1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Barrow (grave-mound)

BARROW (from A.S. beorh, a mount or hillock), a word found occasionally among place-names in England applied to natural eminences, but generally restricted in its modern application to denote an ancient grave-mound. The custom of constructing barrows or mounds of stone or earth over the remains of the dead was a characteristic feature of the sepulchral systems of primitive times. Originating in the common sentiment of humanity, which desires by some visible memorial to honour and perpetuate the memory of the dead, it was practised alike by peoples of high and of low development, and continued through all the stages of culture that preceded the introduction of Christianity. The primary idea of sepulture appears to have been the provision of a habitation for the dead; and thus, in its perfect form, the barrow included a chamber or chambers where the tenant was surrounded with the prized possessions of his previous life. A common feature of the earlier barrows is the enclosing fence, which marked off the site from the surrounding ground. When the barrow was of earth, this was effected by an encircling trench or a low vallum. When the barrow was a stone structure, the enclosure was usually a circle of standing stones. Sometimes, instead of a chamber formed above ground, the barrow covered a pit excavated for the interment under the original surface. In later times the mound itself was frequently dispensed with, and the interments made within the enclosure of a trench, a vallum or a circle of standing stones. Usually the great barrows occupy conspicuous sites; but in general the external form is no index to the internal construction and gives no definite indication of the nature of the sepulchral usages. Thus, while the long barrow is characteristic of the Stone Age, it is impossible to tell without direct examination whether it may be chambered or unchambered, or whether the burials within it may be those of burnt or of unburnt bodies.

In England the long barrow usually contains a single chamber, entering by a passage underneath the higher and wider end of the mound. In Denmark the chambers are at irregular intervals along the body of the mound, and have no passages leading into them. The long barrows of Great Britain are often from 200 to 400 ft. in length by 60 to 80 ft. wide. Their chambers are rudely but strongly built, with dome-shaped roofs, formed by overlapping the successive courses of the upper part of the side walls. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, such dome-roofed chambers are unknown, and the construction of the chambers as a rule is megalithic, five or six monoliths supporting one or more capstones of enormous size. Such chambers, denuded of the covering mound, or over which no covering mound has been raised, are popularly known in England as “cromlechs” and in France as “dolmens” (see Stone Monuments). The prevailing mode of sepulture in all the different varieties of these structures is by the deposit of the body in a contracted position, accompanied by weapons and implements of stone, occasionally by ornaments of gold, jet or amber. Vessels of clay, more or less ornate in character, which occur with these early interments of unburnt bodies, have been regarded as food-vessels and drinking-cups, differing in character and purpose from the cinerary urns of larger size in which the ashes of the dead were deposited after cremation.

The custom of burning the body commenced in the Stone Age, before the long barrow or the dolmen had passed out of use. While cremation is rare in the long barrows of the south of England, it is the rule in those of Yorkshire and the north of Scotland. In Ireland, where the long barrow form is all but unknown, the round barrow or chambered cairn prevailed from the earliest Pagan period till the introduction of Christianity. The Irish barrows occur in groups in certain localities, some of which seem to have been the royal cemeteries of the tribal confederacies, whereof eight are enumerated in an ancient Irish manuscript, the Leabhar̂ na h-Uidhr̂i, compiled c. A.D. 1100. The best-known of these is situated on the banks of the Boyne above Drogheda, and consists of a group of the largest cairns in Ireland. One, at New Grange, is a huge mound of stones and earth, over 300 ft. in diameter and 70 ft. in height. Around its base are the remains of a circle of large standing stones. The chamber, which is 20 ft. high in the centre, is reached by a passage about 70 ft. in length. In the Loughcrew Hills, Co. Meath, there is a group of about thirty stone barrows or cairns, mostly chambered, their bases measuring from 5 or 6 to 60 yds. in diameter. They are unusually interesting from the fact that many of the exposed slabs in the walls of the chambers are ornamented with spirals and other devices, rudely incised. As in the case of the long barrows, the traditional form of the circular, chambered barrow was retained through various changes in the sepulchral customs of the people. It was the natural result of the practice of cremation, however, that it should induce a modification of the barrow structure. The chamber, no longer regarded as a habitation to be tenanted by the deceased, became simply a cist for the reception of the urn which held his ashes. The degradation of the chamber naturally produced a corresponding degradation of the mound which covered it, and the barrows of the Bronze Age, in which cremation was common, are smaller and less imposing than those of the Stone Age, but often surprisingly rich in the relics of the life and of the art workmanship of the time. In addition to the varied and beautiful forms of implements and weapons—frequently ornamented with a high degree of artistic taste—armlets and other personal ornaments in gold, amber, jet and bronze are not uncommon. The barrows of the bronze period, like some of those of the Stone Age, appear to have been used as tribal or family cemeteries. In Denmark as many as seventy deposits of burnt interments have been observed in a single mound, indicating its use as a burying-place throughout a long succession of years.

