Thursday, 1 September 2011

Moundtop Ruminations

Carolyn H of "Roundtop Ruminations" said recently that sometimes she felt that her photos only had a tenuous link to her writing (though both photos and writing are always excellent, in my opinion). So in that spirit, the above picture (of a place called Chapel Hill) has only the slightest bearing on what I'm about to write about, namely somewhere else called Grinnel Hill.

For anyone who's followed me this far, Grinnel Hill is the site of the Bronze Age burial mound that I wrote about in a recent post entitled "A Local Landmark". It seemed to spark a lot of interest from those who read it, more than I expected to tell the truth; I thought my enthusiasm for things ancient and obscure was just a personal eccentricity. Among the comments was a question from Carolyn H - you see how this is all fitting together! What she wanted to know was "Have these mounds ever been excavated?"

The mounds are thought to have been the grave sites of the Beaker people who were so named from the elaborate earthenware beakers which were found in their graves. They are thought to have been a quite different and more technologically advanced people than the earlier inhabitants. The greatest achievement which they brought with them was the ability to work in metal - bronze in fact. Their arrival in Britain in about 2000BC marks the start of the period known as the Bronze Age.

Our evidence for the kind of lives these people might have led comes in no small measure from what has been recovered from their burial mounds. In the south of the county of Cambridgeshire many of these sites were excavated, often led by enthusiastic historians from the University of Cambridge, while in the fen country to the north of the county many were ploughed out without being fully investigated; we only know of their existence because their position can still be seen from crop-markings which are often only visible from the air.

In some ways the enthusiasm of the early investigators was unfortunate as they may well have destroyed much evidence which could have yielded  more detailed information to more modern scientific methods. On the other hand, without their intervention many of the sites would have simply disappeared.

What they found was quite varied. Usually the mounds were the burial place of just one individual's cremated remains. However some sites were then used later for subsequent burials and in some mounds skeletons have been discovered rather than cremated remains. This is hardly surprising as the Bronze Age lasted for around 1,500 years and in that time different customs may have developed. 

Cremated remains were sometimes found in a earthenware vessel but at other times left in a bag - only the clasps of these bags are ever found, the bag having rotted away. Grave goods are sometimes included to help the deceased on their journey to the next life. In this area pots and flint tools are quite commonly found but more elaborate items occasionally turn up. These have included highly decorated pots, necklaces, shale buttons, daggers, bronze pins, pendants and urns.

From the items, which have been found in burial mounds and elsewhere, archaeologists believe that these people traded over a wide area, certainly with other parts of England and possibly with the rest of Europe. 

Well, that's probably a longer answer than you were expecting Carolyn. Oh, and there is another burial mound on Chapel Hill (photograph at top of page) in case you were wondering what the tenuous connection might be!

Take care.


  1. John,
    I am fascinated by the photo of what I think is contour plowing on that hill.
    Your country has such an old history of settlement. Reading about it always makes me think that by comparison the US is very young.

  2. John: Thanks for the information! The mounds themselves are beautiful, and the history is fascinating. Thanks so much for telling us all more about them.

  3. That was an amazing post! I learn something everytime I visit, John. Though I love antiques, investigate them often, the Bronze Age is something I've yet to hear, or know anything about, until now. Absolutely fascinating!

  4. Great post ...very informative. I also understand what you are saying about early excavations ...we could learn so much more nowadays ...but there might have been nothing to know if it had not been for that what they call Catch 22??

  5. A fascinating part of human evolution. I will look at hills a little differently now.

  6. Thanks for all your comments.
    MM, I think what you mean by "contour plowing" is what antiquarians call "strip lynchets", that is little terraces on the hillside which were created to make working the land simpler. Actually what you see here is merely the lines left by harvesting machinery. HOWEVER - elsewhere on this hillside is a small plantation of trees and in there are the remains of just such terraces dating from this early time!
    Carolyn, thanks for inspiring the post with your question.
    Liz, always lovely to hear from you.
    Angie, welcome to BSAH. And who knows how damaging our modern efforts will seem in years to come!
    Jack, nice to hear from you, I always enjoy your blog. Wonderful photos of a place that I only visited briefly many years ago.

  7. It's amazing how many of these burial mounds and cairns there are, around here they are all over the place. Lots of place names in the area have the word low in them which is an indication that there was a burial mound originally even if it isn't very obvious now. We have Ringinglow, Bleaklow, Arbor Low and so on. Interesting post John.


Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'll try to answer any questions via a comment or e-mail within the next day or two (no hard questions, please!).