In our inaugural article we feature an ancient Romano-British site (the Bartlow Burial Mounds, formerly in Essex but after boundary changes now in Cambridgeshire) that has suffered from three of the hazards highlighted in our header – that is a site which has suffered (relatively recently) from development, neglect and vandalism. According to the Cambridgeshire Rural Society the Bartlow Burial Mounds (also known as the Bartlow Hills) “…was originally the largest group of Roman barrows in northern Europe and includes the highest burial mound in Britain.” The noticeboard at the foot of one of the mounds records that, “The seven mounds covered extraordinary rich burials containing a collection of wonderful artistic objects, the best found in Britain. Mound IV, the largest, is 45ft high and 144ft in diameter. Mound II is still visible as a low rise, I is just discernable, and III is totally destroyed.” The noticeboard goes on to say that, “In 1815 Busick Harwood “excavated” VI to provide work for the unemployed… They began at the apex and digging down at great labour to the cist despoiled it of its contents, which were distributed and no account of them taken”.
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The Bartlow Burial Mounds, Cambridgeshire, England before being seriously damaged
 
 
The Bartlow Burial Mounds today
 

To quote from the Batlow website –

Bartlow Hills is a scheduled ancient monument, owned by the Trustees of the Bartlow Estate and in the guardianship of Cambridgeshire County Council. The hills were originally the largest group of Roman Barrows in northern Europe and include the highest burial mound in Britain.

The seven mounds covered extraordinarily rich burials containing a wonderful collection of artistic objects, the best found in Britain. Mound IV, the largest, is 45’ high and 144’ in diameter. Mound II is still visible as a low rise, I is just discernible, and III is totally destroyed. Their steep conical shape, originally surrounded by a ditch, is typical of Roman burial mounds.

Large wooden chests with iron fittings were found in five mounds and there was a brick cist in another. Cremated burials, with food and drink in exotic vessels and decorated bronze, glass and pottery and other sacrificial offerings had been deposited in the chests, which were buried with lamps still burning in them. Items found included an iron folding chair and the remains of flowers, box leaves, a sponge, incense and liquids including blood, milk and wine mixed with honey.

Burial Mounds of this type were built in the late first and early second centuries AD in eastern England and Belgium. Most artefacts in them show the high status of the owner; they were usually imported from the Rhineland and northern Gaul, and are concerned with feasting and sacrificial offerings, rather than personal belongings which would be used in the afterlife.

In 1815 Busick Harwood excavated IV to provide work for the unemployed.They began at the apex and digging down at great labour to the cist despoiled it of its contents, which were distributed and no account of them taken”. However, some of the humbler items went to the Saffron Walden Museum where they survive. John Gage carried out better recorded excavations between 1832 and 1840. Eminent scientists, including Faraday, pioneer of electricity, analysed the contents of vessels and other organic remains. Gage’s reports are the only evidence we now have, for all the objects were taken to Easton Lodge, Dunmow, where they were destroyed by fire in 1847.

The surviving mounds became overgrown before they were taken into guardianship by Essex County Council in 1978. The scrub was cleared and fences built for protection. The hills passed to the Cambridgeshire County Council in 1990 after a change in the County boundary.

Built of chalk and unusable for agriculture, the surviving mounds are a refuge for the distinctive plants and insects of chalk grassland; the Pasque flower grew here until early this century. Regular mowing in late summer will prevent the scrub from spreading.

Cambridgeshire is rich is historical sites, many of which are open to the public. More information on these can be obtained from Cambridgeshire County Council. There is a display on Bartlow hills at Saffron Walden Museum and many other artefacts can be seen there and in museums in Cambridgeshire and Colchester. Other Roman barrows can be seen at the 6 Hills, Stevenage and Great Stukeley, Cambridgeshire.

The above is reproduced from a board at the site and was written and provided by Cambridgeshire County Council in 1991.

Administrative authority: Owned by the Trustees of the Bartlow Estate and under the guardianship of Cambridge County Council.

The Heritage Trust Cared for Rating  * (out of 5).

Suggested improvements: Clear signs from the road showing visitors the way to the monuments. A vigorous program of maintenance to include the eradication of overgrowth. One or two benches where people could pause and reflect on the monuments and their setting.