In the Iron Age there was less uniformity in the burial customs. In some of the barrows in central France, and in the wolds of Yorkshire, the interments include the arms and accoutrements of a charioteer, with his chariot, harness and horses. In Scandinavia a custom, alluded to in the sagas, of burying the viking in his ship, drawn up on land, and raising a barrow over it, is exemplified by the ship-burials discovered in Norway. The ship found in the Gokstad mound was 78 ft. long, and had a mast and sixteen pairs of oars. In a chamber abaft the mast the viking had been laid, with his weapons, and together with him were buried twelve horses, six dogs and a peacock. An interesting example of the great timber-chambered barrow is that at Jelling in Jutland, known as the barrow of Thyre Danebod, queen of King Gorm the Old, who died about the middle of the 10th century. It is a mound about 200 ft. in diameter, and over 50 ft. in height, containing a chamber 23 ft. long, 8 ft. wide and 5 ft. high, formed of massive slabs of oak. Though it had been entered and plundered in the middle ages, a few relics were found when it was reopened, among which were a silver cup, ornamented with the interlacing work characteristic of the time and some personal ornaments. It is highly illustrative of the tenacity with which the ancient sepulchral usages were retained even after the introduction of Christianity that King Harold, son and successor of Gorm the Old, who is said to have christianized all Denmark and Norway, followed the pagan custom of erecting a chambered tumulus over the remains of his father, on the summit of which was placed a rude pillar-stone, bearing on one side the memorial inscription in runes, and on the other a representation of the Saviour of mankind distinguished by the crossed nimbus surrounding the head. The so-called Kings’ Hows at Upsala in Sweden rival those of Jelling in size and height. In the chamber of one, opened in 1829, there was found an urn full of calcined bones; and along with it were ornaments of gold showing the characteristic workmanship of the 5th and 6th centuries of the Christian era. Along with the calcined human bones were bones of animals, among which those of the horse and the dog were distinguished.

Comparing the results of the researches in European barrows with such notices of barrow-burial as may be gleaned from early writings, we find them mutually illustrative.

The Homeric account of the building of the barrow of Hector (Il. xxiv.) brings vividly before us the scene so often suggested by the examination of the tumuli of prehistoric times. During nine days wood was collected and brought, in carts drawn by oxen, to the site of the funeral pyre. Then the pyre was built and the body laid upon it. After burning for twenty-four hours the smouldering embers were extinguished with libations of wine. The white and calcined bones were then picked out of the ashes by the friends and placed in a metallic urn, which was deposited in a hollow grave or cist and covered over with large well-fitting stones. Finally, a barrow of great magnitude was heaped over the remains and the funeral feast was celebrated. The obsequies of Achilles, as described in the Odyssey, were also celebrated with details which are strikingly similar to those observed in tumuli both of the Bronze and Iron Ages. The body was brought to the pile in an embroidered robe and jars of unguents and honey were placed beside it. Sheep and oxen were slaughtered at the pile. The incinerated bones were collected from the ashes and placed in a golden urn along with those of Patroclus, Achilles’s dearest friend. Over the remains a great and shapely mound was raised on the high headland, so that it might be seen from afar by future generations of men.

Herodotus, describing the funeral customs of the Scythians, states that, on the death of a chief, the body was placed upon a couch in a chamber sunk in the earth and covered with timber, in which were deposited all things needful for the comfort of the deceased in the other world. One of his wives was strangled and laid beside him, his cup-bearer and other attendants, his charioteer and his horses were killed and placed in the tomb, which was then filled up with earth and an enormous mound raised high over all. The barrows which cover the plains of ancient Scythia attest the truth of this description. A Siberian barrow, described by Demidov, contained three contiguous chambers of unhewn stone. In the central chamber lay the skeleton of the ancient chief, with his sword, his spear, his bow and a quiver full of arrows. The skeleton reclined upon a sheet of pure gold, extending the whole length of the body, which had been wrapped in a mantle broidered with gold and studded with precious stones. Over it was extended another sheet of pure gold. In a smaller chamber at the chief’s head lay the skeleton of a female, richly attired, extended upon a sheet of pure gold and similarly covered with a sheet of the same metal. A golden chain adorned her neck and her arms were encircled with bracelets of pure gold. In a third chamber, at the chief’s feet, lay the skeleton of his favourite horse with saddle, bridle and stirrups.

