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Long Barrow Cemeteries in Neolithic Europe


In the middle of the fifth millennium b.c. new cultural groups emerged in northern and western Europe. They arose as a consequence of a long period of contact and mutual influence between the central European Danubian farmers and the indigenous hunter-gatherers who encircled the Danubian world. These new communities, best exemplified by the northern Funnel Beaker and the western Cerny cultures, not only incorporated elements of an agro-pastoral economy and new material culture into the hunter-gatherer milieu but also, perhaps more significantly, created a new vision of the world through restructuring within the social and ritual spheres. One of the symbols of this process was the emergence of monumentality—dramatically expressed in the creation of monumental long barrow cemeteries.

Although long barrows—earthen mounds with timber-built burial chambers—have been known for a very long time, their significance in the development of the Neolithic funerary tradition always has been overshadowed by the scholarly attention directed mainly toward the so-called megaliths (Greek megas: large; lithos: stone). Megaliths, by virtue of spectacularly surviving stone-built chambers, indeed represent the most tangible remains of the Neolithic populations. Yet because timber and earth were the principal medium of construction of long barrows—the former prone to quick natural decay and the latter easily subject to destruction through several millennia of plowing and other industrial activities—these monuments have remained largely in the background of archaeological research. Spectacular discoveries during the 1980s in the southern Paris basin, however, once again have focused scholarly attention on this important phenomenon.

The distribution of long barrows in continental Europe is vast. They reach from southern Scandinavia in the north to Moravia in the south and stretch westward through Normandy deep into central France, with long mounds equally prominent along the Atlantic coast; the Channel Islands form a convenient link between the continental and British barrows. Within this distribution, however, the monumental cemeteries (conglomerations of a dozen or more barrows) make a highly significant appearance on the periphery of the disintegrating Danubian world. They are found in the regions of Kujavia and western Pomerania in Poland, in France on the Plaine de Caen, along the river valleys of the Yonne, Seine, and Marne, and on the Plaine de Beauce. These are precisely the areas of intensive cultural contacts between the indigenous hunter-gatherers and the early Danubian farmers, and here the long barrow cemeteries constitute a prelude to the monumentality of the Neolithic funerary tradition in Europe.

Cemeteries of up to a hundred barrows are intimated in the early-nineteenth-century surveys from western Pomerania, in northwestern Poland—all long destroyed in the building of roads, farmhouses, and field walls. Smaller cemeteries of up to a dozen barrows still survive in Kujavia in Poland, while those discovered through aerial surveys in France—where several millennia of plowing and other activities have obliterated all surface traces—comprise up to thirty structures. Although the barrow cemeteries display considerable variety, with elements of design, construction, and rituals clearly reflecting both natural and cultural conditions prevalent in different regions, certain aspects of location and spatial arrangement within the cemeteries and burial practices transcend geographical boundaries, emphasizing the wider, European character of this phenomenon.


The location of the cemeteries suggests that "islands"—natural elevations within a relatively boggy, marshy, and waterlogged environment—may have been selected deliberately for burial purposes. The Kujavian cemeteries of Sarnowo and Wietrzychowice were surrounded by marshy valleys and streams. At Barkær, on the Djursland Peninsula in Jutland, a pair of barrows, each nearly 90 meters long, was located on a hill in the sea inlet of Kolind Sund. The gravel elevations within the ancient meanders of the river Yonne in France, upon which the cemeteries of Passy and Escolives (fig. 1) had been located, also appear to have been "islands," frequently cut off by the river from the surrounding land.

Other features have an equally wide occurrence, for example, foundation of cemeteries on abandoned settlements and arrangement of the barrows within the cemeteries. The cemetery of Sarnowo was founded upon an abandoned Funnel Beaker settlement, possibly when the inhabitants chose to move onto slightly higher and drier land directly to the north. Foundations of small, rectangular houses, together with traces of an ancient plowed field, have been found underneath the earthen mounds. Although scholarly opinion with respect to the plowed field at this site is strongly divided, some of the later Danish mounds were unarguably placed upon previously cultivated fields, with plow marks surviving under the protection of the mound.

