1902 Encyclopedia > Barrows


BARROWS. The custom of constructing barrows, or mounds of stones or earth, over the remains of the dead was the most characteristic feature of the sepulchral systems of primitive times. Originating in the common Bentiment of humanity, which desires by some visible memorial to honour and perpetuate the memory of the dead, it was practised alike by nations of high and of low development, and continued through all the stages of culture that preceded the introduction of Christianity. The primary idea of sepulture appears to have been the provision of a habitation for the dead; and thus, in its perfect form, the barrow included a chamber or chambers where the tenant was surrounded with all the prized possessions of his previous life. A common feature of the earlier barrows is the enclosing fence, which marked off the site from the surrounding ground. When the barrow was of earth, this was usually effected by an encircling trench or a low vallum. When the barrow was a stone structure, the enclosure was usually a circle of standing stones. Sometimes, instead of a chamber formed above ground, the barrow covered a pit excavated under the original surface, in which the interments had been made. In later times the mound itself was frequently dispensed with, and the interments made under the natural surface, within the enclosure of a trench, a vallum, or a circle of standing stones. Usually the great barrows occupy conspicuous sites; but in general the external form is no index to the internal' construction, and gives no absolute indication of the nature of the sepulchral usages. Thus, while the long barrow is characteristic of the Stone Age, it is impossible to tell without direct examination whether it may be chambered or unchambered, or whether the burials within it may be those of burnt or of unburnt bodies.

In England the long barrow usually contains a single chamber, entering by a passage underneath the higher and wider end of the mound. In Denmark the chambers are at irregular intervals along the body of the mound, and have no passages leading into them. The long barrows of Great Britain are often from 200 to 400 feet in length by 60 to 80 feet wide. Their chambers are rudely but strongly built, with dome-shaped roofs, formed by overlapping the successive courses of the upper part of the side walls. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, such dome-roofed chambers are unknown, and the construction of the chambers as a rule is megalithic, five or six monoliths supporting a capstone of enormous size. Such chambers denuded of the covering mound, or over which no covering mound has been raised, are popularly known in England as " cromlechs " and in France as " dolmens." The prevailing mode of sepulture in all the different varieties of these structures is by the deposit of the body in a contracted position, accompanied by weapons and implements of stone, occasionally by ornaments of gold, jet, or amber. Vessels of clay, more or less ornate in character, which occur with these early interments of unburnt bodies, are regarded as food vessels and drinking cups, differing in character and purpose from the cinerary urns of the Cremation Period in which the ashes of the dead were deposited.
The custom of burning the body commenced in the Stone Age before the long barrow or the cromlech, with their contracted burials, had passed out of use. While cremation is rare in the long barrows of the south of England, it is the rule in those of Yorkshire and the north of Scotland. In Ireland, where the long barrow form is all but unknown, the round barrow, or chambered cairn, prevailed from the earliest Pagan period till the introduction of Christianity. The Irish barrows occur in groups in certain localities, which seem to have been the royal cemeteries of the tribal confederacies, whereof eight are enumerated in an ancient Celtic manuscript on Pagan cemeteries. The best known of these was the burial-place of the kings of Tara. It is situated on the banks of the Boyne above Drogheda, and consists of a group of the largest cairns in Ireland. One of these, at New Grange, is a huge mound of stones and earth, over 300 feet in diameter at the base, and 70 feet in height. Around its base are the remains of a circle of large standing stones. The chamber, which is 20 feet high in the centre, is reached by a passage 70 feet in length. (See illustration, vol. ii. p. 384.)
As in the case of the long barrows, the traditional form of the circular chambered barrows was retained through various changes in the sepulchral customs of the people, and we find it used both in connection with burnt and with unburnt burials. It was the natural result of the practice of cremation, however, that it should induce a modification of the barrow structure. The chamber, no longer regarded as a habitation to be tenanted by the deceased, became simply a cist for the reception of the urn which held his ashes. The degradation of the chamber naturally produced a corresponding degradation of the mound which covered it, and the barrows of the Bronze Age, in which cremation was the rule, are smaller and less imposing than those of the Stone Age, but often surprisingly rich in the relics of the life and of the art workmanship of the time. In addi-tion to the varied and beautiful forms of implements and weapons,—frequently ornamented with a high degree of artistic taste,—armlets, coronets, or diadems of solid gold, and vases of elegant form and ornamentation in gold and bronze, are not uncommon. The barrows of the Bronze Period, like some of those of the Stone Age, appear to have been used as tribal or family cemeteries. In Denmark as many as seventy deposits of burnt interments have been observed in a single mound, indicating its use as a burying-place throughout a long succession of years.

