Barrows at the Core of Bronze Age Communities: Petersfield Heath excavations 2014-18 in their regional context

Review by David Field.

Rarely in recent times have extant barrows, let alone groups of them, been excavated, for in most cases developer-funded excavation has only encountered levelled examples and the ditch alone has been sampled. At Petersfield Heath, 14 in a cemetery of 21 barrows underwent excavation, while parallel field investigation placed them within a regional context. Utilising LiDAR, aerial photographs, and historical research, the number in the cemetery itself was increased to 31, while within the wider area – also using ground-truthing – the number of known sites was enlarged by a remarkable 90%. The Historic England National Mapping Programme has for some while been indicating that the sheer number of ring ditches/barrows across the country means that almost every parish can claim at least one site, in some cases multiple sites, and research into these has simply been awaiting enthusiasts. The regular spacing of barrows along the Wiltshire Avon, or the levelled examples along the Ouse, has long indicated the possibilities for identifying social groups. Here, the river is the Rother, and the landscape the greensand lithologies of the southern Weald.

At the outset, the report makes a clear distinction between what it calls ‘enclosure barrows’ and ‘mound barrows’. How far this can be applied across the country remains to be seen, as it would appear to subsume such terms as ring bank, ring cairn, ring ditch, disc, and saucer barrows; but this is perhaps no bad thing, as such categories are invariably less clear-cut in the field than on the page, and can often seem to merge into one another.

The crucial element in the title, however, is ‘communities’, for while studies of the wider landscape are now frequently incorporated in archaeological reports, here a convincing attempt is made to drive matters further and identify social units. On the basis of barrow accumulations, some 13 named communities are identified, each with a range of geologically based habitats and, in a number of cases, with strip arrangements that extend across lithologies up on to the chalk. Of course, there is no certainty about these, and the authors are suitably cautious, but it is an intriguing and important step towards clarifying the nature of Early Bronze Age society, economy, and land-use.

Until recently, major interest in barrows focused on burial and grave goods, with little attention given to the nature of the mounds themselves. The Petersfield Heath project set completely different questions at the start, and sends barrow studies in new directions. This report on the work is weighty. It is comprehensive and disciplined, with exhaustive and detailed attention given to every part of the project, whether it be research into local history, or the nature of arrowhead pre-forms. Twenty-two chapters (with 36 contributors) meticulously describe aspects of the programme, from pollen analysis to radiocarbon dating, and some of these subsets are intriguing indeed. The description of ten Mesolithic sites on the Heath, for example, leads to a full re-evaluation of the regional Mesolithic: enthusiasts and specialists of that period will definitely want to delve in here.

The excavations of individual barrows are exemplary. Fourteen were investigated by excavation and at least three burials in coffins and four in urns encountered. The description of laboratory-based micro-excavation of the urns is engaging, with inner organic containers, a coiled withy lining, an internal dish, a collared basket, and, in one case, external pottery cladding all revealed. Without doubt, future intact urn discoveries should be treated in this way, and one wonders with alarm what was missed when all those urns were excavated in past times. It is truly a model report and can, without reservation, be described as the most comprehensive on a barrow cemetery to-date. It should, hopefully, provide a catalyst for similar investigations elsewhere in the country.

Barrows at the Core of Bronze Age Communities: Petersfield Heath excavations 2014-18 in their regional context, Stuart Needham and George Anelay, Sidestone Press, £115 (free online), ISBN 978-9464260434