I recently made a speedy visit to Wiltshire to take some photographs of key monuments and sites I am teaching and researching. I packed in much of the Stonehenge landscape and parts of the Avebury landscape in one day. On the way back from visiting West Kennet long barrow, in rapidly failing light, I tried to fit in one last monument before night fell. Yet rather than a prehistoric or early historic site, I decided to visit a striking and unique 21st-century collective mortuary monument: All Cannings Long Barrow.
In many ways, this local sarsen-built and earth-covered megalithic chambered columbarium has, in the 18 months or so since its opening, become almost as famous as the prehistoric monuments that have inspired it. Work began in January 2014 and it was opened 20th September 2014. The Long Barrow is as a modern megalithic repository for the 21st-century cremated dead, able to receive up to c. 1,000 urns in niches stacked five-high within five chambers. Let’s be clear; it rightly claims to be the first long barrow building in c. 5,000 years and as such takes the present-day fascination with British prehistory and its mortuary practices to a new depth and a specific direction.
(Note: the BBC news site has a section at the end called ‘What is a long barrow?’ which is really a bad attempt to answer the question ‘what is a barrow?’, under which there is the sentence “They were usually reserved for members of the social elite or Anglo-Saxon royalty”. To say this cut-and-paste misinformation detracts from the point of Neolithic long barrows and the modern monument is a massive understatement.)
The monument takes as its inspiration a range of prehistoric monument types, but it is far from a pastiche of all or most Neolithic megalithic monuments. It is primarily inspired by the Cotswold-Severn chambered tomb tradition best-known for sites like Stoney Littleton, Wayland’s Smithy, Hetty Pegler’s Tump, Nympsfield, Belas Knap and Hazleton North.
In close proximity to the All Cannings long barrow, a famous example of this monument type is reconstructed following excavation and accessible to visit at West Kennet just south of Avebury. Closer still in proximity is the dramatically situated and evocatively named Adam’s Grave long barrow. This monument overlooks the Vale of Pewsey not far to the north-east of All Cannings, although the chambers of this monument (rifled by early archaeologists) are no longer accessible.
The overall location is suitable for a prehistoric monument; like West Kennet and others it sits within farmland and it has no external elaboration. It even has its own heritage-style signpost. This seems intentional, and the organisers seem to imply that they hope the site is used for informal visits – picnics and the curious – rather than set aside as some exclusive and private place of contemplation and prayer. This is one element that clearly contrasts with the approach and design from many cemeteries and churchyards: there are no fences and no restrictions on access. In other words, the monument’s setting is ‘prehistoric’ as well as its form.
External Form and Appearance
Likewise, the external morphology – tapering and narrow to its back, broad and high to its front – is strikingly similar to Adam’s Grave long barrow. The facade is also similar to those one can see at other Welsh and English chambered tombs, although the decision not to build megalithic uprights into the facade is worthy of note. The presence of a single stone at its back-side, and two recumbent slabs at either side of the broad front, do make it rather distinctive from Cotswold-Severn tombs I’ve seen. I didn’t do so, but there seems no restriction upon climbing up the monument, comparable with (for example) West Kennet long barrow and many other accessible Cadw and English Heritage managed Neolithic monuments.
On my visit, I obviously couldn’t look inside, but I could peek through the fabulous and memorable locked door down the main passage. After the visit, I got in touch with the owner – Tim Daw. With his generous permission, I rely on the website for information and images.
The internal arrangements display explicit design similarities to Neolithic chambered tombs, including the central axis provided by the passage from the broad end and the construction with large sarsens and drystone slabs as can be seen at many reconstructed Neolithic monuments.
The inside takes ideas from other monument types. There is a celestial alignment: the sun enters down the entrance and along the central passage on the morning of the winter solstice, an alignment which takes its inspiration from late Neolithic passage graves, notably Newgrange. This is apposite given the supposed importance of cremation in these monuments. Likewise, the drystone corbelled roofs of the chambers echo passage graves, notably Newgrange and Maes Howe.
