The area of Wessex stretches across Wiltshire, Dorset and much of Berkshire, Hampshire and Somerset, and contains the largest concentrations of burial mounds or ‘barrows’ in England. The variety of barrow forms and the complexity of their artefacts and burial practices have stimulated intense excavation for over two hundred years to understand the reasons behind that variation.
Round barrows began to be built in the Neolithic Period, but towards the end of the Beaker Period there was striking cultural change in burial mounds, artefacts and burial practices. Yet confusion over the nature of these changes, their chronology and the relationship between them and the contemporary Beaker Culture has led to an impasse and stagnation of research over the past thirty years.
This has left many questions unanswered such as: Why did radically different burial practices and mound forms emerge in Wessex? Where did they come from? Do they represent an evolution, sub-culture or even an external culture? What do the exotic assemblages represent?
The Wessex Barrow Project aims to resolve some of these questions by building a database of information about the barrows and applying new techniques and approaches to their analysis.
The project has already formed an online database of excavations in Wiltshire, expanding and updating Grinsell’s (1957) Wiltshire Gazetteer of barrows. Excavation reports of barrows from Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and Berkshire are currently being entered. This online database now contains detailed summaries of 900 barrows, the excavation reports, site plans and photographs. Detailed records were also made (and photographs taken) for all the Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts found in barrows stored in the Wiltshire Heritage Museum.
Studies using advanced typological techniques such as Natural Language Processing have already helped to elucidate groups more clearly than formal typologies have in the past. Most importantly, these techniques have allowed anomalies that previously confused analyses to be better understood in terms of their context.
Specific analyses of individual cemeteries are also underway to understand the relationship between new elements and traditional Beaker elements at a very particular level. Stratigraphic relationships between them are currently being followed in individual barrows to examine the nature of their connections. DNA analyses of burial populations within barrow cemeteries will also help to understand the demographic dynamics of the relationship.
Online Gazetteer of Wiltshire Barrows
Dr Andrew Martin (Principal investigator)
Katherine Mason (DNA analysis)