The Stonehenge Landscape
I’ve recently written a few posts about the Stonehenge landscape relying on basic information from Pastscape and internet sources including Historic England publications, and some impressions based on my visits:
However, for these posts I wasn’t able to make use of the superb books of recent years outlining the latest archaeology of Stonehenge and its environs and hence, perhaps they lack the scholarly detail required of an academic blog.
Well, there’s no excuse for me now. On my latest trip down to Stonehenge over the Easter weekend, I acquired not only Professor Tim Darvill’s Stonehenge: The Biography of a Landscape but also Mark Bowden, Sharon Soutar, David Field and Martyn Barber’s The Stonehenge Landscape: Analysing the Stonehenge World Heritage Site.
Barrow Cemeteries around Stonehenge
During the Early Bronze Age, the landscape around Stonehenge become populated with the dead. Many graves needn’t have been marked by burial mounds, and many mounds need not have been primarily created for burial. Still, mound-building was evidently an important part of mortuary practice in the late 3rd millennium and early 2nd millennium BC.
Furthermore, the concentration of barrows around Stonehenge suggests a particular significance for this area beyond the needs of a local population; this might have been a gathering place for the dead from many parts of southern Britain. Darvill identifies c. 670 round barrows in the Stonehenge landscape – the most populated area in these islands in terms of burial monuments.
King Barrow Ridge
King Barrow Ridge is one area of particularly striking barrow survival due to light woodland through recent centuries. Most barrows form into clusters called ‘barrow cemeteries’ in either linear, nucleated or dispersed arrangements. Upon King Barrow Ridge we find the most striking example of the first category of these: a linear arrangement of barrows – the ‘New King Barrows’ south of the line of the Avenue, the ‘Old King Barrows’ to the north. This is one of a series of linear cemeteries close to Stonehenge. Its arrangement is created by the topography: the cemetery follows the N-S ridge between the Avon and Stonehenge Bottom.
Bowden et al. don’t quite believe the classification of barrow cemeteries as either linear, nucleated or dispersed, since many cemeteries might contain elements of each. Moreover, associations with earlier Neolithic monuments might only be part of the story. For the King Barrow Ridge, they observe that the natural topography, rather than the pre-existing Neolithic long barrow Amesbury 42 seems to have directed its development. Furthermore, when linear cemeteries are recognised, they warn against assuming a one-direction linear development, with Winterbourne Stoke and Normanton Down suggesting more complex and fluid sequences within the overall linear arrangements. Therefore, for the King Barrows, we cannot be sure whether the barrows started at the north or the south and were added sequentially, began in the centre of the ridge and expanded out in both directions, or had multiple foci that joined together.
These points notwithstanding, while not all barrows surrounding Stonehenge were intervisible with the monument, it is quite possible that the particularly prominent positioning of large mounds of comparable type (rather than a mix of fancy barrows as in other cemeteries) along the King Barrow Ridge was indeed to create a genealogical history of the dead intervisible with Stonehenge. As much as intervisibility with that location exclusively, the barrow cemetery accumulated to frame approaches to Stonehenge and its immediate environs.
Two kinds of construction were identified in the King Barrow Ridge: (i) turf mounds with a chalk capping, (ii) turf and soil mounds without chalk. These latter type are less common. Again though, Bowden et al. emphasise the fluidity of barrow construction: many that receive excavation are demonstrably multi-phased. The King Barrows have received only partial investigation and their scale and relative date are unclear. What is evident is that large areas of downland were clearly stripped to make these mounds (an area of 12 football pitches are estimated for them).
It would be fascinating to learn more about the construction, dating, sequence and mortuary practices associated with this particularly prominent set of prehistoric monuments.
In particular, I am led to wonder whether this group in particular might have attracted later burials through into the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods given their prominence, not so much from Stonehenge, but from the River Avon to their east and the threshold between the downs and the valley.