The arrangement of barrows in a fanlike pattern (fig. 2), witnessed as far apart as Kujavia and the Yonne valley, is reminiscent of the spatial arrangements of houses in villages of the late Danubian settlements in these regions. The idea of a house of the living serving as a prototype for a house of the dead has a long ancestry. It goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Sweden's Sven Nilsson speculated on the similarities between the ground plans of Eskimo houses and the Swedish passage graves. Since then many scholars have raised this possibility, most notably V. Gordon Childe, whose suggestion that the northern European barrows approximated the habitations discovered at the late Danubian Brześć Kujawski settlement in Kujavia, has had a profound impact. Indeed, the original, if misguided, interpretation by P. V. Glob of the two long barrows from Barkær as being the remains of "Danubian-style" longhouses is a perfect example of similarities between the two forms. In Kujavia this pattern can be shown by comparing the layout of barrows at Sarnowo with the arrangement of houses at Brześć Kujawski. The two sites are only 15 kilometers apart and may well have been contemporary toward the final stages of the occupation of the Brześć Kujawski village. Similar arrangements are characteristic of other Kujavian cemeteries, such as Obałki, Leśniczówka, and Wietrzychowice.

In the southern Paris basin the barrows are reminiscent of individual Danubian houses by virtue of their shape and delineation by ditches, with some of the medium-sized barrows at Escolives offering a perfect dimensional and conceptual match. The site of Balloy, at the confluence of the Seine and Yonne Rivers, offers the most spectacular evidence for such an interpretation. Here, a late Danubian settlement of several trapezoidal houses was inhabited about 4700 b.c. After the village had lain abandoned, a group of people of the Cerny culture used the same location to create, in about 4500–4450 b.c., a large ceremonial center devoted to burial and other rituals.

They constructed a causeway enclosure and, to the northwest, they built a monumental cemetery of seventeen barrows. At least five of these barrows were placed on top of earlier houses; the orientation is exactly the same, the barrows covered the houses precisely, and these house remains were much better preserved than those that remained uncovered. The evidence from Balloy shows beyond any doubt that, while ruined, the houses were still visible on the surface, to guide the positioning of the burial mounds some two hundred years after the settlement had been abandoned. The desire to place barrows upon disused settlements was prevalent even in those regions that had never been settled by the Danubian communities. The long barrow cemetery at Sachsenwald, near Hamburg, is a good example, and many of the individual long barrows from Denmark similarly were located upon abandoned Funnel Beaker settlements.


The shapes of the mounds vary from oval, rectangular, and trapezoidal to triangular, with lengths ranging from as little as 20 meters to as much as 300 meters; the width rarely exceeds 10 meters. In central France, a region not well endowed with stone for building material, the barrows were defined by ditches, which, as was noted at certain of the Passy and Escolives monuments, may have had timber posts placed in them, forming a sort of palisade. Such timber palisades are well documented in Denmark, where they occasionally were burned and, in rare cases, as at Bygholm No⁄rremark in eastern Jutland, were aggrandized by replacement with a substantial stone curb. By contrast, in Kujavia, where glacial erratic boulders were present in abundance, the mounds were retained within a stone curb that generally did not exceed 1 meter in height, although the mounds themselves seem originally to have been piled up to a much greater height. In all cases such enclosures delineated a sacred area in which burials were placed and where small timber temples sometimes allowed for the performance of ceremonies accompanying the funerary ritual.

Usually, one or two graves oriented east-west are found within a barrow, although more such graves are not uncommon. One of the barrows at Escolives contained three separate graves placed on the main axis, at least six were noted at Rybno in Kujavia, and in one of the barrows at Balloy eight centrally placed graves were discovered in excavation. The graves display a remarkable variety of constructions: pits lined with timber planks or, exceptionally, with thin stone slabs are prevalent in France. Rectangular boxes made from wooden planks standing on the surface, supported within an external stone frame and often covered by a mantle of field stones, typically are encountered in Kujavia and Denmark; the little stone cairns regularly tumbled into the grave upon the decay of a timber roof. In other instances, the bodies, either in coffins or wrapped in shrouds, were simply placed at the bottom of the grave pit.

