The Neolithic Age and the Barrow Age began c5000 BC with the building of long barrows1, but the peoples of this culture should also be remembered for the building of some of the most important monuments of prehistory. In 3100 BC, construction of Stonehenge was commenced, and in 2800 BC the Avebury monument was started. 500 years later, in 2300 BC the Woodhenge monument was built, and then in 2200 BC the first stage of Silbury Hill was commenced.
If nothing else this provides evidence of the ability of the Neolithic peoples to organise the population and build these monuments. The social cohesion in this society had by then reached a very sophisticated level, and this without a hereditary ruling elite or noble class.
The culture developed in a new way c3300 BC with the introduction of a crop-farming culture and with the introduction of new domesticated animals, thus heralding the end of the hunter-gatherer way of life and leading to the first settled groups or communities. The new skills developed by these groups included:
- Round-house building
- The creation of pottery
- Development of crop varieties and the cultivation, harvesting and storage of grain
- Domestication of animals in Britain
- Development and usage of the plough
These first steps gave the Neolithic people more time to develop such things as building skills, religious belief and ritual. The need to build monumental structures came at this time, and the ability to plan and build these was an important new skill.
The first wooden ploughs were primitive and best suited to the light soils of southern Britain, and so it was here that the first settlers cleared an area of woodland for cultivation. This land was only fit for use as farm land for three or four years, soon becoming exhausted and fit only for grazing animals after this type of cultivation. This meant new farm land had to be cleared again from the surrounding forest. As this process was repeated over the years it eventually led to the creation of huge open areas, this in turn created the downs and heathland that are the landscape of southern Britain. No other culture has changed the look of Britain as much - not even 20th-Century man has had such an effect.
The best farmland was found on the chalk soil along the tops of the south downs of Hampshire and Wiltshire. The quality of this farmland was such that it could last for generations, and this led to a greater development of the culture of the population in these areas. This in turn enabled development of monuments such as:
- Chamber Tombs
- Long Barrows
- Standing Stones
- Ring Works
The Beaker People and the Wessex Culture
These cultures are confusing as both appear to be migrants from Europe. Both were early Bronze Age cultures and there is an overlapping period of 500 years when both coexisted. What relationship these cultures had with each other is hard to define, but it appears that they both became part of the cultural elite establishing themselves as the rulers of the original agricultural population of Britain. They were both warlike cultures and established their kings and supporting nobility in Britain and both created burial mounds to honour their departed nobility. They also introduced alcohol (mead) and loom-weaving into Britain. Both cultures were stock farmers who together caused the greatest change in the Neolithic agricultural pattern, as it was their flocks that helped shape much of the downland of southern Britain.
Ice-core dating evidence from Greenland regarding Iceland's volcano, Hekla, shows an eruption in the year 2345 BC. This is the time of the migration of the Beaker people into Britain, and could be the direct cause of a migration of this type from Europe.
Then, in 1159 BC, the volcano Hekla erupted again, and this may have brought further climatic change2, possibly leading to the end of the Wessex culture in 1500 BC and the Beaker culture 100 years later in 1400 BC.
The Beaker People (c2500 - 1400 BC)
Originally migrants or invaders from northern and western Europe3 where they had strong cultural links with the Battle-Axe culture, the Beaker people are named after the style of the pottery vessels in production for over 500 years and commonly found as grave goods. Kings, chiefs and warrior leaders appeared at this time. They also favoured single burials introducing the round barrow to replace the communal long barrow.
It is possible that they were sun-worshippers, as their additions to Stonehenge indicate its use as a solar temple. Some of the gold artefacts of this culture include coin-sized discs with sun symbols on one side. They were accomplished warriors and copper spears and daggers have been found at many sites associated with the Beaker culture.
Traces of the Beaker peoples can be found over an area half the size of the Roman Empire. They were established in Britain, Germany, Holland, Austria, Spain, Portugal and France, and on the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Sicily. The characteristic beakers of the Beaker people have also been found in Ireland, although there is no evidence to suggest that the Beaker People themselves ever lived there.
The Wessex Culture (c2000 – 1500 BC)
Again migrants or invaders from northern and western Europe, the Wessex Culture arrived around 500 years later than the Beakers but shared the land with them. The similarity between the Beaker and Wessex peoples was so great that they may have been very closely related, although it has not been proved that they share a common origin. The two peoples appear to have existed in peace as there is no evidence of prolonged warfare and the evidence of the monuments points to a settled peaceful period. They might even have been the ancestors of the Royal houses of Mercia and Wessex.
Named after the geographical area where Wessex Culture finds4 are most commonly located, The Wessex Culture maintained good trade links with Europe, with the wealth they acquired, contributing to their ability to build many tombs and monuments. They also favoured single burials and are credited with the introduction of the disc barrow, but did however build and use other styles of burial mound.
A note regarding barrows in Roman Britain - these are not common as up until the 3rd Century AD, a cremation ceremony known as 'the bustum' was the chief method used. From the 3rd Century on Romans preferred to use cemeteries for burying their dead, examples of which exist all over Britain. The best-known Roman barrows in England are the Bartlow Hills at Ashdon, Essex and the Six Hills at Stevenage, Hertfordshire.
A Roman burial site has also been found at Bartlow Hills, Linton, in Cambridgeshire, which features the largest burial mounds in the western empire. There are also examples from all over the Roman Empire as this type of burial was not uncommon in the wider Roman world. Meanwhile, the rural indigenous population of Roman Britain tended to use the older monuments, and bowl barrows were a particularly favoured choice.
When the Vikings arrived in Britain they brought with them the pagan burial customs of their forbears. This can be seen from the evidence of the burials right from the Orkneys to the occupied areas of central Britain. A common boat burial of the pagan era is the single burial, with the body of the deceased being laid out with the weapons and tools they used in life, and either placed in a large boat or covered over with a small boat. The boat burial would in turn be covered with a burial mound. The distribution of the burials is a useful indication of Viking settlement within Britain, and shows that the burial customs of the Viking communities changed rapidly after the settlements were established within Britain. The causes of this were the conversion to Christianity and the growth of wealth within the communities. This together with the influence of the Saxon upper class led to the habit of burying of Viking nobles with stone grave markers on church grounds.
There are several common traits shared between various barrow-building cultures, with each exhibiting at least two of the following:
- Leaders in the implementation of a new technology or trade.
- Skilled and aggressive warriors.
- Dynamic and organised communities with skilled leadership.
It is little wonder that these cultures should wish to leave monuments to commemorate themselves and their leaders.