Forget ghosts, goblins and fairies - here’s the true story behind Norfolk’s prehistoric tombs
PUBLISHED: 13:12 10 July 2019 | UPDATED: 13:12 10 July 2019
Parts of Norfolk are littered burial mounds of pre-historic Britons. ALAN TUTT from Cromer Museum looks at these fascinating final resting places.
Barrow - a large mound of earth or stones over the remains of the dead.
Compare, tumulus; an artificial hillock or mound, as over a grave, especially, an ancient grave.
In Norfolk, there are known to be approaching 2,000 burial mounds or barrows, nestling into the countryside.
Many more have been obliterated, ploughed into the landscape, converted for crop cultivation, flattened by wind, rain and time, forgotten. With such damage and plunder it's not surprising these tombs are associated with stories of restless ghosts, goblins and fairies.
Most of the barrows date to the Early Bronze Age, about 2,500 to 1,500 BC.
Some were erected, thrown up, earlier, in the late Neolithic period, 4,000 to 2,500 BC.
As the use of aerial photography and drones kicks in, many more will be spotted, uncovered if you will, by amateur antiquarian and professional archaeologist alike.
The Neolithic barrows are arguably the earliest human monuments in England.
Barbara Bender, emeritus professor of heritage anthropology at University College London, observed: "… at a time when people were moving around the landscape, herding animals, but also still very dependent on hunting and gathering, they began to mark that landscape.
"On the one hand, there were hilltop enclosures, which seem to have been meeting places, places for feasting and rituals.
"On the other, they built long mounds, often set close to well-known, well-worn ridgeway paths.
"They may have served to mark the territories used by herding communities and they may have been ancestral places - the places of the old ones…"
Every barrow is unique in size and shape, in position and orientation.
They can be found on high ground, but also on hill slopes and in valleys created by rivers. Sometimes alone, some in pairs or groupings. And so to Salthouse.
Salthouse is, self-evidently, situated upon salt marshes, north of Holt, west of Sheringham; 160 acres of coastal grazing marsh and saline lagoons, managed as a nature reserve.
Salthouse and Kelling Heath forms part of the Cromer Ridge of glacial moraine.
It is an important wildlife site and has an inordinately large cluster of Bronze Age burial mounds.
The predominant vegetation is gorse and heather, but southern part has been encroached by birch and oak woodland.
On a good day, one can spot snow buntings,
Lapland buntings, little egrets, shore larks and barn owls; butterflies such as green and purple hairstreaks, small heath, grayling and small copper; even adder, common lizard, brown hares and roe deer.
It is well-known locally as the place to hear nightingales and nightjars in early summer.
Stepping onto the heath in the early chill of morning, a few days after the summer solstice, there is a pale mist and a dampness in the air from overnight rain.
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Here lies the largest collection of surviving barrows in Norfolk, possibly even England, well over 30.
A necropolis of the ancients writ large in scale. I am reminded of a chapter from 'The Fellowship of the Ring' - omitted from the Peter Jackson film - 'Fog on the Barrow-downs', where Frodo Baggins is trapped by a barrow-wight - the wraith-like creature of Tolkien's Middle-earth, and entombed.
"…there loomed against the westward stars a dark black shape. A great barrow…then a grip stronger and colder than iron seized him. The icy touch froze his bones and he remembered no more…"
Only for Frodo and Co to be rescued from the barrow by the immortal, mercurial, Tom Bombadil.
Here at Salthouse, the largest barrow is named Gallow or Gallow's Hill, a circular tumulus with ditch, concealed by a matted knot of entangled ferns and prickly gorse.
Nearby, lie further round barrows, many virtually invisible to the naked eye. But Three Halfpenny barrow, and close to that, Three Farthing barrow can still clearly be discerned.
These tumuli at Three Halfpenny and Three Farthing hills yielded brown clay urns, burnt bones and other relics in 1850 excavations.
Often the burial of one dead individual or small group was accompanied by the throwing up of an earth and stone mound, the soil usually from digging out a round ditch around the burial site.
This 'mounding' is really only the beginning of the barrow tale - it would be made bigger, re-shaped with more graves inserted into the hillock.; even over periods of decades or centuries.
This is significant as it shows burial sites were remembered long after they were originally created; men, women, children interred at different times and probably with different rites and rituals. Some corpses were laid out on their backs - in neo-modern style - others in the crouched or foetal position on their sides.
Some in makeshift coffins, some boat-like in manufacture - well, we are very near the coast here, it is visible from the heights of the these tumuli.
Pottery vessels, some highly decorated, accompanied the dead, containing offerings or provisions for the final journey; to a place of gods or spirits we will never comprehend. Some bodies were burnt, cremated in our terms, blackened bone and ash put in pots and buried beside the body. Human bone doesn't survive too well in Norfolk's acid terrain.
Given the size of the prehistoric population it is speculated that the people interred in barrows may have been special in some way or a minority of some kind. Special, but in what way?
In the, quintessentially quirky, 'The Modern Antiquarian'; Julian Cope, former singer in The Teardrop Explodes, student of all things megalithic, ponders this phenomenon. He discusses the arrival in Britain of the so-called Beaker people. Shorter than the tall long-skulled Neolithic folk and with rounded skulls. Nineteenth century archaeologists dubbed them thus, 'long head, long barrow/ round head, round barrow.'
Cope surmises, "… these metal-workers isolated their most impressive individuals in prominently placed round barrows, surrounding them with large pottery urns, or beakers, alongside their grandest belongings and trinkets as though ready for the next world." So, tools and weapons, buttons and toggles and fine pots.
Of course, we should not 'underestimate the remoteness of the age of the barrow-builders from our own world', as Trevor Ashwin commented, so who really knows a true interpretation of the age of the barrows.
All we do know is that these strange, even otherworldly, landscape manifestations continue to baffle and bemuse us throughout the millennia and to this very day.
Landmarks, reference points in our landscape, boundary markers; some reused in Saxon and medieval times as meeting places, court and executions sites, leaving us with names like the evocative Gallow's Hill, upon which our tale terminates. We are lucky to have the Salthouse barrows on our doorstep, as we return to the land of the living.
-Accompany landscape historian, Ian Groves on a special guided walk of Salthouse Prehistoric Barrows and St Nicholas' church, organised by Cromer Museum, on Saturday, July 20 at 1.45pm.
Cost £4, booking and details on 01263 513543 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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