The bell barrow has been attributed to the Wessex culture (c2000 – 1500 BC), and this indicates that the bell barrow appeared c2000 - 1750 BC. Barrows are normally dated from the grave goods or the remains they contain, and the dating evidence puts the bulk of bell barrows into the early and middle Bronze Age. This was 500 to 750 years after the appearance of the first Beaker People barrow c2500 BC, and it is contemporary with the pond barrow of the Beakers.
Built on a flat surface singly or in groups of between two to four, the central mounds are erected over the burial pits. The bell barrow was very similar to the bowl barrow, but with a distinctive narrow, flat shelf known as a berm between the barrow mound and the surrounding ditch. The purpose of the berm is not known and is most likely a stylistic feature, but it is the presence of the berm that leads to the name 'bell barrow'. As mentioned in the bowl barrow Entry, the pit was square or rectangular and some were stone lined, these being known as kyst burials. In Wessex burials the dead were put in the tomb with the head to the south, with men lying on their right side facing the east and women lying on their left side facing the west. The surrounding ditch provided the bulk of the building material for the mound, with the barrow mound berm and ditch then being enclosed by a bank.
A variation of the bell barrow is created by surrounding the barrow and ditch with an outer bank. Although used for male and female burials, this particular variation was most often associated with male burials. As the culture developed the method of burial changed - the early barrows were normally used for the burial of uncremated remains, while the final phase of bell barrows were used for cremation burials. It is worth noting that bell barrows often contained more than one burial.
Grave goods indicate a belief in an afterlife and vary with the social standing of the dead person. Items buried with the dead were chosen either to show status, such as bronze goods and weapons, necklaces, gold jewellery and sceptres, or were of a domestic nature, such as pottery jars, cups, buttons1 and a variety of flint tools.
Groups of between two and four bell barrows were usually built in isolation in various situations on plains, valleys and hill slopes, although the most popular sites were those on hilltops. However, it is also very common to find bell barrows located within cemeteries of other round barrows.
The sizes of bell barrows varied greatly - the largest known example has a diameter of 46 metres and sits on at Bincombe Hill, Dorset, while the smallest is at Eggardon Hill and is 17 metres across.
There are about 210 to 260 bell barrows in Britain. These are to be found mainly in the following areas and counties:
- Devon (Dartmoor and Exmoor)
- Dorset (focused around Woodyates)
- Hampshire (in the New Forest)
- Somerset (on Exmoor and across the Mendips)
- Wiltshire (focused around Stonehenge and Avebury)
There is also a bell barrow recorded near Crick in Wales.
Examples Of Mistaken Identity
Bell Barrow identification is only confirmed by the presence of a berm and a ditch, but in the past the following have been mistaken for bowl barrows:
- Medieval House Platforms
- Pillow Mounds
- Gun Platforms
- Mounds (man-made or natural)
- Mill Foundations