Thursday, 10 November 2011

Bank Barrows - what?

Martin's Down Bank Barrow with later round barrows

As you have read below we went to see Martin's Down Bank Barrow on Sunday, dating from the Neolithic. This barrow is oriented NE-SW and is 195m long by 20m wide (a uniform height and width) with parallel ditches either side, separated from the mound by a berm, and is the longest barrow in the UK. It is clearly visible from the A35. The bank has a V-shaped depression about one third of the way along its length, dividing the it into two unequal lengths. The ditches are continuous and it is thought that as a result the notch is not an original feature. But other examples have been shown to have been extended and as I know of no records of excavation at Martin's Down, this may be the case here. Only a handful exist in the UK and Dorset has three or four known examples.  

Maiden Castle is one such, but is badly eroded. It was sample dug by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in the '30s and found to be made up of a turf core capped with chalk rubble and had flat-bottomed ditches where, at the terminals, ox bones were found in the lower fills. At Long Low, Staffordshire a dry stone wall forms a central spine along its length with large flat stones resting against this wall. Maiden Castle and Pentridge, both in Dorset, have gaps separating the mounds into two.  

Few investigations have been carried out and no burial chambers or other burial structures have been found to date. The only evidence of other features comes from Maiden Castle and here a series of pits and post holes were found at the eastern end. 

Bank barrows continued to act as a foci for ritual even after they fell out of use. Secondary burials were inserted into the Maiden Castle barrow and Martin's Down is surrounded by Bronze Age round barrows. 

Let's look at the facts from the little we do know. Bank barrows are Neolithic and have similarities with long barrows, as both are 'long mounds'. Both have parallel ditches and in at least one case a 'spine' runs along the internal length of the mound, as we see with some long burial mounds. It is possible that some examples have been lengthened and a notch left between the two parts; too much of a coincidence for these notches to be a later intrusion in my opinion. Both monuments make an impressive statement in the landscape, especially as they would have been a white marker when the chalk was fresh. 

They are different in that burial mounds taper at one end and the fact of the burial, plus the sheer size of a bank barrow. 

As I have said before, the shape means something (just like in Close Encounter of the Third Kind!). Going to all that trouble just to make a boundary between two tribal areas is ridiculous. Just build a fence or cut a ditch.   No, both are powerful images in the landscape that were worth building, just like cathedrals or iconic modern architecture. They make a statement about the community and their place in the world and the world that comes after. I plump for an abstract image of the female deity placed in the landscape running alongside the monuments built primarily for burial.  

And that notch? The smaller end is a head and with the larger end the body. 

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