirational statement by lower-status groups, or as a less important factor of burials of high-status persons.

At about the same time as chamber burial was starting to be practised in England, the late 6th c., it was also being promoted in other Germanic-speaking areas as the burial rite for the wealthy and successful. These areas included Thuringia, where there have been several spectacular finds. Perhaps the most remarkable from an English point of view is the cemetery at Trossingen (Germany) where a small chamber grave (number 58) was found with spectacularly good wood preservation – something almost universally lacking among English finds. The grave’s contents were lifted in a soil block and excavated under laboratory conditions, which allows for even tiny shreds of evidence to be detected and recorded. The grave dates to ca. 580 AD, based on the felling date of the timber; the occupant was a man of between 30 and 40 years of age, born around the middle of the 6th c.

The grave chamber was formed from oak planks and was in the form of a large, canopied bed or platform, 2.8 m long by 1m wide, with a roof formed with gables and decorated with interlaced carving. The grave included weapons: a spatha in its sheath, and a 3.6m long horseman’s lance with its shaft made from hazelwood (presumably a kontos, an Avar weapon at this time). A saddle was also preserved in the burial, as well as a wooden container for liquids, and a dinner service consisting of lathe-turned wooden plates and a carved dish. A small circular table with three lathe-turned wooden legs and a backrest was an unusual find, and an oaken candlestick. There were no dress accessories present in the grave but a small bone comb was placed near the head, and there were copious textile and leather remains in the body area, and leather strips on the lower legs which probably represent leg-bindings (OE windingas) which held the trousers close to the leg. Some small leather strips may be the remnants of a pair of leather gloves. A fine decorated harp was the most spectacular find.

The mention of this German grave brings us to an important point in the history of the chamber burial, which is the role played by the Franks in the evolution of this rite. The Merovingian ruling line had spent most of the 6th c. establishing its authority over large parts of the post-Roman western European world. The core territory was bounded by the royal seats of Paris, Rheims, Soissons and Orleans, with border states including Austrasia (the lower Rhineland), Alamannia (southern Germany) and Burgundy (south-eastern France and Switzerland). The central relationships in the Frankish world, inherited from their Germanic past, were between lord and underling, and among lordly peers, and these relationships were kept alive by the regular exchange of gifts – tribute offered by clients, diplomatic gifts between equals, rewards from lords to underlings; marriage alliances were another aspect of this exchange mechanism, since they bound together the leading families of whole regions. The gifts could be exotic items which were only available to members of the exchange network (e.g. Coptic bowls) or they could be symbolic gifts which identified the user as a member of a particular social group (e.g. ring-hilted swords).
By the later 6th c., only two areas of Europe were regularly using mound burial accompanied by lavish gifts as a burial rite: one was northern Scandinavia (where the rite was a continuation of Iron Age practice) and the other was centred on the lower Rhine and the Frankish realms. Probably the burial of the Frankish king Childeric at Tournai (Belgium) in 481-2 was the model used by later Merovingian kings, and the notion spread from the Frankish core to the peripheral states. It is nevertheless curious that at the same time as the Merovingian Franks were adopting mound-burial (the mid-5th c.), it was also (re-)surfacing in south-west Norway in an apparently totally different social, ideological, religious and political climate.

In time, due to Francia achieving dominion over Kent, sealed with a marriage alliance between the two ruling families, the practice of accompanied barrow burial was adopted in southeast England and with Kentish wealth forming an important part of relations among the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Kentish practice was adopted north of the Thames. Access to those products which only Kentish favour could provide was an important part of demonstrating that an Anglo-Saxon ruler or leader was a person of stature in the western European world. Paradoxically, by the time that the rite had been generally adopted in England, Frankish rulers were already electing to be buried in sarcophagi inside churches, and the Anglo-Saxon chamber burials probably seemed rather outdated to Frankish eyes. Nevertheless, for the smaller kingdoms and chiefdoms of the Anglo-Saxons, access to the network of gifts and the opportunity for lavish display were no doubt impressive to people who were certainly in touch with their distant Scandinavian kinsmen, who themselves had never abandoned the rite.
The English barrows, from the later 6th and early 7th c. also appear to be earlier than the corresponding mounds in Sweden although the close dating evidence needed to establish this is presently lacking: perhaps we can assume that the English and Swedish traditions evolved side-by-side and possibly developments on one side of the North Sea exerted an influence over the rites of kinsmen on the other side.
Construction of a Chamber and Barrow

The process of mound construction was just one element in a series of funerary acts which included the construction of the grave, the burial of the deceased, probably processions of mourners and a formal meal near the grave, the performance of songs of remembrance, rituals and prayers, then covering the grave and erection of the barrow. All this work would have taken quite some time to plan, organise and execute and the whole funeral rite must therefore have lasted at least a week, and probably much longer. While it may not be directly relevant, Ibn Fadlan noted that the Scandinavian Rus mourners on the Volga placed the dead leader’s corpse in a special chamber for ten days, accompanied by ale, fruit and a musical instrument, while they made the arrangements for his funeral. A ten-day period of preparation would have been reasonable for such a large undertaking as barrow construction.
The first act in constructing a mound was the cutting of a circular patch into the topsoil, the perimeter of which was dug out into a ditch. This initial act of separation provided a symbolic inner and outer zone, and enabled the mound-builders to deal with the inner zone as sacred space cut off from the secular world. Within the reserved area, a grave-cut was made of sufficient size to allow the planned burial to take place. When this was to include a chamber, the dimensions of the planned space would have to include opportunities for viewing down into the room. In the case of an inhumation straight into the soil, a step or platform was usually cut into one end of the grave, on which one or more mourner could stand or kneel to arrange the body and grave-goods. If the offerings and gifts were only being assembled at this time, it may have been the case that one mourner stood on the platform and accepted the gifts from a file of people who had come to say farewell to the deceased.