So curiously alike in their general features were the sepulchral usages connected with barrow-burial over the whole of Europe, that we find the Anglo-Saxon Saga of Beowulf describing the chambered tumulus with its gigantic masonry “held fast on props, with vaults of stone,” and the passage under the mound haunted by a dragon, the guardian of the treasures of heathen gold which it contained. Beowulf’s own burial is minutely described in terms which have a strong resemblance to the parallel passages in the Iliad and Odyssey. There is first the preparation of the pile, which is hung round with helmets, shields and coats of mail. Then the corpse is brought and laid in the midst; the pile is kindled and the roaring flame rises, mingled with weeping, till all is consumed. Then, for ten long days, the warriors labour at the rearing of his mighty mound on the headland, high and broad, to be seen afar by the passers-by on land and sea.

The pyramids of Egypt, the mausolea of the Lydian kings, the circular, chambered sepulchres of Mycenae, and the Etruscan tombs at Caere and Volci, are lineally descended from the chambered barrows of prehistoric times, modified in construction according to the advancement of architectural art at the period of their erection. There is no country in Europe destitute of more or less abundant proofs of the almost universal prevalence of barrow-burial in early times. It can also be traced on both sides of the basin of the Mediterranean, and from Asia Minor across the continent to India, China and Japan.

In the new world as well as in the old, similar customs prevailed from a very remote period. In the great plains of North America the dead were buried in barrows of enormous magnitude, which occasionally present a remarkable similarity to the barrows of Great Britain. In these mounds cremation appears more frequently than inhumation; and both are accompanied by implements, weapons and ornaments of stone and bone. The pottery accompanying the remains is often elaborately ornamented, and the mound builders were evidently possessed of a higher development of taste and skill than is evinced by any of the modern aboriginal races, by whom the mounds and their contents are regarded as utterly mysterious.

It is not to be wondered at that customs so widely spread and so deeply rooted as those connected with barrow-burial should have been difficult to eradicate. In fact, compliance with the Christian practice of inhumation in the cemeteries sanctioned by the church, was only enforced in Europe by capitularies denouncing the punishment of death on those who persisted in burying their dead after the pagan fashion or in the pagan mounds. Yet even in the middle ages kings of Christian countries were buried with their swords and spears, and queens with their spindles and ornaments; the bishop was laid in his grave with his crozier and comb; the priest with his chalice and vestments; and clay vessels filled with charcoal (answering to the urns of heathen times) are found in the churches of France and Denmark.

Authorities—Canon W. Greenwell, British Barrows (London, 1877); Dr J. Thurnam, “On Ancient British Barrows,” in Archaeologia, vols. 42, 43 (1869); J. R. Mortimer, Forty Years’ Researches in Burial Mounds of East Yorkshire (London, 1905); J. Anderson, Scotland in Pagan Times (Edinburgh, 1886); Dr T. H. Bryce, “Records of Explorations among the Cairns of Arran and Bute,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vols. 36, 37, 38 (1901–1903); W. C. Borlase, The Dolmens of Ireland (London, 1897); Dictionnaire archéologique de la Gaule (Paris, 1875); A. P. Madsen, Gravhoie og Gravfund fra Stenalderen i Danmark (Copenhagen, 1900); S. Müller, Nordische Altertumskunde aus Dänemark und Schleswig (Strassburg, 1897); O. Montelius, The Civilization of Sweden in Heathen Times (London, 1888), and Der Orient und Europa (Stockholm, 1899); E. Cartailhac, Les Âges préhistoriques de l’Espagne et du Portugal (Paris, 1886); W. Gowland, “The Dolmens and Burial Mounds in Japan,” in Archaeologia, vol. 55 (1897); C. Thomas, “Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology” (Twelfth Annual Report for 1890–1891, Washington, 1894.)  (J. An.)