Long barrows of the Cotswolds and surrounding areas, by Timothy Darvill
Research on Cotswold long barrows, and on others in surrounding areas, has had a long but patchy and episodic history. It is worth reminding ourselves of this, in order to put Tim Darvill’s new book into context. When John Thurnam and Canon William Greenwell, the latter with the help of George Rolleston, summarised and analysed the state of their knowledge of long barrows, they could already, in the 1860s and 1870s, draw on a long history of investigation going back to Colt Hoare, Stukeley and others. They also drew on their own work, Thurnam (1869, 179) coolly noting that he had opened no fewer than 21 earthen long barrows himself. Few of the investigations involved extensive excavation or high-quality recording, but the combined roll call of investigated chambered barrows from the Cotswolds and surrounding areas was already impressive. The list of sites which they and others had already investigated includes Belas Knap, Cow Common Long and Round, Eyford, Hetty Pegler’s Tump, Lanhill, Nympsfield, Pole’s Wood South and East, Rodmarton, Stoney Littleton, West Kennet and Woodchester. Further work by Pitt Rivers, A.C. Smith, Ward, Witts and others followed, and when O.G.S. Crawford collated information in the 1920s for the Cotswolds and Welsh Marches, his list ran to around 80 certain sites, with a substantial number of other candidates (Crawford 1925). His main achievement perhaps was to bring a sense of the distribution or grouping of what would later be called Cotswold-Severn monuments (Daniel 1950; Corcoran 1969a; 1969b), but there were also accounts of further, more detailed excavations and investigations at sites including Bown Hill, Gatcombe Lodge, Notgrove, Wayland’s Smithy and West Tump.
From the 1930s to the 1960s there followed what might be described as a golden age of fieldwork at southern British earthen and chambered long barrows and cairns. As earlier, the list of site names is evocative, and that of the excavators almost a chronicle of fieldwork during that period in itself: Ashbee at Fussell’s Lodge and Horslip, Atkinson at Parc le Breos Cwm, Berry and Hemp at Belas Knap, Clifford at Notgrove and Nympsfield, Clifford and Daniel at Rodmarton, Drew and Piggott at Thickthorn, Grimes at Saltway Barn and Burn Ground (the first total uncovering of a Cotswold long cairn, during the second world war), Keiller and Piggott at Lanhill, Morgan at Nutbane, Piggott alone at Holdenhurst, Piggott and Atkinson at West Kennet and Wayland’s Smithy, O’Neil at Sale’s Lot, and Savory at Pipton; from further afield we can add Alexander at Chestnuts, Addington, Grimes at Pentre Ifan, and Phillips at Skendleby. The list of research just given includes investigations in the 1960s, and there were others, including Isobel Smith at Beckhampton Road, John Evans and Isobel at South Street, and Wymer at Lambourn.
This is an impressive history, but the research was very varied in extent and quality. While there were innumerable reports in journals, there were surprisingly few book-length accounts. Crawford in the 1920s (1925), then Daniel (1950) and Piggott (1954) in the 1950s, are the mainstays. While Ashbee went on to review earthen long barrows in detail (1970), nothing of comparable depth was published until Tim Darvill’s own earlier, partial account of Cotswold monuments (1982), and then later, concentrating on non-megalithic constructions, the important analysis of Ian Kinnes (1992). Meanwhile, the flow of excavations dwindled to a trickle. The last of the large-scale work in the golden age was at Ascott-under-Wychwood, by Don Benson. For various reasons, that was not published straightaway, though I am happy to advertise that a detailed reported edited by Don and myself (and funded by English Heritage) is now imminent (published for English Heritage by Oxbow). There then followed the Hazleton excavations of Alan Saville, whose report (1990) set new standards and gave a new historical view of date and meaning.
Set against this research history, Long barrows of the Cotswolds and surrounding areas, covering now a possible 140 sites, is a fine, long overdue achievement. It updates Crawford, Daniel, and Piggott (and the younger Darvill too), complements Ashbee, and provides a more readable account than the important but more specialised analyses of Corcoran and Kinnes. It largely does ‘what it says on the tin’, and concentrates on the Cotwold area predominantly together with obviously related monuments west of the Severn, while engaging also from time to time with the earthen and more southerly/easterly tradition. It pulls together an enormous amount of literature and information to give coherent accounts of the early Neolithic context in which the Cotswold long barrows first appeared, of the possible sequence of development, of many aspects of their use including mortuary and other rites, and then, not least, of the circumstances in which these monuments ended or went out of intensive use, and of their later histories. It should establish itself as a key text in the literature on the subject.