In the early Iron Age there was a partial return to the more massive construction of the earlier periods. Some-times chambers are found formed of timber instead of stones, in which the bodies were deposited unburnt, although the custom of cremation was largely continued. In Scandinavia both of these modes of sepulture lingered till the close of the Pagan time. One of the latest examples of the great timber-chambered barrow is that at Jelhnge in Jutland, known as the barrow of Thyre Danebod, queen of King Gorm the Old, who died about the middle of the 10th century. It is a mound about 200 feet in diameter, and over 50 feet in height, containing a chamber 23 feet long, 8 feet wide, and 5 feet high, formed of massive slabs of oak. Though it had been entered and plundered in the Middle Ages, a few relics, overlooked by its original violators, were found when it was recently reopened, among which were a silver cup, ornamented with the interlacing work characteristic of the time, and some personal ornaments. It is highly illustrative of the tenacity with which the ancient sepulchral usages were retained even after the introduction of Christianity that King Harald, son and successor of Gorm the Old, who is said to have Christianized all Denmark and Norway, followed the Pagan custom of erecting a chambered tumulus over the remains of his father, on the summit of which was placed a rude pillar-stone, bearing on one side the memorial inscrip-tion in Bunes, and on the other a representation of the Saviour of mankind distinguished by the crossed nimbus surrounding the head. The Kings' Hows at Upsala in Sweden rival those of Jellinge in size and height. In the chamber of one of them, which was opened in 1829, there was found an urn full of calcined bones; and along with it were some ornaments of gold showing the characteristic workmanship of the 5th and 6th centuries of the Christian era. Along with the calcined human bones were bones of animals, among which those of the horse and the dog were distinguished. In much earlier times the favourite horse or dog of the deceased was frequently deposited in Etruscan tombs, and the custom continued in Northern Europe until cremation, and the barbarous rites which usually accompanied it, were abolished by the stringent prohibitions of the Christian church.

Comparing the results of the researches in European barrows with such notices of barrow-burial as may be gleaned from early writings, we find them mutually illus-trative.

The Homeric account of the building of the barrow of Hector (II. xxiv.) brings vividly before us the scene so often suggested by the examination of the tumuli of pre-historic times. During nine days wood was collected and brought, in carts drawn by oxen, to the site of the funeral pyre. Then the pyre was built and the body laid upon it. After burning for twenty-four hours the smouldering embers were extinguished with libations of wine. The white and calcined bones were then picked out of the ashes by the friends and placed in a metallic urn, which was deposited in a hollow grave, or cist, and covered over with large well-fitting stones. Finally, a barrow of great magnitude was heaped over the remains, and the funeral feast was cele-brated. The obsequies of Achilles, as described in the Odyssey, were also celebrated with details which are strik-ingly similar to those observed in tumuh both of the Bronze and Iron Ages. The body was brought to the pile in an embroidered robe, and jars of unguents and honey were placed beside it. Sheep and oxen were slaughtered at the pile. The incinerated bones were collected from the ashes and placed in a golden urn along with those of Patroclus, Achilles's dearest friend. Over the remains a great and shapely mound was raised on the high headland, so that it might be seen from afar by future generations of men.

