Early Bronze Age 2200 BC –> 1500 BC
I took a brief foray into the Bronze Age today, going for a wander around Petersfield Heath just down the road from me in Hampshire. Like the Trundle, this is a place I’ve been visiting most of my life and while during my formative years I thought the Trundle was just a big hill, similarly I thought Petersfield Heath was merely a boating lake. I now realise there is far more to it than that and it transpires that the 90 acres of the healthland there has a long and fascinating multi-age history dating back at least as far as the Bronze Age.
There are are a very impressive twenty one barrows at Petersfield Heath, one of the most complex groups of these burial mounds in southern England. They are situated to the north of the Heath Pond and once you realise they are there you bump into them at almost every turn. They are effectively in two main clusters, one of which begins just beyond the pond and the other which is a little further back surrounding the cricket ground. A number of the barrows have conifers growing on top of them which were planted there in Victorian times. The heathland was used for grazing stock from the Middle Ages until the 1920s. It has also been used for peat digging, turf cutting, and various leisure pursuits. The pond was created in the 18th century and in the late 19th century a golf course was constructed and remained there until 1998; it is now being returned to heathland. All in all, the Heath has seen a lot of activity and use over the centuries and it is fortuitous that so many of the barrows have survived to the present day.
The OS coordinates are SU 757 230 and parking is plentiful in the car park on the B2146.
The archaeology bit
The twenty one barrows (or tumuli) in evidence at Petersfield Heath comprise fifteen bowl barrows, three saucer barrows, two disc barrows and one bell barrow, the latter three types being much less commonly found than bowl barrows and along with pond barrows they are sometimes collectively known as ‘fancy’ or ‘Wessex’ barrows (I favour the former). It’s fairly obvious that the given names for the different types of barrow are based on their physical appearance. As an etymological aside, the word ‘tumulus’ derives from the Latin for mound or small hill, while ‘barrow’ can be traced back to the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word beorg, which is related to berg, which in turn means ‘mountain’. Alternative names in use in different parts of Britain are howe, lowe, cairn, tump, toot, cop and knap.
In Hampshire it is estimated that around three quarters of the original Bronze Age barrows have been lost over time to ploughing and other changes to the landscape so a large concentration like the one at Petersfield is an important link to the lives of our ancestors. There would certainly have been more barrows here originally and in fact a 19th century Ordnance Survey map indicates that some have been lost as a result of the modern housing development to the north and east of the Heath. Similarly, it is probable that more barrows were destroyed when the pond was created. Multiple barrows like this are usually classed as a cemetery which refers to the traditional interpretation of these as burial mounds. Human remains are indeed usually found within them although this is not always the case and there could be several reasons for their absence including their having been removed, perhaps during antiquarian investigations during the 18th and 19th centuries, the natural breakdown of remains over time, or never having been present in the first place. The human remains can be both inhumations (in the crouched position as is usual in Bronze Age contexts) and cremations, often in urns, and sometimes they are interred with grave goods such as pottery, weapons, tools and jewellery. Overall it seems there is a variety of burial practices going on, between different mounds and within individual ones, indicating different approaches to the disposal of the dead, which can be speculated upon alongside the possible ceremonial practices that may have taken place before, during and after the construction of the barrows themselves in their particular locations.
Bronze Age barrows are often found near rivers, lakes and springs and regularly on middle and lower slopes rather than higher ground within the landscape. It is interesting to consider the reasons for these choices of locations and both ritualistic and practical explanations have been suggested, such as people’s beliefs about the role of water within the Bronze Age world and drainage of the barrows themselves, perhaps allowing life to ‘seep away’ or literally to prevent damage to the mounds due to natural forces. It is possible to see patterns in the distribution of surviving barrows in particular localities in relation to the landscape they inhabit and potentially with the route ways of Bronze Age people going about the business of their lives, indicating both pragmatic and belief-based concerns. It has also been shown that some are aligned with celestial features and it seems that, although we separate prehistory into distinct eras for the sake of our modern day understanding, there are many themes and features that overlap throughout time.
The late eminent archaeologist, Stuart Piggott, who was born and educated in Petersfield, carried out the only survey to date of the barrows at the Heath back in 1930 when he was a student at Churcher’s College. However, Petersfield Museum has applied for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to conduct a four-year fieldwork and research project and hopefully this will be successful and enable a more detailed understanding of these prehistoric monuments. I am planning to dust off my trowel and be involved in this myself along with another local project involving three Bronze Age barrows at Black Down in Haslemere, also planned for this year.
I haven’t found any folklore pertaining to the Petersfield Heath barrows specifically but general folklore regarding barrows often involves people entering them, either invited or uninvited, and making off with valuable items from within them, subsequently suffering misfortune as a result. In one version, a farmer drinks from a cup he is offered and disappears off with it, later returning to find that his wife is dead, his children elderly and nobody in the village remembers him, which has been interpreted to symbolise the passage of time and barrows separating the living from the dead. In general barrows are seen in folklore as magical places with links to faerie folk and providing an entrance to the realm of the goddess. Whether you buy that or not there is, to me anyway, something very special about these ancient mounds and perhaps even more so in places like Petersfield Heath where they are surrounded by modernity and walked around (and on) every day by people going about their daily 21st century lives.
The Old Drum in Chapel Street, Petersfield, is a nicely modernised and dog-friendly establishment. I would suggest a pint of 4.2% Triple FFF Moondance which I like not only for its pleasing colour and flavour but also because it has a wolf on its label and is the name of a rather good Van Morrison song. It was also very popular back in my Haslemere Beer Festival days when I worked hard behind the bar in return for free beer throughout the evening (the only problem being there was no time to actually drink it).