It is important to note key and multiple internal differences between this 21st-century monument and ancient passage graves and chambered tombs. These are deliberate and relate to its use for the cremated dead in discrete niches. Moreover, the curving drystone columns are distinctive and not some copy of any single prehistoric monument I am aware of from Britain. Hence, this arrangement sets its contemporary use apart from the Neolithic and reflects the required design for a columbarium.
A further difference is the absence of a single ‘main/end chamber’, which I think must have been deliberate to ensure that no ‘special’ treatment is given to those furthest inside the monument. Instead, and affording a greater sense of equality for the urns that end up throughout the monuments’ niches, there are four chambers, two running off each side of the central passage. From one of these, a further smaller chamber extends with smaller niches for single urns. Also unlike early Neolithic chambered tombs which have rectangular or polygonal chambers, these individual chambers are circular, akin to the passage grave tradition.
Another striking feature is the ‘double-helix’ doorway, affording a very 21st-century dimension to the display of the monument and a reflection on both human mortality and ancestry.
The power of this monument for me is not about any attempt to contrive prehistory in its precise location, construction and function. Of course it is megalithic, chambered, and has a mortuary function. Yet this is unashamedly a 21st-century monument for a 21st-century mortuary need, albeit inspired by Britain and Europe’s prehistoric past. On the BBC website, Tim Daw is quoted as saying “It’s not a pastiche or a reconstruction of an ancient long barrow – it’s been made more usable but keeping a traditional feel to it.” I think that sums it up nicely.
Neo-pagan religious ceremonies were conducted at the start of work and at its opening, as depicted in the photo galleries on the Long Barrow website. However, the promotion of the monument itself makes it clear that this is a facility potentially open to all. Its prehistoric allusions are marketed to appeal to everyone, not those with a particular religious affinity with prehistoric Britain and modern thinking regarding its religions and spirituality.
A Wider Context
What readers might not be aware is that this kind of deliberate and careful revisiting of prehistory in modern mortuary and memorial architecture, while not commonplace, does have clear precedents. I have explored some of these in my research, but I also point out that Scottish prehistorians Gavin MacGregor and Kenny Brophy are among those who have explored megalithic monuments in the modern landscape through their blogs. These include monuments with intended, or acquired, memorial and mortuary dimensions. I would also point readers in the direction of a superb paper by Ing-Marie Back Danielsson on Swedish prehistoric monuments inspiring 19th- and 20th-century Swedish mortuary monuments: Presenting the Past.
Regarding my research, I would point readers to my 2012 paper looking at antiquity incorporated into modern Swedish cemetery designs here: Ash and Antiquity. Swedish burial grounds contain a range of miniature megalithic tombs, boat-shaped stone settings, Iron Age cairns and rune-stones woven into contemporary mortuary environments.
I followed this up by discussing in detail the antique allusions incorporating into the very place where ‘our nation remembers’: the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffordshire called Antiquity at the National Memorial Arboretum. The NMA is full of stone circles, megaliths and other overt material citations to British prehistory, including the Armed Forces Memorial designed to resemble both Silbury Hill and the mounds around Stonehenge (so said the architects).
These studies are part of my wider interest in the mortuary archaeology of the contemporary past. Furthermore, there is also plenty of evidence, as discussed in this blog, that ancient monuments and heritage locations are being widely used to scatter ashes and commemorate the dead.
Therefore, it seems that early 21st-century Britain, and other parts of Europe, are seeing a renaissance in the present-day revaluation of prehistoric mortuary architectures to commemorate the cremated dead, not simply for those of any single religious faith and identity, but for many different groups in Western secular societies.
Set against this research, I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to revisit the Long Barrow at All Cannings and write more about it. I can see the potential for – if permission were allowed – an evaluation of how this monument is being written about, used and whether it is inspiring further memorial and mortuary uses of the prehistoric past.