The grave-cut was often sealed with clay, or a layer of clay was added to the grave’s lower area, before the body was introduced. The laying of the body into the grave-cut would have taken at least two strong individuals to manage, passing it from the grave-side into the hollow; in the case of a chamber, in which both a body and a quantity of valuables were to be manhandled, this might have been managed using wooden stakes as a ramp.
After completion of the rituals and the consumption of a graveside meal (see p.31), the chamber was closed by a timber roof; in the case of soil-based graves, a covering was placed over the body, often textile but sometimes hazel poles or stakes. At a certain point, the grave was considered complete and the process of mound-building began. The earth from the ring-ditch provided the base structure, and the height of the mound would have depended largely on the local availability of usable soil, and on the amount of time and size of workforce available for the task.
The chamber’s structure must have been immensely strong, since the roof had to bear the weight of the soil above it. Wet soils vary between 1500 and 2000 kg per cubic metre, depending on the type of soil and how finely it has been broken up or sifted. Even the smaller chambers therefore had to support a soil weight of several tonnes and for the larger ones the load must have been very considerable indeed. The wooden components must have been carefully chosen, because decay is inevitable - no matter how large the cross-section of the timbers used, they will rot and give way eventually. The weak part of each horizontal beam would be the unsupported centre, especially if it is not square in section and has been used flat rather than on edge. However, not all the weight of the earth would be borne by the timber structure – some would be displaced sideways, down the mound, and not all vertically on the wooden chamber. A simple method for displacing the weight sideways would be to use short rafters above the chamber (as the Anglo-Saxons did on their house buildings): the more rafters used and the closer together they are spaced, the greater the strength. These rafters were then covered by boards to form the roof of the chamber. If all the rafters were fixed to cross-beams, then a very strong construction would result.
Another strengthening factor would be the earth mound itself. Techniques may have been used which would result in a support for the timber chamber: for example, progressive consolidation of earth around the sides of the chamber as work proceeded, so that the chamber would be stabilised and reinforced by the earth surround.

The Funeral Rites
The construction of the barrow was one part of a lengthy process, in which several individuals would have taken part and it may be that the erection of a prominent monument was a deliberately collaborative effort designed to involve the whole community. The following sequence is adapted from Williams’s suggestions:
• the grave is dug into the ground surface
• the grave-cut is lined with timber, reinforced with corner posts and caulked with clay
• a temporary cover is raised over the grave-cut while the initial funerary rites take place
• the body is prepared (washed and dressed)
• the chamber is decked out with textiles and other decorations
• the bier/bed and other fittings are lowered into the chamber
• the body is passed down into the chamber and arranged appropriately
• grave-goods and other deposits are passed into the grave and arranged around the body
• further rites take place including sacrifices of animals for the graveside feast, singing of funeral songs, rites transferring power and possessions to the successor(s), procession of the mourners around the grave-chamber to witness the tableau
• the chamber is roofed over
• the grave-cut is back-filled
• the mound is erected over the chamber
• a large timber post is inserted into the top of the mound to mark the burial

All this activity at and around the grave means that there must have been considerable traffic to and from the grave-side, of both builders and the procession of mourners paying their last respects, and undertaking the final rites of closure.

Mound Markers
The presence of the post above the mound is interesting. On flat-graves, a wooden stake acting as a grave-marker was a common Germanic tradition: for example, when Queen Rodelinde of the Lombards ordered a church built at Pavia, outside the city walls, the building was afterwards known as Santa Maria ad Perticas “Holy Mary at the Stakes”, these being the grave-markers for fallen warriors. Modification of the post to identify the deceased seems likely, although this may have been no more than a simple runic inscription of the name or an identifying mark.
A cremation burial beside Lake Dalstorp in Västergötland (Sweden) was spread on an existing barrow of Migration Period date; the circle of ashes was then pierced by five spears which penetrated far into the barrow’s fabric and the heads were deformed in the process. The remains were those of a 10th c. female with moderately wealthy grave-goods (beads, combs, brooches, knives). It is likely that these five spearshafts marked the burial spot of this lady, but they may have been intended to hold her firmly in the grave. Fear of the revenant dead was common in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

In parts of the Baltic regions – where Christianity and western ways were enforced only in the later mediaeval period – burial customs are very conservative. Here, it was until the mid-20th c. customary to plant a tree on the grave of a loved one; at holiday festivals, the family would gather at the graveside to eat a special picnic meal, being careful to leave some food for the deceased, and they would touch and embrace the tree as if it were the dead person. In this way physical contact could be maintained with the ancestors.
In Yorkshire a barrow called Stang Howe (see below, p.226 Loftus) ‘stake mound’ retains an important place in local tradition. The reference to a stake or post in connection with this cairn may be relevant in this context.
The place-name Throckley appears to be from þrocc hlaw ‘post- barrow, barrow marked with a post’ which supports this idea. The OE word steapol can apparently mean ‘cairn’ or ‘grave-marker’ and perhaps may refer to such a post; its later history refers to the highest point of a church tower, ‘steeple’. A number of Anglo-Saxon barrows appear to have had a small depression in the top, sometimes lined with clay - see for example Coombe (Kent). It has been suggested that this feature was associated with the pouring of libations for the deceased and the veneration of the ancestors.


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