The disc barrow has been attributed to the Wessex culture (c2000 –1500 BC), with the barrow itself appearing c1800 - 1750 BC. Often referred to as fancy barrows, these barrows are a variation of the bell barrow. All barrows are normally dated from the grave goods or the remains they contain, and the dating evidence puts the bulk of disc barrows into the early and middle Bronze Age, 500 to 750 years after the appearance of the first Beaker People barrow c2500 BC. The disc barrow is contemporary with the bowl, pond and bell barrows of the same culture. The line of development of this type of barrow appears to be:
- Bowl Barrow
- Bell Barrow
- Disc Barrow
Disc barrows are the last development of the bell barrow. The disc barrow is very similar to the bell barrow, although the distinctive narrow, flat shelf known as the berm has been made much wider than that of the bell barrow, now occupying up to three quarters of the area enclosed by the bank and ditch. The barrow mound or mounds over the burials1 are much reduced in size and height, and the surrounding ditch, the purpose of which is not known, was most likely a feature designed to mark the burial enclosure.
The surrounding ditch provided the bulk of the building material for the mound, following which the barrow mound, berm and ditch were enclosed by a bank. All mounds were built of local materials, and there is no evidence that any materials were ever brought in from elsewhere.
A variation of the disc barrow was created by placing the bank on the inside rather than the outside of the ditch. Although used for male and female burials, this type was most often associated with male burials. As the culture developed the method of burial changed, with the early barrows normally being used for the burial of uncremated remains. It is worth noting that disc and bell barrows often contained more than one burial.
The sizes of disc barrows varied, with the smallest of this type being 17 metres across while the largest, found in Dorset, is 30 metres across. The central mounds of disc barrow would be no higher than 2.4 metres.
There are broadly three main types of disc barrows:
No Burial Mound
Built in the same manner as bell barrows on a flat, level surface but with no mound erected within the platform defined by the bank and ditch to mark the burial pits, these were mostly used for cremation burials. An example of this type is found at Bulford in Wiltshire.
Single Burial Mound
Built as before on a flat, level surface, these barrows have a central mound erected over the burial pit on the platform defined by the bank and ditch. These were also mostly used for cremation burials. An example of this type is found at Ogbourne Saint Andrew in Wiltshire.
Multiple Burial Mounds
Built as before on a flat, level surface, the barrow has several mounds erected on the platform defined by the bank and ditch, again mostly used for cremation burials. An example of this type is found at Amesbury in Wiltshire.
Groups of between two and four disc barrows were usually built in isolation in various situations such as on plains, valleys and hill slopes, although the most popular sites were those on hilltops. Some clusters were located within cemeteries of bowl and bell barrows.
There are about 900 fancy barrows in Britain of which 200 to 230 are disc barrows specifically. These are to be found mainly in the following English counties:
- Devon (Dartmoor and Exmoor)
- Hampshire (at Littleton)
- Somerset (on Exmoor and across the Mendips)
- Wiltshire (at Amesbury, Bulford and Ogbourne Saint Andrew)
- There are also examples from as far north as Scotland.
Disc Barrow identification is only confirmed by the berm and ditch.