At least some of the timber graves were intended to be accessible after the initial burial: the disturbance of bones in a double grave at Escolives indicates that the second person was placed there quite some time after the first burial. Indeed, such chambers may have served as prototypes for the future megaliths in these regions. At Barkær one of the graves is clearly a stone replica of a neighboring timber chamber, with the end stones shaped like thick wooden planks. The practice of covering some of the French grave pits with a huge stone slab of the kind discovered at Malesherbes, Loiret, represents a different facet of this development.

Human remains generally are poorly preserved, but where skeletons survive, they reveal that the dead were buried in an extended position with arms stretched out along the sides of the body, a tradition commonly practiced by the preceding Mesolithic communities. Anthropological analyses indicate that both sexes and all ages, from newborn babies to adults, were buried in the long barrows. Because, clearly, only a small percentage of the population was buried within these cemeteries, they were without doubt privileged places reserved for selected individuals. The presence of children is particularly significant and confirms some form of social elevation of those who were afforded burial in the barrows; the children hardly could have distinguished themselves otherwise in their short lives.

The grave goods are typically scanty, although the French burials tend to be more richly equipped than those of Kujavia or Denmark. A ceramic pot or two, flint tools, and jewelry are common grave furnishings; some people wore necklaces of wild animal teeth, shells, and, in the more northerly latitudes, amber beads. Rare finds of copper beads and rings in northern Europe suggest that metals, while they were exotic, were making their way northward from the central European production centers.

Certain items encountered in a significant number of graves merit consideration. Hunting within the Funnel Beaker and Cerny cultures is witnessed through animal remains on settlements and, more significantly, finds expression in funerary contexts. While complete arrows do not survive, the number and positioning of the arrowheads are indicative of quivers full of arrows arranged alongside the deceased. The placement of what is essentially hunting equipment, in the context of a funerary ritual within an agricultural community, may emphasize the indigenous nature of these communities, whose ancestry was rooted deeply in the local huntinggathering background. On the other hand, the accompanying presence of bones of domesticated animals and, in the Cerny context, vessels decorated with stylized bucrania (cattle skulls) identify an equally strong agricultural connection.


At first glance the long barrow cemeteries signal a dramatic break with preceding traditions: demonstratively monumental architecture, different burial customs attesting to social transformations, and the emergence of new hierarchies within the Neolithic societies of the mid-fifth millennium b.c. Their significance lies not only in these new manifestations but also, and equally, in the encoded symbolism that reflects the merging of the Danubian and hunter-gatherer worlds.

Cemeteries first emerged in Europe in the Mesolithic, as witnessed at Skateholm in Scania or Vedbæk on Zealand, with Hoëdic and Téviec in Brittany providing corresponding examples along the Atlantic. The principles of these burial traditions are seen clearly within the Funnel Beaker and Cerny funerary practices. While the Danubian farmers also buried their dead in cemeteries at the periphery of their settlements, it was the villages, with massive timber-built longhouses, that were an important symbol of the stability and permanence of the world of these early farmers.

By the middle of the fifth millennium b.c. the Danubian villages were magnificent abandoned ruins, with their dilapidated houses still impressively marking the landscape. They thus provided a powerful image of an ancestral place still accessible to the living communities. While the vernacular tradition of that period is, sadly, unknown, we would be wrong to assume that there was not an entire store of tales, songs, and superstitions associated with these abandoned villages. On occasions, pilgrimages to these sacred places would have evoked powerful memories of ancestors and times past. It is not surprising that such a distinctive symbol was transferred from the domestic to the funerary sphere, resulting in a village of the living becoming, both physically and metaphorically, a permanent abode of the dead.

See alsoBrześć Kujawski (vol. 1, part 4); The Megalithic World (vol. 1, part 4).


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Magdalena S. Midgley

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