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Bronze Age 2000 - 700 BC

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Roundbarrows on Thanet

Curator's introduction
What is a roundbarrow?
Houses of the dead?
In the beginning
MBA roundbarrows
End of the roundbarrow

The re-use of roundbarrows in the Anglo-Saxon period

Roundbarrows on Thanet

Roundbarrow sunset
Ring-ditches and roundbarrows of Thanet

Curator's introduction

The roundbarrows distributed around the landscape of the
Isle of Thanet are some of the most significant elements of our archaeological heritage, although they are now largely invisible.

All traces of their existence above ground have been removed or hidden, mainly as a result of the ploughing of Thanet’s rich agricultural land over many hundreds of years.
Ring-ditches and roundbarrows of Thanet

Click here to link to a Display on
the archaeology of ring-ditch and roundbarrow monuments of Thanet

Ploughing the roundbarrows to destruction
By Len Jay
Aerial photograph of a double ring-ditch cropmark at Lydden Valley, now ploughed flat

Aerial photograph of a double ring-ditched roundbarrow at Lydden Valley, now ploughed flat and no longer visible as an upstanding earthwork

Photographer unknown

This process of erosion probably began with the Medieval farmers and accelerated with every technological improvement in plough design and the increasing demand for fallow land to be brought under cultivation.

It is possible that the slighting of these monuments to the dead may have been actively pursued and encouraged during the Medieval and Post- Medieval periods.

Some people may have believed that these ancient monuments represented an unacceptable Pagan presence in their landscape.
The great Henge-Enclosure monument at Avebury shows evidence of being slighted during these periods, when many of the standing stones were buried or destroyed.

A roundbarrow at Windmill Hill, Wiltshire

Within this work the following terms are used:

Causeway: an interruption in the circle of a ring-ditch which provides access into the monument.

: a  monument without an internal burial.

The vast majority (if not all) of the ring-ditch monuments are likely to represent barrows of some form.

Roundbarrow: a ring-ditch monument with an internal burial.

What is a roundbarrow?

A roundbarrow is a monument built to house the remains of the dead. It generally comprises a central burial pit which is frequently covered by a large mound of earth (or chalk). The material for the mound is gained from the excavation of a circular ditch (or 'ring-ditch') around the burial.

On Thanet the ditch has often cut into the underlying deposits of the Upper Chalk and one can envisage these mounds originally having been made with, or capped by, gleaming white chalk. This would have made them highly visible, prominent features in the landscape.

Sometimes there are additional grave pits dug around the main burial and later burials may also be inserted into (or through) the mound or cluster just outside the barrow in a 'flat-grave cemetery'.

Roundbarrows come in a great variety of sizes and types. Click here to see a brief explanation of some different roundbarrow types.

Burying in a roundbarrow
By Len Jay
A roundhouse under construction at Butser Ancient Farm

at Butser Ancient Farm

A small roundhouse a Butser Ancient Farm

Houses of the dead?

The traditional burial monuments of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age echo the form of the houses in which our ancestors lived.

In the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age there was a change from building rectangular houses to round houses. These were constructed around a circle of wooden posts which provided the inner framework to support the roof. The inner posts were surrounded by an outer wall made of wattle and daub which provided the outer support to the sloping roof-timbers. The wall was encircled by a shallow eaves-drip gully who's function was to collect and channel away any rainwater that came off the steeply-sloping roof.

If you get a chance to visit a reconstruction of one of these houses (there are several around the country, perhaps most famously at Butser Ancient Farm - please venture in - its a magical experience, a real time machine!

In the beginning

The first large, round tombs were built in North Eastern England and Eastern Scotland shortly after 3000 BC. They were built alongside the longbarrows and generally featured the same cremation burial rite (Darvill 1987).

From around the beginning of the Beaker Period roundbarrows were adopted as the preferred burial monument throughout the country.

In the Early Bronze Age the central earthen mound often became the focus for secondary cremation burials. These were contained in large pottery vessels called Collared and Cordoned Urns.

