Early Neolithic 4000 BC -> 3300 BC
Stoney Littleton is a well and truly accessible chambered long barrow on a hilltop in Somerset surrounded by fields and – currently – lambs. It is just down the road from the village of Wellow which itself is only six miles from Bath. It is well signposted and a drive down a single track lane (halfway down which you start to think, ‘this can’t be right’) brings you to a small parking area beside a stream where a wooden bridge bearing the sign ‘Stoney Littleton Long Barrow. Ancient Monument’ guides you across, over stiles, and on a ten minute walk uphill through a couple of fields to the one containing the barrow (OS grid reference ST 735572). The property is managed by English Heritage and I was disappointed to find there was no interpretation board present – I would love to see this rectified at some point.
The archaeology bit
The long barrow is thought to have been constructed around 3500 BC. At 30 metres long it is only half the length of Bevis’s Thumb in Sussex and Combe Gibbet in Berkshire (see earlier entries) but size isn’t everything and it has plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, the location of Stoney Littleton is rather pleasant and peaceful in the heart of rural Somerset making it possible to go back in time in your mind and get a feel for how it might have been in Neolithic times when the barrow was in use. The barrow has a dry stone wall running around it and its entrance is also paved, all of which is impressive enough. Most excitingly, however, it can be entered and explored, albeit by crouching or crawling at first as the height ranges from 1.2 m to 1.8. It is also dark and a torch or Flashlight app is very necessary. Inside the slabbed interior there are seven burial chambers arranged in three opposing pairs to the sides, like the transepts in a church, with a single one at the north-west end, noteworthy as this is the only barrow known to have this particular layout.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case, investigations of the barrow took place in the 18th and 19th centuries when anything went and quite literally in this case when in 1760 the landowner, a farmer, raided the it for building stone. Subsequently whatever the barrow contained was pilfered and in 1816 an antiquarian, a Reverend John Skinner, carried out excavations and is reported to have recovered burnt and disarticulated human remains, sadly since lost. Wouldn’t it be wonderful in these instances if some descendent of the original excavator discovered the missing remains in amongst inherited family belongings and handed them over to a friendly osteoarchaeologist to study?
Tantalisingly there is mention of the human remains at Stoney Littleton having been arranged by skeletal elements within the different burial chambers (Bulleid, 1941, 57) rather than in apparently random piles as is seen more usually. Although it is not always straightforward to be sure that spatial arrangement is by design rather than accident there are certainly cases where it can only have been deliberate, such as when multiple skulls are placed away from the rest of skeletons (Smith & Brickley, 2009, 65). Unfortunately the people whose remains were buried within the chambers at Stoney Littleton are likely to remain an enigma but at least their monumental resting place can provide a tangible glimpse of mortuary practices in the Neolithic.
Edit: I have since discovered that some of the human remains at least are still in existence in a museum archive, which is good news!
Interestingly there is a fossilised ammonite built into the bottom left-hand side of the entrance to the long barrow. It is thought that the large Lias limestone containing this ammonite could have been transported from as far as five miles away by the barrow’s Neolithic builders, suggesting that they felt it was worth the effort of doing so for some reason important to them. In historical times ammonites were often thought of and referred to as ‘snake stones’; perhaps there was a comparable belief concerning ammonites in prehistory.
Bulleid, A, 1941 ‘Notes on some chambered long barrows of North Somerset’ in Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society 87, 56-71
Smith, M & Brickley, M 2009 People of the Long Barrows, Stroud: The History Press