Darvill aims for ‘an overtly social perspective’ (p.11), concerned with ‘intricate and complicated mindsets’ (p. 187). He envisages the first monuments, before the new tradition of Cotswold long barrows, going back to the earliest fourth millennium cal BC or even the late fifth, some possibly even built by hunter-gatherer communities (p. 46). The new tradition comes in after 3800 cal BC, he argues, quite abruptly, in some way perhaps connected with older ideas or memories of continental longhouses (p. 76) but also related to house structures for the living now more widely evidenced in Ireland and Britain (p.76-7). These new monuments were used by communities probably either settled or firmly within defined and circumscribed territories (p. 188). Treatment of the dead was very varied (p. 152), and use of particular sites may have been only episodic (p. 152 and 187). Key aspects of life and death were negotiated here: ‘creation myths; views of the world and the place of people in it; accepted patterns of social order; community identity; age and gender structures; the passage of time; cycles of life; the origins of the cosmos; and perhaps some apparatus to cope with the end of the world as they it’ (p. 132). Some of the dead can be regarded as ancestors, but this need be only one of many competing models (p.133). Individual communities used ‘monumentalization and elaboration’ in individual ways, in a social world that was competitive and at times violent (p.207-9).
The book thus offers plenty to ponder. Perhaps it leaves most unanswered the question of why this tradition gets going in the first place, despite hints at a maturation phase and language shifts providing some kind of cultural unity (p. 80). As it happens, while there has been no further significant new fieldwork, the last few years have seen a number of re-assessments of key parts of the evidence. Following re-inspection of human bone assemblages, Michael Wysocki, Alex Bayliss and myself have been able to generate a much larger number of radiocarbon dates for a number of monuments and to interpret them in a Bayesian statistical framework. The same has been possible for Ascott-under-Wychwood, and Alex Bayliss, John Meadows and Alistair Barclay have achieved the same for Hazleton. Another current project by Alex Bayliss, Frances Healy and myself will do a similar job for causewayed enclosures (in which both Philip Dixon for Crickley Hill and Tim himself for the nearby Peak Camp are cooperating), which will serve to deepen a new sense of order and sequence. All these results will be published very soon. Darvill’s suggestion of beginnings for Cotswold long barrows after 3800 cal BC may prove to be in general correct, but his style of summary presentation of dates (as in his fig. 32) will soon be a thing of the past, and we can look ahead to being able to say some surprisingly precise things about the order of events (fig. 33 here being only a start, which will require much tightening). His interesting suggestions about what came before the larger Cotswold monuments – rotundae, portal dolmens, oval barrows ? – remain just that (underlying sites do not ‘clinch the argument’ (p. 46), since it all depends on their absolute date and the date of the overlying monuments) and we can promise some surprises for Wayland’s Smithy I. Likewise, while the account of mortuary rites – or at any rate treatment of human remains – pulls together a useful mass of information, new work by Wysocki and myself on West Kennet, Fussell’s Lodge and Wayland’s Smithy, by Dawn Galer on Ascott-under-Wychwood, and by Martin Smith on other monuments, shows clearly how unreliable older accounts of the human remains can be, including claims for numbers, condition, age and sex. There appears to be considerable diversity, and Darvill is certainly correct that it is probably unwise to plump for a single or even dominant rite of deposition and treatment. And finally, I note an interesting debate emerging about the importance of the thinking, planning and building stages, which among others Lesley McFadyen (2003) and Colin Richards (2004) have promoted, arguing that we have been too influenced by modern notions of final form. Darvill’s account recognizes the potential significance of the midden underlying the Hazleton North long cairn for example (pp 93-4), but could we not make much more of this?
None of these comments are meant to underplay the value and significance of Darvill’s book. Quite the opposite is intended, since this is in its way an under-studied subject, and to its great credit this book redirects our attention to it. A second edition in a year or two, when the various new lines of approach noted above have been published, would be very welcome.
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