Only three of these (virtually complete) pots have been recovered in Thanet; either from graves cut within the centre of the barrows or from the surrounding circular ditch. None have come from central mounds. The loss of Thanet’s roundbarrow mounds (as a result of hundreds of years of ploughing) has meant the almost universal destruction of this part of our ancestor’s legacy.

On Thanet only a couple of roundbarrows are known to have survived with any significant remnant of their mounds intact.
A Deverel Rimbury cremation urn from Bon Secours, Ramsgate
A Deverel Rimbury cremation urn from Bon Secours, Ramsgate

Illustrated by Maggy Redmond

Middle Bronze Age roundbarrows

After the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (circa 1500 BC) the tradition of inhumation and the construction of roundbarrows started to decline and cremation became the dominant burial custom.

Cremations were usually (but not always) contained in large pottery vessels called Barrel and Bucket Urns and may be found buried (frequently inverted) in pits cut into the ground. Elsewhere in Britain large numbers of these burials can form ‘Urnfields’, but no such large scale burial groups have yet been found on Thanet.

A Middle Bronze Age double-ditched roundbarrow from King Edward Avenue, Broadstairs
A Middle Bronze Age double-ditched roundbarrow
from King Edward Avenue, Broadstairs

The central pit contained an inverted, atypical pottery vessel

By Howard Hurd (1909)

Roundbarrows were still being constructed during this period however. A small ring ditch (4m in diameter) was uncovered by the Trust for Thanet Archaeology at Bon Secours, Ramsgate. This was surrounded by several pits containing Deverel Rimbury cremation urns.

Occasionally, large ring-ditches (roundbarrows?) are found which have no burials associated with them. The Trust has recently uncovered examples at Anne Close, Birchington and the site of the former St. Stephen’s College, North Foreland (see picture below). It is possible that these were constructed in the Middle Bronze Age and were specifically intended to create a large mound for the deposition of cremation burials (DRJ. Perkins).

Roundbarrow discovered at the former St. Stephen's College site at North Foreland

Aerial photo of multiple cropmarks at Great Brooksend Farm

Aerial photograph of the cropmarks at Great Brooksend Farm showing a varied selection of interesting cropmarks, some of which are now Scheduled Ancient Monuments

Photographer unknown

The end of the roundbarrow

The construction of roundbarrows was becoming increasingly rare as the Middle Bronze Age progressed. It is thought that those that were built were generally of characteristically small size (less than 10m in diameter).

Roundbarrows largely ceased being built around 1000 BC, but a few have been dated occurring as late as 700 BC.

Other barrows continued to be built in the Iron Age, Roman and Saxon periods.

The re-use of roundbarrows
in the Anglo-Saxon period

Saxon burials are often found associated with the much earlier Bronze Age roundbarrows; though as Ges Moody has pointed out it may have been difficult for any large cemetery not to have encountered a roundbarrow on Thanet!

It may demonstrate a Saxon acknowledgment of ancient, sacred burial grounds and their desire to bury their dead on already 'hallowed' ground. Could it also have been an attempt by Saxon migrants to adopt their new home's indigenous ancestors (and their land) as their own?

One vital and fascinating question is how many of the people who were buried in the Saxon cemeteries were actually Continental migrants anyway, rather than the local Britons adopting the trappings and aspects of a new, exciting Continental Saxon culture? An interesting subject for future research!


Ring-ditches and roundbarrows of Thanet

Click here to link to a Display on
the archaeology of the ring-ditch and roundbarrow monuments of Thanet.



Bennet P. et al 1996. Interim report on excavations in advance of the dualling of the A253 between Monkton and Mount Pleasant, Thanet. Archaeologia Cantiana CXVI.

Darvill T. 1987. Prehistoric Britain. Routledge.


Thanks to Ges Moody and Natasha Ransom for the reproduction of the drawings and illustrations.

The text is the responsibility of the author; the photographs are by the author unless otherwise stated.

Paul Hart

Version 1 - Posted 10.08.06
Version 2 - Posted 21.10.06

All content © Trust for Thanet Archaeology