Backwell Environment Trust

...10+ years of conservation, protection, improvement...

Backwell Barrows

Barrow view sm

There is a Bronze Age barrow cemetery in the field by the Jubilee Stone, with 4 – 6 burial mounds dating back 2,500 to 4,000 years, although they are quite hard to make out now. They date from the middle to late Bronze Age, when the usual practice was for the dead to be cremated and buried either individually or as part of a family group. The ashes were then placed, with due ceremony, in specially-made urns, and set upright in a pit in the centre of an earth or rubble mound, sometimes surrounded by a ditch. This is unlike the earlier period when defleshed, disarticulated bones were left in chambered tombs.

Urn

The urn shown here came from a barrow made of stacked-up turfs in a cemetery on the skyline at Beacon Hill, Shepton Mallet. Made of coarse fabric, and decorated with a row of finger prints, it contained the ashes of a female, 18-25 years old.

Barrows were usually placed on the false crest of a hillside, and in close proximity to the settlement, so the dead were, in theory, still part of the living. No trace has been found of where they lived at Backwell, but it might have been somewhere in BET woods, or down below under more modern houses.

In 1933 Professor E. K. Tratman flew over the whole area looking for archaeological sites, noticed the barrows and later investigated them on foot, carefully measuring their sizes as he went along. Lower down on the hillside he reported that there were 2 almost touching each other on sloping ground, their height ranging from 4 ft to 8 ft, with flat depressed areas on their summits. Local tradition is that they are spoil heaps from mining, but there are no large shafts or mining pits nearby. The golf course was built into their sides.

Bronze Age

What the largest barrow might have looked like

Another large barrow closest to the Jubilee Stone had a circle of stones around it, 2 ft high, 6 ft wide at the base and 30 ft in diameter. A central mound of stones was 3 ft high and 14 ft in diameter, which joined the outer ring in 2 places. This is the barrow that in 1898 was excavated by Reverend George Masters from Flax Bourton, who described it like ‘a cup or basin inverted in its saucer’. He dug it in July, but probably not up to the usual rigorous standards adopted by today’s archaeologists.

BA barrow

How not to dig a barrow!

Some antiquarians often dug out with picks and shovels the central area where they thought the burial and grave goods were, telling workmen to stop when they found bones or pottery. This is how Reverend John Skinner of Camerton managed to dig 100 barrows in 17 years, although, to his credit, he did make detailed sketches of them.

Pitt Rivers barrow dig

Pitt-Rivers excavating Wor Barrow, Dorset in 1893.

General Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers was very professional, and an important pioneer in many aspects of archaeology, his work being neat, methodical and accurately surveyed in accordance with his military training. Not only did he record all finds, however trivial, but also the contexts in which they were found, and published all the information in massive volumes, with copious illustrations that are informative even today.

Back at Backwell, Reverend Masters was very disappointed by his barrow, because instead of burial urns and jewellery, etc. all he found was a pavement of flat stones, 2 ft down below the surface. They covered a layer of ‘moist and unctuous’ (greasy, soapy, oily) earth which yielded bones from pigs and smaller animals, but no human ones. There were also fragments of glazed earthenware, tobacco clay pipes and iron nails, all of a recent date, which he declared ‘constituted a puzzle’. As the nearby Jubilee Stone was only built the previous year in 1897, it is probable that these unexpected finds were left by the workmen, who buried traces of their meals and pipes beneath stones in the barrow – these stones being identical to those placed beneath the Stone itself.

Very little can be seen of the barrows today, apart from slightly raised surfaces in the grass and most of the top stones were removed to allow deep ploughing by tractors in the field after the War.

In 2011 both resistivity and magnetometry geophysics were carried out on several of the barrows to determine if any features still remained beneath the surface of the soil, and two previously unknown ones with ring ditches were found. Probably all the main burials are still intact, and although this could be confirmed by excavation, it is better that they remain intact and undisturbed, on the hillside where they have already lain for several thousand years.

© 2017 Backwell Environment Trust