Prehistoric Britain

Neolithic Long Barrows and Passage Graves

4000–3000 BC, Neolithic, Britain.

The skulls were sometimes put in one place, the left arm bones in another, as though the individual was replaced by a more collective identity.

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow, one-and-a-half miles south of Avebury in Wiltshire, England. Silbury Hill can be seen in the distance, on the far right of the photograph.

In the fourth millennium BC in Britain, nearly six thousand years ago, the dead may have been exposed to the birds, in the way that the dead in Buddhist Tibet are today. The bodies upon their scaffolds were placed inside a circular ditch, perhaps to protect them from any malevolent magic that might be out to harm them. Then, when the bones had been picked clean by the birds, they were gathered up and taken for burial. Some found their way into ditches cut during ceremonial gatherings, great circular spaces enclosed by earthworks. Others were buried separately in time-honoured fashion, with red ochure to sumulate new blood and with deer antler, a thing of the natural world that is shed and regrows every year. Possibly a select few found their way into the accessible stone spaces which were later buried beneath heaps of earth and stone to form an ancient longhouse of the dead, a long barrow. Sometimes, as at the West Kennet Long Barrow near Avebury in Wiltshire and at Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire, its entrance was a grand affair; huge stones hinting at grand ceremonies that took place there.

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow, one-and-a-half miles south of Avebury in Wiltshire, England. This photograph shows the extent of the earthen barrow stretching away from the megaliths at the entrance.

These particular bones were not laid to rest, they were movable property. Communal gatherings took place inside the circular, causewayed enclosures where these remains were used and then returned to their stone repository. This circular gathering space was sanctified by the human remains and other offerings that lay at the base of the ditch segments. Perhaps concepts of ancestry were beginning to emerge, an acknowledgement of the roots that held a tribe to its land, a celebration of belonging and of ownership. When the relics were returned to the tomb, they were no longer individuals but neither were they jumbled. Although it appears that the final remains in the West Kennet Long Barrow were mostly intact skeletons, in many long barrows the bones were sorted in some way, perhaps the skulls put in one place, the left arm bones in another, as though the individual had been replaced by a more collective identity.

Dark stone chamber with phallus-type rock protruding from the floor

Le Dehus Passage Tomb, near St Sampsons Harbour, Guernsey, Channel Islands.

Later in the Neolithic, when the bone repositories that became long barrows were no longer used, the circle became ubiquitous. Henge monuments and stone circles, wooden circles and round barrows, marking perhaps a new way for the dead to be given a suitable and recognisable home. Of all these circluar monuments, the most striking must be the passage graves. One of the most impressive of these, Newgrange in County Meath in Ireland, on the banks of the River Boyne, is famous for having been so carefully constructed that the rising sun at midwinter solstice casts its beams from a small window in the stones above the entrance along the main passage to illuminate the central chamber and its human remains; as though waking the dead at the start of the natural cycle of the seasons. Another passage grave on the Channel Island of Guernsey boasts a giant phallus rising from the floor of the tomb, perhaps hinting at similar objects of veneration found in Ancient Egypt and Mycenaean Greece. The resonant qualities of many of these chambers have been found to be conducive to the theatrical amplification of sound, and one can only wonder at the ceremonies that may once have taken place within them.

Evidence for the human remains in long barrows and passage graves 'rearranged and organised according to body parts' in: Bradley, Richard, 1998 reprinted 2006. The Significance of Monuments: On the Shaping of Human Experience in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe. Routledge. Chapter 4: Another time. Implications, p 64.

See for yourself

Passage grave – Wikipedia

Long barrow – Wikipedia

History of West Kennet Long Barrow – English Heritage

History of Wayland's Smithy – English Heritage

Dead and yet alive

District Line

entrance to a passage grave
dark interior of a man-made cavern with a standing stone rising from the floor

Navigate the tunnel

Shared motifs

Dead and yet alive: summary

Current location, and view all motifs

hawk in flight
Advanced Tips
Type Example Notes
Fuzzy kettle~ Contain terms that are close to the word kettle, such as cattle
Wild cat* Contain terms that begin with cat, such as category and the extact term cat itself
Exact-Single orange Contain the term orange
Exact-Phrase "dnn is awesome" Contain the exact phase dnn is awesome
OR orange bike Contain the term orange or bike, or both. OR, if used, must be in uppercase
orange OR bike
AND orange AND bike Contain both orange and bike. AND must be in uppercase
Combo (agile OR extreme) AND methodology Contain methodology and must also contain agile and/or extreme
Results per Page:
Limit the search results with the specified tags.
Limit the search results modified within the specified time.
Limit the search results from the specified source.
Search results must be an exact match for the keywords.
crude carving of a face into a ceiling slab