It is considered that pond barrows were most likely used as mortuaries or ritual monuments of the 'Wessex Culture' (2000–1500 BC). This indicates the appearance of the pond barrow was c2000 - 1750 BC, 500 to 750 years after the appearance of the first Beaker People barrow c2500 BC. Most of this type have no ditch1, but just a clear well-defined outer bank. The most notable feature is a dish-shaped depression in the ground surface inside the bank2 that gives this genre of barrow its name. The saucer barrows differ in that the area inside the ditch and bank has a low mound no higher than the surrounding bank, the ditch encircling the mound.
Pond barrows were built on a level surface with no mound, and were constructed by simply digging out the ground surface within a five- to 20-metre circle to form a shallow pit with sloping sides. Their use as mortuaries or ritual monuments is supported by the discovery of post holes within the barrow. These are possibly the remains of mortuary platforms3 and indicate that the burial practice included de-fleshing the body. Some human remains have been discovered at pond barrows but only in small amounts, appearing to mark the site of a limited number of cremation burials.
The saucer barrows were also built on a levelled surface, and had a low central mound no higher than the bank surrounding the barrow, and there was normally a ditch cut between the mound and its surrounding bank. The central mound was erected over the burial pit, which usually contained a female burial. The burial pit was square or rectangular and some were stone-lined, with the latter being known as kyst burials. The dead were put in the tomb with the head to the south, men lying on the right side facing the east, while women were placed in the grave lying on the left side facing the west.
Barrow sizes vary from five to 30 metres across, and between 10cm and 1.2 metres lower than the surrounding ground level. The surface was sometimes covered with packed flint, and some barrows had a clear entrance4 cut in the bank. Many barrows have post holes that could indicate a timber structure, possibly built to provide a frame on which to expose a body in the open until only the bones were left. The bones would then have been gathered and placed in a tomb. Together with the location close to other barrows and cemeteries, this evidence tends to support the conclusion that these barrows were meant as ritual enclosures.
One problem with the identification of pond barrows is that they can be mistaken or confused with other landscape features such as:
- Land subsidence
- Ancient mines
- Natural hollows
Without the accompanying bank and a regularly-shaped hollow depression, these features cannot be regarded as pond barrows.
The barrow builders seem to just have provided a representation of the other barrow styles. This could be for many reasons, the most likely being to mark a ritual enclosure, or a change of the burial custom as most of these barrows also mark the site of cremation burials.
Those pond barrows that have been excavated have normally had at least one shaft or pit within the barrow. Ballard Down barrow in Dorset had no pits, while Winterbourne Steepleton had 35 pits containing a variety of items. Two of the pits at Winterbourne contained cremated human remains; 14 had pottery, eight had just soil and there were two burials of young children. The remaining nine had bone fragments and broken pottery.
The pits were all of widely varying periods - some show evidence of having been used more than once - and a flint layer was laid over them at a later date.
Pond and saucer barrows have been found in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset, with a small number appearing to the north of this area. There are no other known examples anywhere else in Britain or Europe, although ring cairns may serve a similar purpose in other religions. At the time of writing, around 65 pond and saucer barrows have been identified.