Herodotus, describing the funeral customs of the Scy-thians, states that, on the death of a chief, the body was placed upon a couch in a chamber sunk in the earth and covered with timber, in which were deposited all things need-ful for the comfort of the deceased in the other world. One of his wives was strangled and laid beside him, his cup-bearer and other attendants, his charioteer, and his horses, were killed and placed in the tomb, which was then filled up with earth, and an enormous mound raised high over all. The barrows which cover the plains of ancient Scythia attest the truth of this description. A Siberian barrow, described by Demidoff, contained three contiguous chambers of unhewn stone. In the central chamber lay the skeleton of the ancient chief, with his sword, his spear, his bow, and a quiver full of arrows. The skeleton reclined upon a sheet of pure gold, extending the whole length of the body, which had been wrapped in a mantle broidered with gold and studded with precious stones. Over it was extended another sheet of pure gold. In a smaller cham-ber at the chiefs head lay the skeleton of a female, richly attired, extended upon a sheet of pure gold, and similarly covered with a sheet of the same metal. A golden chain adorned her neck, and her arms were encircled with brace-lets of pure gold. In a third chamber, at the chief's feet, lay the skeleton of his favourite horse with saddle, bridle, and stirrups.

So curiously alike in their general features were the sepulchral usages connected with barrow-burial over the whole of Europe, that we find the Anglo-Saxon Saga of Beowulf describing the chambered tumulus with its gigantic masonry " held fast on props with vaults of stone," and the passage under the mound haunted by a dragon, the guardian of the treasures of heathen gold which it con-tained. Beowulf's own burial is minutely described in terms which have a strong resemblance to the parallel passages in the Iliad and Odyssey. There is first the pre-paration of the pile, which is hung round with helmets, shields, and coats of mail. Then the corpse is brought and laid in the midst; the pile is kindled, and the roaring flame rises, mingled with weeping, till all is consumed. Then, for ten long days, the warriors labour at the rearing of his mighty mound on the headland, high and broad, to be seen afar by the passers by on land and sea.

The pyramids of Egypt, the mausolea of the Lydian kings, the sepulchres of the Atreidae at Mycenae, and the Etruscan tombs at Caere and Volci, are lineally descended from the chambered barrows of prehistoric times, modified in construction according to the advancement of architec-tural art at the period of their erection. There is no country in Europe destitute of more or less abundant proofs of the almost universal prevalence of barrow-burial in early times. It can be traced on both sides of the basin of the Mediterranean, in Northern Africa, and in Asia Minor, across the plains of Mesopotamia, in the valley of Cabul, and throughout Western India. But more extended research in the archaeology of these vast regions is needed to enable as to correlate their ancient remains with those of the European continent.

In the New World as well as in the Old, the same customs prevailed over vast areas from a very remote period. In the great plains of North America the dead were buried in barrows of enormous magnitude, which occasionally present a remarkable similarity to the long barrows of Great Britain. In these mounds cremation appears more frequently than inhumation ; and both are accompanied by implements, weapons, and ornaments of stone and bone. The pottery accompanying the remains is often elaborately ornamented, and the mound builders were evidently possessed of a higher development of taste and skill than is evinced by any of the modern aboriginal races, by whom the mounds and their contents are regarded as utterly mysterious.

It is not to be wondered at that customs so widely spread and so deeply rooted as those connected with barrow-burial should have been difficult to eradicate. In fact, compliance with the Christian practice of inhumation in the cemeteries sanctioned by the church, wras only enforced in Europe by capitularies denouncing the punishment of death on those who persisted in burying their dead after the Pagan fashion or in the Pagan mounds. Yet even in the Middle Ages kings were buried with their swords and spears, and queens with their spindles and ornaments ; the bishop was laid in his grave with his crosier and comb, his chalice and vestments ; and clay vessels filled with charcoal (answering to the urns of heathen times) are found with the interments in the churches of France and Denmark.

See Bateman, Ten Years' Diggings ; Davis and Tlmrnani, Crania Britannica ; Thurnam, "Ancient British Barrows," in Archeologia; Canon Greenwell, Dr Angus Smith, and J. Anderson, " On Cairns in Argyle and Caithness," in Proceedings of the Society of Anti-quaries of Scotland; Petrie, Histories and Antiquities of Tara, and Round Towers of Ireland; Worsaae's Antiquities of Denmark, trans-lated by Thorns ; Nicolaysen, Norske Fornlevninger ; Montelius, La Suède Préhistorique; Cochet, La Normandie Souterraine; Squier and Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley ; Stevens, Flint Chips; Ferguson, Stone Monuments of all Countries. (J. AN.)

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