Site Diary: What Kind Of Burial Mound Have We Actually Found?

Morecambe Barrow Silhouettes

What type of barrow is Morecambe’s Bronze Age burial mound? There are as many possibilities as there are flavours of ice cream for sale on Morecambe’s famous beachfront promenade, but after two weeks of excavation, we think we’ve finally nailed it…

‘Barrow’ is a catchall term for a burial mound; there are round ones, long ones, and even pond-shaped ones to name but a few. We knew that ours was some sort of round barrow, but even then there’s plenty of variation. Some are simply hilltops with minimal modification into which burials have been placed, some are enhanced with enclosing ditches and earthen banks, and some (especially in the North where you’re just as likely to find a cairn) are circled by stone banks, or have stone mounds piled on top.

That means when you excavate them, you might anything from platforms, pits, cairns and turf mounds, to mortuary enclosures and burials. They might even conceal or be built upon earlier monuments and henges. And because they often stayed in use for millennia, being used and reused multiple times, they can even be a combination of any or all of these features. What’s important to remember is that no two barrows are the same.

Taking all this into account, we can safely say that when we started our excavation, there were as many possibilities for the size and shape of this barrow as there were flavours of ice cream for sale on Morecambe’s famous beachfront promenade. Two weeks ago, we set out to see if we could work what ‘flavour’ of barrow we actually had.

The first revelation

One week into the dig, we’d managed to establish that our burial mound may actually have been white, or that at the very least, the people who built it did so using a large amount of white stone. As well as being on a prominent hillside, it would have stood out like a Bronze Age beacon in the surrounding landscape, and even out to boats sailing past in Morecambe Bay.

But at that point, we were still struggling to define its shape. We knew that hill itself was a drumlin, but to what extent had it people modified it? Was it simply an exposed hilltop, into which burials had been inserted? Had they covered it in stones to create a cairn? Had they enclosed it with a ring of stone? These were just a few of the possibilities.

Now, at the end of our second week of excavation, we’ve got another revelation; our Bronze Age barrow is, in actual fact, probably a ring cairn.

Joining the dots

Almost as soon as we hit the Bronze Age layer, the Venturers started uncovering big blocks of stone, as well as dense concentrations of pebbles at the far end of each arm of our cross-shaped trench. We knew the barrow monument reached to the furthest corners of our trench, making it at least 20m in diameter.

Our question now was whether these patches of cobbles were multiple, separate features, or whether they joined up to form a single feature that continued under our unexcavated areas. It wasn’t until the last day of the dig that we finally found the answer…

The turning point

The first clue came from Venturer Paul, who had spent the week diligently exposing them in the south arm of the cross.

On the last day, it became clear that Paul’s patch of cobbles seemed to be curving. Or, in archaeospeak, had a ‘turn’. But to be certain that it was indeed arcing around the hilltop, we need to expose more of it.

And so, with the clock ticking down, we rapidly worked to uncover more of the cobbles. And the more we exposed of it, the more it did indeed seem to be curving.

But could we prove that this curving patch of cobbles continued under the unexcavated area to join up with the patch of cobbles in the other arms of the trench?

Not just a barrow, but a ring cairn

To find out, we’d sunk slots into each of the trenches to reveal the features in section. We even sunk one in along the full length of the eastern arm. Sure enough, there was distinct and concentrated layer of stone showing up, just like in the south arm.

A clear pattern was emerging. What had until now been separate, but similarly dense, concentrations of stone in each arm of the trench seemed to be joining up, allowing us to say with ever-increasing confidence that we were in fact dealing with a continuous ring of cobbles enclosing the hilltop like a donut – enough to pronounce that this barrow had at one point in its life, probably been a ring cairn.

Of course, barrows are complex monuments with multiple phases of construction, and rarely comprise a singular feature. We’ve made a start on understanding Morecambe’s Bronze Age barrow, and over the coming weeks and months, we’ve got a whole lot more to reveal…

You can see more from the Barrowed Time project here.

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Written by Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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